Limited strikes against Assad would solve little in Syria’s miserable war

Michael Stephens
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THE USE of chemical weapons on a massive scale in the area around Syria’s capital Damascus has understandably elicited condemnation from the international community – including both Russia and Iran.
And we seem to be clear on where responsibility lies. The League of Arab States and many Western powers now state clearly that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was to blame. According to Medecin Sans Frontiers, the use of chemical agents last week led to the death of 355 and the injury of 3,600.
Many are now demanding action in response. The national security teams of both Britain and the US have been meeting extensively, and it appears that we are moving ever closer to some form of military operation. But it is unclear what the goal of any operation against Assad would be. “Punishing” him does not provide us with any reasonable answers.
To punish Assad, a strike would have to be sufficiently weighted to cause enough financial, military, and infrastructure loss to make the cost of using chemical weapons in the future prohibitive. This would involve an initial strike of cruise missiles, engaging multiple targets including military instillations, airstrips, intelligence facilities and symbolic structures which emphasise the regime’s power. Strikes would be led by the US, with a UK Trafalgar Class submarine bringing up the rear.
It’s important to ask, however, what these strikes would achieve, and how they would serve to change the reality on the ground in Syria once they have been conducted. The answer doesn’t seem to be straightforward.
A symbolic 24-hour period of bombing achieves very little strategically. It will not hurt Assad enough to turn the course of the war, and may cause him to look at initiating a response against Britain or its allies abroad. It also runs the risk of killing innocent Syrian civilians. Given the added problems launching an attack on Syria causes in international law, a limited strike doesn’t offer you much bang for your buck.
And if this use of chemical weapons was so egregious that it behoves a response from the international community, it is difficult to argue that a short sharp shock is the appropriate response. If Assad has subverted all norms of international behaviour, there would be merit in arguing that his regime has forfeited its right to rule. What would be needed, therefore, are sustained strikes that would degrade its capacity to operate either on a civilian or military level. The aim would be to force Assad to step down, or to negotiate a surrender.
Simply put, if you are going to hit Assad, hit him hard and knock him out. Punching him in the arm solves nothing other than to escalate the conflict. It would also place Russia and China in a position where they may wish to pressure the West diplomatically in other arenas for clumsily trying to punish Assad, who would remain in power anyway.
Limited strikes would do nothing to alleviate the growing influence of Al Qaeda in Syria, and may even serve to empower them. A half-way solution solves nothing, the war in Syria will keep miserably dragging on, and the threat to us in Britain will increase.
Michael Stephens is a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar.