Obama's Syria conundrum: How to 'punish' Assad regime

The question facing the administration is less whether to launch a military strike, but what would come next

During a 2010 live-fire weapons exercise, the guided-missile destroyer USS Mahan fires its MK-45 5-inch/54-caliber lightweight gun.
Daniel Gay/US Navy

The challenge facing President Barack Obama and his political and military advisers is this: How to "punish" the regime of President Bashar al-Assad for its alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians, but not punish it too severely, lest that destroy a government whose survival is deemed preferable, for U.S. regional interests, to one led by the most radical rebel elements.

While the administration appeared to be gearing up this week for some form of military response to an incident denounced by Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday as a "moral obscenity," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday that the purpose of any intervention was not to oust Assad. "It is not our policy to respond to this transgression with regime change," he said. "That is not what we are contemplating here."

The policy, according to Mark Perry, a foreign policy analyst and author of several books on military history, can be translated as follows: "The U.S. would like to see Bashar al-Assad lose, but they don't want to see the opposition win -- but how do you do that?"

"It's not sound military doctrine," Perry said. "We don't usually deploy to 'punish' but to 'defeat.' What's the goal here?"

Beyond that overall strategic question, Obama must decide how many targets and how often should they be struck -- what's too much or too little. And then there's the question of whether any punishment action by the U.S. and coalition partners deters Assad from using chemical weapons, or instead emboldens him. That's a multi-faceted dilemma for a president still trying to extricate troops from more than 10 years of war in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has left no doubt that it's leery of getting involved in Syria. In July, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered an assessment of military options to Sen. Carl Levin, head of the Armed Services Committee, in which he discussed possibilities that included "limited stand-off strikes."

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Strikes on the Syrian regime's air defense, ground, missile, naval forces as well as other military facilities would require hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines and other vehicles. "Depending on duration, the costs would be in the billions," Dempsey wrote. "Over time, the impact would be the significant degradation of regime capabilities and an increase in regime desertions." The risks he noted included retaliatory attacks and the probability of collateral damage on civilians and foreigners in Syria.

The weapon of choice in the current debate appears to be the Tomahawk cruise missile, carried by U.S. Navy vessels currently stationed in the Mediterranean. Those weapons can't track moving objects, and are more likely to be used against stationary facilities.

"Cruise missiles are designed to go after fixed targets such as air bases, weapons depots, communications nodes and command and control sites," says Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. "But they are not really designed to engage mobile targets, as they're not meant to be re-programmed in mid-air."

Assad's chemical stockpile is said to be easily transportable, making it hard to pinpoint for precision strikes. Forcing the regime to move such weapons might also lead to them falling into the hands of anti-American forces among the rebels, and targeting them also creates a substantial risk of civilians being killed should the weapons be in densely populated areas.

To target Syria's chemical weapons, Dempsey wrote, "would call for a no-fly zone as well as air and missile strikes involving hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines and other enablers." The price tag could "average well over one billion dollars a month."

Moreover, there was no guarantee such action could secure all the chemical weapons, which could allow extremists to acquire them. The added risk of American boots on the ground is something the U.S. public has already declared it is unwilling to approve – and the Obama administration says that is not being considered at present.

Former U.S. ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker told Al Jazeera that Tomahawk missiles weren't "going to break the back of the regime," and that if Damascus continues to attack rebel-held areas "there'll be pressure for escalation" which, he said, "could cost us a tremendous amount in blood and treasure."

Perry believes the Pentagon is worried about a steady escalation whose goals shift and whose outcome is uncertain, along the lines of the 2011 air campaign in Libya. What began as a mission to restrain the forces of Moammar Gadhafi from targeting population centers became, effectively, an air support mission to rebels seeking his overthrow. And Libya remains a hotbed of instability two years later.

This photo taken by mobile phone on June 2, 2013 shows Syrian army tanks making their way to the Dabaa military airfield, north of the Syrian city of Qusayr.
AFP/Getty Images

RELATED: Syria likely to avoid escalation if attacked

The media conversation has focused on what tactics President Barack Obama might authorize to punish Assad's regime for allegedly staging the chemical-weapons attack.

"It depends on whether it's a punishment or an intervention," says Vali Nasr.

Read more here

Gen. Wesley Clark, commander of NATO forces during the Kosovo war, says that campaign began slowly, but escalated and eventually lasted 78 days before Serbian forces withdrew from the territory. "There must be diplomatic weight behind the first military strike in Syria, he warns.

"You have to make sure ... that your adversary knows that it's inevitable the escalation will follow and there'll be no relenting on the pressure," he told al Jazeera. And if the logic of the strike, as some have suggested, is simply to deter future chemical weapon use, the Kosovo logic may not apply, since that campaign had a different objective: to force a Serb withdrawal from the rebel province.

But the diplomats around Obama -- Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and U.N. ambassador Samantha Power -- are countering the military's caution, says Perry, who calls the trio "cruise missile liberals."

"In some respects, they're worse than the conservatives," he says. "They think they can use power to affect good, they see [the military] as a tool."

Joshua Foust, former intelligence analyst for the Pentagon, calls limited intervention "comically futile." Obama, he says, faces a politician's dilemma: "Doing something is better than doing nothing, even if doing nothing might be more constructive."

Limited intervention will barely affect Assad, Foust argues, while a massive intervention would fracture the regime and allow "some of the scariest militants on the battlefield" to receive most of the weapons and push to the fore.

There is the wider regional consequence to consider as well. Israel, concerned it would be the target of Syrian retaliation to a U.S. military strike, says it would respond "with force" of its own.

Gulf states who have been supporting rebel forces, want to see the regime dealt a blow sufficient to topple it.

But hobbling the regime runs the risk of empowering rebels who, Foust says, are dominated by radical groups. "The people being armed are scary, the worst people are getting money," he argues. "The people controlling territory are all Islamists, they're the only ones left at this point."

Russia has signaled strong opposition to military action against Syria, which makes it unlikely that any intervention will receive U.N. Security Council authorization.

And there is Iran.

Alongside reports that Iran has sent thousands of its Republican Guard to beef up Syrian military ranks, there are now accounts that members of the Corps are manning Syrian chemical facilities. Should they also become collateral damage in the wake of a U.S. military strike, it will open another front in the conflict, and Obama's Syrian conundrum becomes even more byzantine.

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