Limited Strikes, Limited Utility, Unlimited Fallout

We're almost certainly going to launch punitive strikes against Syria. They'll almost certainly be ineffective.


We’re almost certainly going to launch punitive strikes against Syria. They’ll almost certainly be ineffective.

As Ken Dilanian notes in a page 1 analysis in the LA Times, it’s not as if there isn’t a track record.

“If the U.S. does something and Assad is left standing at the end of it without having suffered real serious, painful enough damage, the U.S. looks weak and foolish,” said Eliot Cohen, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

“Can you do damage with cruise missiles? Yes,” said Anthony Cordesman, military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Can you stop them from having chemical weapons capability? I would think the answer would be no. Should you limit yourself to just a kind of incremental retaliation? That doesn’t serve any strategic purpose. It doesn’t protect the Syrian people, it doesn’t push Assad out.”

Previous such punitive attacks were aimed at countries that had targeted or threatened American personnel or facilities. If Obama authorizes action against Syria, he would be striking a country that has posed no clear threat to the U.S.

However, Obama did authorize U.S. participation in a U.N.-approved mission to protect civilians in 2011 that ultimately led to the fall of Kadafi’s government. Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Monday cited what he called “the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians” in the attack last week in Syria.

In 1986, after officials concluded that Kadafi had ordered a bombing that killed two U.S. service members in a Berlin disco, President Reagan authorized an airstrike in Tripoli. Among the targets was Kadafi’s residence compound, but he had fled after having been warned.

In August 1998, days after Al Qaeda bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, President Clinton signed off on plans to target Bin Laden with cruise missiles, and the U.S. fired 75 of them into terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.

Clinton’s operation also targeted a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan that U.S. officials thought was making chemical weapons. Later evidence cast doubt on that claim.

Bin Laden and many of his top lieutenants escaped unharmed. Documents declassified in 2008 suggested the strikes may have brought Al Qaeda and the Taliban closer politically and ideologically. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan after the 2001 attacks when the Taliban refused to hand over Bin Laden.

In December 1998, Clinton ordered an operation designed to “strike military targets in Iraq that contributed to its ability to produce, store, maintain and deliver weapons of mass destruction,” according to a Pentagon history.

Later evidence showed Hussein had shelved his banned weapons programs by then, but the attacks were at the time considered a military success, having inflicted serious damage on Iraq’s missile development program.

However, Hussein’s government survived, and he ended United Nations weapons inspections. The attacks also weakened the international sanctions against him, analysts say, because some countries in the coalition were opposed to the operation and became less committed to the penalties afterward.

Abdulrahman al-Masri and Oren Dorell, writing for USA Today, argue that limited strikes would have little impact on the conflict itself.

A limited strike against Syria might convince the Assad regime not to use chemical weapons again, but it won’t change the balance of power in Syria’s civil war or bring about President Obama’s stated goal of regime change, Middle East analysts and rebel leaders agree.

Syria’s President Bashar Assad has behind him Russia’s veto at the United Nations, Iran’s military backing, Hezbollah’s foreign fighters and a rebel adversary infiltrated by Islamist groups the United States worries about arming.

Breaking up this morass will likely take more than the cruise-missile strike Obama and Western allies are considering.

“The threats to our interests have only gotten worse, and our inaction has been quite harmful to our interests,” said Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy and a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

“There’s no reason to think those consequences won’t continue to worsen, and yet you don’t see any momentum toward any kind of effective action by the United States and our allies to do anything about it,” he said.

Assad “has used all kinds of weapons, chemical and cluster bombs, during massacres in Syria,” said Abu Jaafar al-Mugarbel, an activist based in Homs, in western Syria.

“There is nothing that can stop the regime from doing that except military intervention. It is not the best way forward but there is nothing else after all that has happened,” he said.

Gary Hart, meanwhile, worries about unintended consequences.

We may choose to punish Assad for using chemicals on his own people, though I don’t recall that we did so to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, and it will make us feel better. But it will solve nothing in the long run. Unless we want to kill a great many people, and remain in Syria for much longer than in Iraq or Afghanistan, we cannot determine the outcome of this civil war. In neighboring Lebanon, a similar war raged for almost two decades.

If there are Syrian military targets isolated from urban concentrations, bombs away. But for most of these, including military-command facilities such as ministries of defense, expect heavy civilian casualties—widely reported on the evening news throughout the world. That always has the salutary effect of driving the “do something” experts off the cable talk shows.

