Obama Has No Choice But to Pursue a Useless Punitive Expedition

Having warned that chemical weapons use in Syria would cross a “red line,” the president can ill afford to do nothing.

The American guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens fires a missile at an airborne drone during a live fire weapons shoot in the Pacific Ocean, September 20, 2012
The American guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens fires a missile at an airborne drone during a live fire weapons shoot in the Pacific Ocean, September 20, 2012 (USN/Paul Kelly)

If the United States and its allies launch cruise missile strikes against Syrian government and military targets in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, it might not have the desired effect.

George Friedman, chairman of the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, cautions in an article for Forbes that if the objective is to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, the first problem will be determining where they are. “I would assume that most are underground, which poses a huge intelligence problem,” he writes.

There is talk of a clean cruise missile strike. But it is not clear whether these carry enough explosives to penetrate even minimally hardened targets. Aircraft carry more substantial munitions and it is possible for strategic bombers to stand off and strike the targets.

Whether bomber planes, missiles or both are used, assessing the damage will be another challenge. “How do you know that you have destroyed the chemicals — that they were actually there and you destroyed the facility containing them?”

Moreover, there will be facilities close to civilian areas and munitions are likely to go astray when radical opposition fighters hope to get the upper hand in the war with chemical weapons in their possession. “The attacks could prove deadlier than the chemicals did,” Friedman warns.

President Barack Obama’s spokesman on Tuesday insisted that the United States do not aim for regime change in Damascus. Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg is convinced that whatever America’s plans for Syria’s Bashar Assad, a limited air campaign won’t remove him from power. He might even conclude — “depending on the flow of events and the level of international anxiety that results” — that no further military action from the West is forthcoming.

Having set a “red line” for possible American intervention in Syria’s civil war, however, Obama can ill afford not to do anything when rebels accuse Assad’s regime of using chemical weapons. That, Friedman points out, would increase chances of conflict with other hostile countries like Iran and North Korea. The former is suspected of developing a nuclear weapons capability; the latter has already tested such weapons and routinely threatens the United States and its Asian allies with destruction. If they come to believe that the American president bluffs, “the possibility of miscalculation soars.”

Which is why Friedman believes that Syria did not affect American national interests until the president declared the red line. By doing so, he escalated the crisis in importance — “not because Syria is critical to the United States but because the credibility of its stated limits are of vital importance.”

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