The war plan for American allied strikes against Syria seems to be in its final stages, and much of the reporting has focused on what will happen and when. Using naval vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean, the U.S. and its allies say they will launch cruise missiles at around 50 military targets over 48 hours, with the intention of diminishing the Syrian government's capacity to launch future chemical weapons strikes, and "teach President Bashar al-Assad … a lesson on the risks of defying the West."
But while the decisions seem to be firmly made in Washington and London, a great deal still remains unexplained about the mission, its end goals, and even the chemical weapons attack that precipitated it.
Here are three crucial outstanding questions that deserve answers before any military operation in Syria, which could as easily make things worse as it might bring relief to the conflict of two and a half years.
Who used the chemical weapons, and why?
It is now seemingly beyond doubt that some sort of toxic chemical was dispersed on a large scale in Syria last week. There are still significant facts missing about the attack -- What kind of chemical was used? Exactly how many people were killed? -- but none of that undermines the preponderance of evidence that some sort of deadly chemical was spread over a residential neighborhood in East Damascus, and many hundreds of people died. There have been signs of such attacks, on a much smaller scale, over the past year, although the evidence, even with videos, has been inconclusive. Now, Doctors Without Borders, an international aid group with a solid reputation and a close relationship with the medical facilities who treated some of the patients, says with certainty that more than a thousand patients were treated at the hospitals for "neurotoxic symptoms." At least 350 of them died.
The big questions that remain, however, are who used them, and why. Israeli and American officials -- citing intercepts and other data -- say they have "very little doubt," or "no doubt" that the Syrian regime conducted the attacks.
But some of these reports raise more questions than they answer. In a big report Tuesday night, Foreign Policy magazine said the intercepts involved "panicked" phone calls from an official at the Ministry of Defense, demanding answers about the chemical weapons use from a subordinate. "It's unclear where control lies," a U.S. intelligence official told the magazine. "Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?"
In other words, the reports might be evidence that Syria was behind the chemical weapons, but they also raise the possibility that the latest was the action of a rogue military commander, and not a strategic decision from the regime. There have been suggestions of this in the past. Some reports claim that Bashar al-Assad's hardline brother, Maher, was unilaterally responsible for the attacks, perhaps acting on his own with his special unit of determined troops. Others suggest that the chemical warheads may have been introduced by mistake, or unbeknownst to those firing them.
The question matters, of course, because if the point of the strike is to clamp down on the perpetrators, and deter them from future use of chemical weapons, the right person or units have to be targeted. And moreover, if chemical weapons in Syria have fallen into the hands of units or commanders who feel free to operate with the express permission of the Ministry of Defense, what effect would large-scale airstrikes have on that diminished command and control?
In a speech on Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden said he had "no doubt" that Assad was behind the chemical weapon strike, but he cited only abstract evidence for this claim. Still, the evidence is, as CBS recently put it, a "near air-tight circumstantial case."
Is that good enough?
Do punitive strikes work?
Western officials have repeatedly said that the impending strikes would serve the purpose of punishing Assad for the chemical weapons use, and deterring him from using them again. Even assuming the strikes can be firmly linked to the president, is there sufficient reason to believe "punitive" attacks will have the desired impact?
Experts and historians generally say no.
In an analysis in the Los Angeles Times, Ken Dilanian notes that the 1986 bombing of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi did nothing to deter the Pan-Am bombing two years later; nor did strikes against Osama bin Laden's cohort in East Africa in the late 1990s deter the attacks of 9/11.
"Can you do damage with cruise missiles? Yes," said Anthony Cordesman, military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "Can you stop them from having chemical weapons capability? I would think the answer would be no. Should you limit yourself to just a kind of incremental retaliation? That doesn't serve any strategic purpose. It doesn't protect the Syrian people, it doesn't push Assad out."
In a paper on the CSIS website, Cordesman further argues that the effect of limited military action in Syria would be "marginal at best."
Fundamentally, the problem is that the West has a terrible track record of predicting and preempting the behavior of dictators. In the heated months before the 2003 invasion, the West wrongly interpreted Saddam's obstinance in the face of United Nations weapons inspectors, and his general attitude of posturing, as evidence that a secret nuclear program had been restarted. It wasn't the rational way in which an innocent leader would behave, Western leaders assumed. That assumption turned out to be a costly error. Is there any reason to think missile strikes will stop Assad from using chemical weapons again -- especially if he thinks his life and hold on power depend on it?
Will the strikes improve the situation in Syria or the region?
For more than two years now, Syria has been mired in a deadly and devastating civil conflict that has taken the lives of more than 100,000 people, according to United Nations experts. Millions more have fled the country to seek refuge in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Refugee communities in those nations are saturated, and already underfunded and under-served. Inside Syria, the war grinds on, cruelly and unrelentingly.
It's refreshingly honest, if dispiriting, that as they sell the missile strikes in Syria, American officials have said next to nothing about bringing that war to a close. They have called the use of chemical weapons a "cowardly crime," but insisted that the operation is "not about regime change." They have offered no arguments that the continuing deaths of tens of thousands of civilians -- by conventional firearms and bombs -- will slow or stop as a result of retaliatory missile strikes.
In fact, many experts believe the strikes could make things worse. Already more refugees are flooding into saturated neighboring countries. The rebels themselves are fractured and ridden with infighting. Many of the strongest units in the campaign against Assad are affiliated with Sunni jihadist groups, and some of them have already been designated terrorist groups by the U.S. and Europe.
Meanwhile, all around the region, belligerents are stepping up the war rhetoric, and preparations. Syrian officials have threatened to retaliate for any Western strike with missile barrages aimed at Israel. “We have strategic weapons and we’re capable of responding,” a top Syrian official said. And now Iran has too: “In case of a U.S. military strike against Syria, the flames of outrage of the region’s revolutionaries will point toward the Zionist regime,” an official was quoted in the Iranian press as saying. Many expect a certain amount of that activity would be carried out by Hezbollah, in Lebanon, which could result in a spate of terrorist attacks through the region, or full-on warfare between Israel and its neighbor to the north.
Inside Syria, the situation also seems primed to get worse after the injection of Western missile strikes. On Wednesday, an analysis of the war plan by the Royal United Services Institute, a British defense think tank, argued that if the strikes do manage to seriously diminish the command and operational capabilities of the Syrian military, the result might be a far more chaotic and intractable civil war:
One major problem with effective removal of leadership and military capability is that the subsequent civil war could reach a new high level with high levels of atrocities on all sides. Western powers would then bear moral responsibility for intervention on the ground for peace enforcement with internal political consequences or loss of reputation if no follow-up action is taken. It would be a very risky judgement to attempt to shift the balance of power convincingly in favour of the 'rebels' whatever entity they comprise.
In fact, that is largely what has happened in the past. A 2012 study of conflicts, posted Tuesday on the Monkey Cage blog, points to evidence that over history, military interventions on behalf of rebel forces result in a 40 percent increase, on average, in the number of civilian deaths caused by the government.
No wonder the rebel commanders themselves are not so thrilled about what will come after the airstrikes are over.