A Case for Modest Military Force in Syria

I wanted to explicate briefly a case for the modest application of military force in Syria, just because it seems that the blogosphere and opinion pages are over-representing arguments to do a lot or to do nothing. In a way this might be viewed as a counter to Eliot Cohen’s argument that “Syria will require more than cruise missiles.”

It goes something like this: Let’s assume that the Assad regime made an intentional choice to use chemical weapons. If so, let’s further assume they are doing so because they have determined chemical weapons are modestly more effective than conventional weapons to kill militants or to dissuade people from supporting the militants. They believe this will modestly increase the odds of regime survival.

If those assumptions are valid, then it could be rational to believe the modest application of military force—say cruise missiles against regime targets—might be useful. Such a use of airpower need not be decisive, it need only to modestly decrease the odds of regime survival. In other words, airpower needs to cost the Assad regime more than chemical weapons buy.

But shouldn’t we care about dead Syrians no matter if they die from chemical warfare or conventional weaponry? Yes, we should. But it seems likely the Assad regime has determined indiscriminate violence is necessary for regime survival. This means that only regime change as a policy has any possibility of stopping indiscriminate violence. And regime change only can stop indiscriminate violence if you believe that post-Assad, Syria will be relatively stable. It seems like 1980s Lebanon is the more likely analogy, particularly since many of the exact same players would have very similar incentives. This means further, that if you believe stability must be imposed by an outside presence, just as in 1980s Lebanon, the cost of peacekeeping to preserve stability is likely to be very high for outside powers.

Protecting Syrians from chemical weapons might be a distinct, worthwhile goal from protecting Syrians more generally. First, deaths from chemical weapons might be especially unpleasant. Second, it is very plausible that chemical weapons might disproportionately kill civilians (they drift into homes) and disproportionately kill kids (less exposure to kill than an adult). Third, if reasons one and/or two are valid, then it might be useful to attempt to delegitimize this class of weapon more broadly. If that is the case, it might be worthwhile to exert modest force (“cruise missiles”) even if it fails to alter the Assad’s regime’s calculation, so long as the force signals to other states that there might be costs to chemical weapons use. If you believe the Assad regime might have “priced in” the possibility of U.S. military action in the event of CW use, then compelling a change in behavior becomes more difficult, but dissuading future actors might still be a possibility.

A few final points on compellance. To be successful, it is important for Obama to signal that if Assad stops using chemical weapons, then the United States will cease punitive strikes. Otherwise, if Assad believes future U.S. military action is inevitable, then he has no reason to cease chemical weapons use. Often in compellance situations, there may be reputational concerns, but since the Assad regime says it is not using chemical weapons in the first place, it should be easier to back down on future chemical use.

There are a lot of assumptions built into this analysis, and if the Obama administration concludes some of the planks of this argument are not present, then this case for moderate military action quickly collapses. But if you believe the assumptions above, U.S. military power may be appropriate to prevent additional chemical weapons use.