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Threading needles in Syria

- August 29, 2013

Erica, Erik, and several scholars over at the Duck have done a great job of rounding up and discussing political science research on intervention that might be relevant to the likely US attack on military installations in Syria.  I think I agree with Erik, however, that the cases typically studied (frequently peacekeeping operations) probably don’t have a lot to tell us about this one.

As explained by administration officials — in  remarkable detail — they are thinking about this as a punitive action to impose costs on Assad for violating an international norm that they believe is important to uphold.  Degrading Assad’s military capability is also mentioned, but seems to be secondary or rather the means by which costs are to be imposed, rather than the core objective.  So the most relevant comparison cases would be punitive strikes designed to “reestablish deterrence,” such as, in part, recent Israeli interventions in Gaza and southern Lebanon; the US strikes against a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 1998 in reply to embassy bombings; the US air attacks on various targets in Iraq in 1998; perhaps Reagan’s bombardment of Syrian positions in Lebanon in 1983 after withdrawing the Marines from Beirut; and, going farther back, the US’s graduated bombing campaigns of North Vietnam, which were carefully designed to try to send the sort of signals that the Obama administration now wants to send to Assad, but which didn’t work so well.

See Wallace Thies’ book for an analysis of this last case.  He found, if I recall, that the North Vietnamese didn’t really get the careful, contingent messages the Johnson administration was trying to send.  I’d add that they did correctly get that bombing was not very costly for the US and thus didn’t convey a willingness to actually invade the North.  That would be all the more so in the case of Obama and Syria, since his officials have been very clear that they do not intend an intervention in the sense of using force to give a decisive advantage to one side (as in Kosovo or Bosnia).  I can’t think of a case where the idea was to use force to thread such tiny needles.

Needle 1:  The attack can’t be so large that it kills so many civilians that the reaction is, You killed almost as many as the gas attack did!  (And you can bet that the Assad regime will do what it can to make it so attacks do kill, or appear to kill, a lot of civilians.)  Further, at least according to Max Fisher’s reporting, the administration doesn’t even want to cause the Assad regime to collapse completely, because they imagine that the best endpoint is not rebel victory but some kind of negotiated power-sharing deal.  (At least that’s how I interpret Fisher’s explanation of what they are thinking).

But, as many have pointed out, the attack can’t be too small, or it looks pathetic and pointless, and you have Assad still there thumbing his nose at you.   This needle eye is so small that it may not exist.

Needle 2:  The strike has to serve its purpose for enforcing an international norm against the use of chemical weapons, but at the same time not really take sides in the civil war, or commit us more seriously to military action on behalf of the rebels.

This one is particularly interesting and a feature of the case that is different from most past military interventions.  It’s somewhat reminiscent of the first part of the Bosnian war, where the UN and European response was very much along the lines of “we want to help these people, we want to provide humanitarian relief and encourage a negotiated settlement, but we don’t want to take sides.  We must be neutral.”  It didn’t work.  The humanitarian imperative made the intervenors subject to all kinds of manipulation by the combatants, and in the end taking sides was necessary to get a resolution.

I’m also interested by Fisher’s suggestion that the administration sees the endgame as a negotiated peace deal between the regime and the rebels.  Why, we should ask, haven’t they cut a power-sharing deal already?  Because it is nearly impossible to do this with people you are correctly convinced would kill you if they got any opportunity to do so (see also, Egypt).  How is that going to change, or how is a strike on Assad’s military going to make such fears less strong?  A strike will simply increase the rebel side’s expectations and hopes for more intervention on their side, while doing nothing to make the Assad regime imagine that it would be safe to make a deal.

A negotiated settlement in Syria is not likely any time soon, unless maybe Assad’s forces basically win, and he cuts a deal with the less jihad-y rebels that is enforced by the implicit threat that they can return to fighting with the more extreme rebels if Assad’s side reneges (because the extremists are going to try to keep a civil war going for sure — see Iraq).  On the other hand, an externally enforced power-sharing deal would require a major and very costly third-party intervention that would be rejected by most locals and attacked by the extremists, and additionally would probably require a regional political settlement that would be a diplomatic miracle at this point.  So I’m struggling to see how the administration sees getting to a power-sharing deal, or how the punitive strike would help here.

All that said, there is still a reasonable case for trying to enforce a norm against chemical weapons use, and it’s possible that the administration will be skillful and/or lucky enough to thread both needles.  I wish them luck, which is definitely going to be needed, and also hope they will reconsider whether hoping for a negotiated settlement is a realistic policy.