Among those not in evidence on the cable shows are former or existing senior military commanders. Senior commanders in uniform are appropriately reluctant to advise the commander-in-chief in public. But their colleagues now in retirement are rarely so reluctant. Yet few, if any, are heard to demand that we “do something.” And their silence is often a quality indicator of the thinking of their colleagues in uniform with whom they maintain close ties.

As to the utility of missile strikes on Assad’s chemical stockpiles, Hart adds,

That surely could not be serious. There are close to a dozen and a half such sites and, once dispersed, the aerated chemicals might have the unintended benefit of crippling the Taliban in Afghanistan, among others, along the way.

Further, Nick Gvosdev warns that we risk losing leverage elsewhere:

Russia might decide to defect from the U.S.-led sanctions regime on Iran, throwing out a lifeline to the new administration of Hassan Rowhani (who will meet with Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping in Kyrgyzstan next month). Putin may decide to continue to play the role of spoiler to U.S. plans and strategies around the world, to raise costs for U.S. action.

Secretly, however, Moscow may be quite prepared to let the United States find itself embroiled into yet another Middle Eastern crisis and, depending on how any strike on Syria would be handled, one which in turn might tie the United States down for the long term with coping not only with Syria but with Iran as well. A renewed U.S. focus on the Middle East ends any possibility that Washington would be able to spare the time, attention or resources to focusing on Russia’s attempts at reintegrating the former Soviet space under Moscow’s regional leadership. (It goes without saying that this would also effectively end any “pivot to Asia” for the foreseeable future.) Given recent U.S. statements that, in the absence of any UN resolution, the United States would not go in alone but would seek commitments from allies, this could put renewed pressure on the cohesiveness of a NATO alliance still under considerable stress in dealing with the Afghan mission. For the last decade, the mantra of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment vis-a-vis Russia has been “selective cooperation”—the United States would pursue cooperation with Moscow in those areas where it would most benefit U.S. interests but would retain the freedom to go against Russian preferences when necessary. But with America lacking good options on Syria—and with Russia not particularly inclined to help Washington out—it may be Russia that will be doing more of the “selecting” in the future.

That’s assuming—as I do—that we’ll limit ourselves to a token effort.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    If this isn’t the definition of ‘crazy,’ I don’t know what is. We keep repeating the same thing and expecting different results. The Pentagon only has one tool in its toolbox.

  2. Xenos says:

    Way beyond my comfort level here. If they are going to do this without the diplomatic figleaf of UN support the odds seem great that the strikes will be ineffective and the Syrians will be pushed further into the arms of the Russians. This makes relations cozier between Russians the the Shia powers, and could set a bad example for the military powers in Egypt. I can’t even figure out what the upside is, except a theoretical deterrent against the use of nerve gas in the future.

    Several likely bad results in return for a theoretical positive good result sounds like a bad strategy. Better to stay out and let the Russians burn their fingers on their own, rather than to stir things up and make it easier for them.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    To be legal the use of force against Assad requires Security Council approval. To be moral the means used against Assad must be able to effect the ends.

  4. steve says:

    We should stay out because both sides in this conflict are not ones we should want to support. This is a civil war and intervening in them is a mess. Can it work? Maybe. Dilanian just glosses over the fact that Kadafi was better behaved after the bombing. Sadam was hurt badly by the bombings. Our invading him was stupidity on our part. I just dont think it is worth the risk. I also dont buy this insistence that we will look weak if we do something and it doesnt work. Everyone knows we have the biggest military and have no qualms about using it. They have newspapers and have read about Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. They also know, I wish we did, that occupation doesnt work well for us.


  5. Gustopher says:

    We’ll kill some poor people, and some rank and file soldiers. And carefully avoid doing anything that would risk tipping the scales against Assad and for al Qaeda.

    Not sure how that helps anything. It sends the message that use of chemical weapons will get a token response, which is probably worse than doing nothing.

  6. Rob in CT says:

    1. Both sides in this conflict suck. We should therefore have no vested interest in who wins.

    2. Russia, while no longer a superpower, is a Security Council member and has strong ties to the Assad regime. If we attack the regime, we further damage relations with Russia. For some, that may be a win-win, but I don’t see it that way. I see it as pointlessly poking a bear with a stick.

