Experts: Punitive U.S. Strike on Syria Not Enough


A punitive salvo of U.S. cruise missiles of the kind being contemplated in Washington will do little to bring Bashar Assad's chemical-armed Syrian regime to heel, experts warn.

U.S. warships are on standby in the eastern Mediterranean to unleash a barrage of guided weapons if President Barack Obama decides to respond to Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.

The White House says no final decision has been made, but on Monday U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry set the stage for military action.

"Make no mistake," Kerry said. "President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people."

Kerry's language was tough but, separately, military officials -- speaking on condition of anonymity -- played down the scope of the military action that is envisaged.

There will be no ground invasion of the type launched against Iraq in 2003, nor even a months-long NATO-led bombing campaign like those over Serbia in 1999 or Libya in 2011.

Instead, at some point in the coming days, Assad will wake up to a powerful but brief onslaught of Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from U.S. Navy destroyers.

The goal of the attacks, which once it starts could be over within days, would not be to tip the balance in Syria's three-year-old civil war, nor to topple Assad.

Instead, U.S. officials said, it would "send a message" that using chemical weapons is unacceptable and degrade Assad's will and capability to repeat last week's alleged large-scale gas attack.

But independent observers doubt that such a limited military intervention would be effective.

"It has to be large enough and to inflict enough pain and cost to the Syrians so that they would be discouraged from using chemical weapons again," warned Richard Haas of leading think tank the Council on Foreign Relations.

Christopher Harmer, a former naval officer who when in service helped develop the U.S. Navy's plans for cruise missile use, said such a barrage would inflict only a temporary setback to Assad.

"Each of the four U.S. Navy surface combatants currently in the eastern Mediterranean would have approximately 45 TLAM onboard, for a total of 180 TLAM," he wrote.

These TLAMs -- Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles -- pack a punch but "cannot eliminate the regime's military or chemical weapons capabilities ... nor cause more than a temporary degradation in regime operations."

"Such a strike will be ineffective unless it is part of a coherent, properly resourced effort towards achieving clearly-articulated U.S. strategic aims in Syria," Harmer warned.

"The fall of the Assad regime is one clear objective. Depriving Assad of the ability to use or proliferate chemical weapons is another. Punishing Assad for using chemical weapons is not."

And some analysts warn that such a strike would not just be ineffective, it might be counterproductive.

Robert Satloff, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it would be mistake to cede to the temptation of a "limited punitive response."

"Is American military action designed to punish Assad for violating the international norm on chemical weapons?" he asked, in an op-ed for Washington news outlet Politico.

"If so, it will merely have the effect of defining for Assad the acceptable tools for mass killing - perhaps only the acceptable quantities of CW to use at any given time - and will have little impact on the outcome of the Syrian conflict; in fact, it might just embolden Assad and his allies."

The tougher U.S. stance comes more than a year after Obama warned that any use of chemical weapons by Assad's forces would cross a "red line" and trigger a U.S. response, and two months after Washington said he had done so.

There is, however, little historical evidence that punitive strikes work. Former Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi's regime was targeted by one night of strikes in 1986, but bombed a U.S. airliner two years later.

Antony Cordesman, a fellow of the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS), said the short-term plan appeared to miss the bigger picture.

"The key challenge in Syria is scarcely to end the use of chemical weapons," he wrote.

"The real challenge is some 120,000 dead, another 200,000-plus wounded, and as many as 20 percent of its 22.5 million people have been displaced inside the country or are living outside it as refugees"

"There is no point in fighting a war against chemical weapons. There is no point in U.S. military symbolism or massive unilateral military action. There is a point in trying to use force to end the suffering, the fighting, and repression- and serve our national interest while we meet the needs of the Syrian people and our allies."

Comments 4
Missing americanlebanese 27 August 2013, 21:36

This analysis is wrong. I am sad to say that the current US administration does not care about Syria. This is not about Syria; this is about Iran and North Korea. Obama drew a red line and it was crossed. If the reaction is not strong enough, Iran and North Korea will become complete bullies and the fear of America will be wiped out (not to mention respect and credibility). Obama wanted to avoid Syria, now Syria came to get him. He will act, but we will never act because of a crime against humanity. He will act because he is cornered. America does not care. Now the ball is in the FSA's hands. When the door you've been knocking on suddenly opens, don't ask why, just run through it. The FSA to capitalize on in incoming strikes. This is a diplomacy game as much as it a battle on the ground. Assad's crimes got him out of Lebanon, and his crimes will get him out of Damuscus. He dug his own grave.

Thumb Bandoul 27 August 2013, 22:27

I respect your opinion fellow American (Sorry there is no such a thing as an American Lebanese or American Italian or American other nationality in my vocabulary, I was born in Lebanon but I am an American through and through), that said I can see your point of view is driven by your emotions for justice and peace, I cannot fault you for your humanity. However set those feelings aside and consider what moral obligation does the USA have to interfere anywhere and consider what is in the best interest of the USA, your country of nationality I presume. Might you come to a different conclusion? Mr. Obama is an abysmal presidential failure and bears a lot of responsibility for the injustices in the world...from Egypt to Syria and everything in between...but now is not the time for the US to slide backwards another 10 years. The world has to assume its responsibilities , the US is not the World Police for 1 day and 10 days not.

Missing americanlebanese 28 August 2013, 00:30

I disagree with you my friend. America is a superpower and should act as one, not sit on the sideline of history. This is more than a moral obligation, this is an obligation toward keeping America as God's greatest nation on Earth. Doing nothing has bigger and further reaching consequences than doing the wrong thing. Everybody attacks Bush for going to war after Sep 11th, but that was the greatest decision a leader can make.

Thumb Bandoul 27 August 2013, 23:37

For all those cheerleaders of war, what breaks my heart is that you don't realize that as soon as American bombs fall on the Syrian regime, Hezbollah missiles will rain on Israel which in turn will only mean Israeli bombs will indiscriminately send Lebanon back into the stone age. No body is looking at the big picture because they're too per-occupied with revenge and savoring the demise of the other at the expense of Lebanon, yes, yet once again.