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What Will the Syria Strikes Accomplish?

Yesterday I wrote about President Obama’s three options on Syria–light bombing designed to “send a message,” medium bombing combined with Special Operations raids to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, and heavy, sustained bombing in combination with ground action by rebel forces to topple Bashar Assad. All of the news coverage since yesterday morning makes clear that–unless the administration is engaging in strategic deception on a gigantic scale–only the lightest of light options is likely to be implemented.

News accounts suggest that the likeliest scenario is a few days of strikes employing cruise missiles fired from warships in the Mediterranean safely out of the range of Syrian retaliation. Their target list would not include the actual depots where chemical weapons are stored but “would instead be aimed at military units that have carried out chemical attacks, the headquarters overseeing the effort and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks.”

The amount of damage that will be done, if only Tomahawk cruise missiles are used, will be strictly limited since they carry relatively small warheads of 260-370 pounds, compared with 500-pound, 1,000-pound, 2,000-pound, and even 15,000-pound bombs (the BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter”) that can be carried by aircraft. The use of airdropped munitions can make it possible to penetrate bunkers and incinerate chemical weapons stockpiles without risking the dispersion of the deadly weapons. And even if aircraft were to be employed, they would have to bomb for considerable periods to achieve any strategic effects–witness the 78 days of bombing of Kosovo in 1999 or the even longer bombing of Libya in 2011.

A few days of attacks with cruise missiles is a pinprick strike reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s attacks on al-Qaeda and Iraq in 1998. What did those strikes achieve? Precisely nothing beyond blowing up a poor pharmaceutical plant in Sudan wrongly suspected of manufacturing, ironically, chemical weapons. Actually, worse than nothing: those strikes, which Osama bin Laden survived easily, convinced him that the U.S. was a “weak horse” that could be defied with impunity.

Similar strikes would likely have a similar effect in Syria: It would convince Bashar Assad, and a lot of other people in the region, that he successfully defied the superpower. It could have, in other words, the effect of enhancing Assad’s aura of power–precisely the opposite of what Obama intends.

The U.S. goal in Syria, as enunciated by no less than the president himself, is to topple Assad and to end the suffering created by the Syrian civil war. That will not be achieved with cruise missiles. It will require months of bombing, combined with the arming, training, and coordination of rebel forces. Even a lesser goal of destroying Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles–a reasonable objective given the strategic threat posed by WMD–would require weeks of bombing combined with commando raids. A few days of cruise missile strikes, by contrast, will only make the U.S. appear to be a weak, posturing giant.