    3. Chemical weapons are icky, it’s true. They kill and maim people. Well, so do other types of weapons. We have a taboo against chemical weapons. If we’re really going to enforce some sort of quasi-ban on their use, the “we” doing the enforcement had better be a large coalition of nations. I don’t like it even then, mind you.

    4. Our bombs will kill people. Some of them will be innocent. Others will be conscripts or whatever. Taking out Assad himself might send the message that we apparently want to send: use chemical weapons and we’ll whack you. Whether that actually deters would-be users of chemical weapons in the future is questionable, IMO. The effect of Assad’s death on the civil war is also hard to discern.

    Nothing good will come of this.

  7. stonetools says:

    Would disagree here. I think the question for whether we should do punitive strikes is not ” Will it turn Syria into fairy gumdrop land?” or “Will it lead to the down fall of Assad regime?”or even “Will it totally destroy Syria’s chemical warfare capability?”.
    The question is whether punitive strikes will convince Assad not to engage in large scale chemical attacks on civilians in the future. This I think is possible.
    Again, James’ attitude seems to be there are always two justifiable military options: invasion and conquest or doing nothing. I don’t think that’s the case. See also, Bosnia.

  8. grumpy realist says:

    I’m even more cynical about this: the benefit will be to undercut the ground from all the neocons stampeding at the bit for war. We may not actually do anything in the end. Obama will dangle this out there like a fresh juicy tidbit, and the Republican party will tear itself to bits in Congress arguing over whether to do it or not and How Much Authorization The POTUS Needs. The Pat Buchanans vs. the John Boltons. I’m rooting for injuries.

    And even the threat of bombing may be enough to get Assad to back off a bit.

  9. Donald Sensing says:

    I have posted several posts on this topic in recent days (and long before, for that matter). So for those interested, here is a link to all of them, most recent on top.

    My bottom line: To paraphrase what Bismarck said about the Balkans in 1888, “The whole of Syria is not worth the bones of a single American pilot.”

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    @Rob in CT:

    To your observations I would add that there are things we want from the Russians and which the Russians have been cooperating with us on, specifically, support for the UN-authorized sanctions on Iran.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    I’m not in favor of this, but I’ll make the argument just for fun:

    1) Inflicting any sort of pain inevitably adds something to Assad’s equation. Next time a general says, “Can I use gas?” Assad will think, “Hmmm, do I want to have to rebuild military headquarters again?” Does that stop him? Maybe no, maybe yes.

    2) Given the long lead-up the rebel forces have time to prepare an offensive. The missiles fly, the Assad regime is busy dealing with it, the rebel ground forces attack, scoring some gains.

    3) The Russians think, “Huh, this thing is getting even more out of hand. Maybe time to push our pet dog to the negotiating table before this all gets ugly.”

    4) The larger message is reinforced to low-rent, low-tech thugocracies that there is no point in investing in chem weapons, it just draws the attention of the Americans.

  12. Rob in CT says:

    1) Possible.

    2) Why would we want this?

    3) Before it gets ugly? Hahahahaha. We’re well past that point, and the Russians are sticking with Assad.

    4) I’m not sure that’s the lesson they will learn, given the simultaneous revelation (that was no revelation at all, of course) that we were happy to help Saddam while he was gassing Iranians (and we also sold weapons to the Iranians in the Iran-Contra deals). Given that history, US policy looks pretty capricious. The only clear message is “if you don’t do what the US wants, pretty much all the time, they may at some point bomb you.” The message is a muddled mess, and whenever that’s the case, somebody will misinterpret it. Look at what happened when Saddam thought we gave a quiet go-ahead for his invasion of Kuwait…

  13. Mikey says:

    The Assad regime isn’t just fighting for control of Syria, it’s fighting for its very existence. Assad is in exceptionally desperate straits and we know how people act in that situation.

    My fear is: the level at which the US is prepared to act is not sufficient to accomplish any worthwhile objective in Syria, and we are be unwilling to act at a level that would. (Or, acting insufficiently will inevitably lead to calls for escalation to a sufficient level, which draws us in to yet another bloodbath.)

    The relevant questions–“what are our objectives? how do we plan to achieve them?” have not yet been answered, and I’m not even sure if they’re answerable at this point.

