"... History says, Don't hope on this side of the grave..." -Seamus Heaney
Mr. Heaney's words are appropriate for this foul situation. I see nothing to be hopeful about in Syria. Whatever happens, the Syrian people will face further torment.
President Obama's proposed limited air attack on the Assad regime, with no boots on the ground, is the least bad choice. But whatever the result, the U.S. should avoid getting drawn into a land war in Syria(1).
At one extreme are those who believe America should take no military action, convinced that diplomacy and conferences can bring peace to Syria. Unfortunately, Assad (and his allies) appear to have a "best alternative" to negotiating -- called victory -- hardly an incentive for someone like Assad to reform. Even worse, Assad's constant military escalations (e.g., the blatant use of nerve gas against civilians) -- if not stopped -- risk destabilizing neighboring countries. And they are also bad precedents for humanitarian reasons, and for long-term American interests as well as international stability.
At the other extreme are those who believe (e.g., Senator McCain) that large-scale U.S. force (focused on regime change) can resolve this conflict. We need only look at the mess in Iraq to realize the limitations of that argument.
President Obama is proposing a pragmatic middle road between these extremes of "do nothing" and "regime change" -- a "lesson" for Syria's pariah regime (and other despots who might be watching) in language criminals of their sort will understand. The "lesson" will be: Several days of air attacks against high value military targets with no use of American ground troops, no ongoing commitment of force and no commitment to regime change. But the "lesson" should inflict enough damage for Assad's regime to understand a price is being exacted for its horrific transgressions. This limited attack would most likely result in some version of Scenario 1:
Scenario 1: Message Received by the Assad Regime
Synopsis: The Assad regime, its allies and other rogue states internalize that there will be painful consequences (e.g., targeted attacks on high value military targets) for using chemical weapons, and/or significant provocations (e.g., transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah). As they realize their military options are constrained, the Syrian leadership (and its allies) become more cautious in fighting the civil war and more open to a negotiated settlement.
Explanation: Although the Syrian leadership and its allies have threatened escalation regarding any American action, it's not in their best interests to draw the U.S. into a larger war. For example, a prolonged air war with the U.S. would almost certainly result in the destruction of the Assad regime. And Iran, at least, appears to be signaling that, as long as America's action are punitive (but not focused on regime change), it won't seek an escalation of hostilities.
But, we should also be prepared for at least two less favorable outcomes:
Scenario 2: Misunderstanding, Miscalculation and Escalation
Synopsis: What was intended to be a brief focused intervention, becomes a larger, protracted confrontation.
Explanation: Perhaps Assad will seek the mantle of Arab nationalism by retaliating with an attack against Israel (hoping to end the civil war by becoming the leader of a regional war). Perhaps the U.S. intervention will cause horrendous civilian casualties (even with the best intelligence, accidents and mistakes happen) triggering a regional reaction against the U.S.. Perhaps Iran will perceive that, pulling the U.S. into the Syrian quicksand will distract the U.S. from Iran's nuclear ambitions. Perhaps Assad concludes the U.S. is bluffing and won't do anything further, and so continues his provocations.
Military operations are never as precise as they appear in the movies. Intelligence estimates always contain mistakes. Chains of command and decision-making processes can malfunction (on both sides), and we lack a complete understanding of the internal dynamics of Assad and his allies. The proposed brief intervention could go horribly wrong.
Scenario 3: Collapse of the Assad Regime
Synopsis: The Assad leadership clique collapses in response to an American air assault, with insurgent forces taking over, and/or Syria becoming a failed state, and/or Syria breaking up into autonomous regions.
Explanation: The American attack is calibrated to be punitive, but not "regime threatening." The Assad leadership, in reality, might be very fragile. In the aftermath of even a limited American strike, perhaps rebel forces take advantage of the chaos, or Assad's inner circle decides to get rid of him. This scenario shouldn't be interpreted as a "victory." We have no idea what would come after Assad, but have many reasons for believing the replacement regime might be as bad or worse. Further, in the chaos of a collapsing regime, some of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles might fall into the hands of terrorists.
In summary, the risks -- of inaction or regime change -- appear to exceed the risks of a limited narrow attack. But whatever measures America takes concerning Syria (and, deciding to do nothing is also a decision with risks), this situation has no easy choices, and tremendous potential for becoming an even larger tragedy.
(1) See Strauss, Steven. (2012, June 9). "Ten Reasons We Should Be Cautious About Military Intervention in Syria," The Huffington Post. The casualty statistics in this article are now out of date, but the reasons for caution remain the same.
Note: For purposes of this note, I am assuming the evidence continues to point to the Assad regime as the culpable party for the recent chemical weapons attack.
Steven Strauss is an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Immediately prior to Harvard, he was founding Managing Director of the Center for Economic Transformation at the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Steven was one of the NYC leads for Applied Sciences NYC (Mayor Bloomberg's plan to build several new engineering and innovation centers in NYC), NYC BigApps and many other initiatives to foster job growth, innovation and entrepreneurship. In 2010, Steven was selected as a member of the Silicon Alley 100 in NYC. He has a Ph.D. in Management from Yale University, and over 20 years' private sector work experience. Geographically, Steven has worked in the U.S., Asia, Europe and the Middle East. You can follow him on Twitter at: @Steven_Strauss