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So Many Questions, So Few Clear Answers On Syria And Chemical Weapons

This article is more than 7 years old.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements Monday afternoon make one thing clear: The U.S. will launch military strikes against Syria. It is simply a matter of time.

Less clear is how we got here, or where we are going.

As Cognoscenti readers know, I have written about the Syrian conflict before. More than a year ago, I expressed my concern that the conflict was taking an increasingly sectarian turn, and I wondered aloud about the fate of Syria’s chemical stockpiles.

Syria is either unable or unwilling to measure the consequences of its actions.

Then last December, I raised the possibility that President Bashar al-Assad might actually use his chemical weapons if he thought he was losing, just as other Middle Eastern tyrants have done in decades past.

But here’s the thing. Assad’s military fortunes have since improved. His back is not against the wall, and yet it certainly appears as if the Syrian government has employed these heinous weapons on the largest scale since the conflict began. Even more puzzling is the decision to use them with UN inspectors on the ground and only a few minutes drive from the attack.

From a strategic perspective, it makes little sense. The last thing Damascus wants is for the Washington to get involved, and yet the use of chemical weapons is just about the only thing that could force President Obama’s hand. Why risk American intervention when the battle is going your way? Several reasonable explanations have been floated, but none is particularly compelling.

The one thing we can conclude is that whatever the reason — miscalculation, broken chain of command, desperation — this is a bad sign. Syria is either unable or unwilling to measure the consequences of its actions.

Syria’s strategic calculus is not the only issue that remains unclear, however. While it seems all but certain that Washington will respond “kinetically,” as they say in the military, it is far from certain what will happen after that.

The most likely form of attack is cruise missiles launched from off shore U.S. naval vessels. That would make it similar to the 1998 strikes authorized by President Clinton against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan.

Such an attack raises at least two major questions. Against what targets? And what response will follow any military strike?

The American target might include any number of assets:

Going after Syria’s chemical weapons, as some Israeli analysts are urging the U.S. to do, is an obvious choice. But it also presents perhaps the greatest risk. If exploded stockpiles spread a plume of agent over populated areas, for example, the result could be mass casualties. Indeed, even the prospect of a strike against the stockpiles could lead Syria’s military to disperse the arsenal, making control of these deadly weapons even more difficult.

Targeting the government’s command and control apparatus (which is code for the Syrian leadership) has the advantage of sending a clear deterrent signal: Use chemical weapons again, and you will pay. On the other hand, such a message, because it is personal, could lead Syria’s leadership to retaliate in ways that are ill considered. It could also lead to changes in the chain of command that have unintended consequences.

Attacks on Syria’s air and ground assets are probably the safest choice, but also the one that will have the least impact on Syrian behavior.

While it seems all but certain that Washington will respond “kinetically,” as they say in the military, it is far from certain what will happen after that.

And then following any kind of attack, will Syria retaliate? What if they do not respond but nevertheless continue to employ chemical weapons? How would the U.S. react in that instance? Would American retaliation have to be larger and more severe? And how will a strike affect the Middle East and what appears to be ever worsening U.S.-Russia relations? (Russia is a longtime Syrian ally, and Damascus provides Moscow its only, albeit modest, naval facility in the region.)

None of these uncertainties is meant to suggest that a military response to Syria’s chemical attack is unwarranted. To date, I have argued for caution about involvement in the Syrian civil war. For one thing, civil wars are notorious for being brutal and ensnaring. But also because, on top of the fact that the American public has no appetite for military involvement in this conflict, it is not clear what Washington can accomplish and at what price. Still, Syria’s use of chemical weapons introduces a new dimension: A longstanding international norm against any use of chemical weapons, let alone against civilians, is now being challenged.

Syria is among the most complex issues confronting the Obama administration and the rest of the Middle East. As the U.S. appears to be girding to enter this conflict, even if only in a limited way, I would feel better about that if I understood why Assad has brought us to this point, and what might happen once we join the fight. Unfortunately, answers are unlikely to come in before the first cruise missile is fired.


This program aired on August 28, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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