  14. The Roofer says:

    The headline on this article sums it up well – Unlimited Fallout.

    Our politicians should resist the urge to “do something” and try and do something that may make a real difference – get the Russians and Chinese on side with an UN security council resolution that will move things forward. Yes it may be impossible to get such an agreement but less impossible than solving the mess that is Syria when cruise missiles start landing.

    This is not easy but that’s what diplomats and politicians get paid for.

  15. stonetools says:

    @Rob in CT:

    To uphold the principle that the routine use of large scale chemical warfare against civilians is unacceptable seems a worthy goal to me.
    To all those think that failure is certain, or that this is some sort of slippery slope to an invasion, there is the counterexample of Bosnia. The bombing campaign there did stop the worst Serbian atrocities and did lead to a military settlement-with no loss of US life and no combat commitment of ground forces.
    Now a similar result in Syria is not a “sure thing”. But its not quite as hopeless as people here make it seem.

  16. Scott says:

    I’m just not sure that the fall of the Assad regime is in the best interests of the US. Syria has not been our ally but the trouble it has mustered in Israel and Lebanon has had minimal impact on the US. I’m afraid the new Syria (if that happens) is going to be worse than the old.

    Right now that are three sides in the Arab region: Sunni, Shiite, and secular. And there is a rotating and ever changing sets of allegiances involving our friends and enemies. We will always be on the wrong side at some point.

  17. Rob in CT says:

    To all those think that failure is certain, or that this is some sort of slippery slope to an invasion, there is the counterexample of Bosnia.

    Well, you’re talking to a guy who thinks the whole Bosnia/Kosovo intervention sucked. We ended up providing substantial help to the KLA – a bunch of thugs. IIRC, once the Serbian & pro-Serbian Bosnian forces were on teh run, the KLA side carried out quite a bit of reprisal violence. Yay?

    The bombing campaign hurt the Serbs and yes it resulted in a settlement, ultimately. We also bombed the Chinese embassy and pissed them off, thankfully with no serious lasting results.

    All in all, that grades out as one of our better interventions. I’m still not impressed with it, though.

  18. walt moffett says:

    And folks wonder why the Iranians want nuclear weapons.

  19. Rob in CT says:

    Also, too: chemical weapons. These are clearly worse than “conventional” weapons how, exactly?

    This goes back to the whole “weapons of mass destruction” BS. The Bushies lumped together three types of weapons – chemical, biological and nuclear – in one catchphrase. One of those is *not* like the others. Nukes really are That Scary. The other two are not, though I’ll grant that bioweapons have the potential. But chemical weapons? They’re vile things, but then so is a bomb if it’s dropped on a residential neighborhood. That conventional bomb will tear the limbs off of children, blind people, cause a fire that burns off people’s skin… and so on and so forth.

    Does it really make sense to go to war (even a very limited, aerial strikes-only war) to deter the use of chemical weapons (by tinpot dictators who are weak enough that we can swat them if we feel like it)?

  20. Mikey says:

    @Rob in CT: Maybe it’s because chemical weapons seem somehow “worse” to people? Not that getting limbs blown off is good, but generally if you’re near the detonation of a conventional bomb you’ll never know what hit you (hint: a pressure wave expanding so rapidly you turn into pulp).

    But getting hit by nerve agent, or mustard gas, or blister agent…those are horrible, gurgling, suffocating deaths. And it takes very little agent to kill a whole lot of people. You might be able to successfully seek cover from a conventional weapon, but gas gets you wherever you’re breathing.

    The military lumps them together, too. NBC–Nuclear, Biological, Chemical.

  21. Rob in CT says:

    That’s what I’m getting at: I think that people have an emotional response to chemical weapons that doesn’t actually make a lot of sense. A horrible, gurgling death is, well horrible. There are multiple pathways to a horrible gurgling death in a warzone, unfortunately. I imagine being shot in the lung might result in that.

    I think another factor in it is that “targetting” with chemical weapons is about as imprecise as any weapon can be. You can at least try to aim bombs and artillery shells. With chemical agents, you’re often at the mercy of the wind.

    My problem is that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to make this sort of stand: you can bomb people – that’s ok, hell we do it all the time! But no gas, or we’ll bomb you.

    And you’re quite right – I credited the Bush folks with it and should have caught that on edit. They didn’t start that. I still think it’s a bad idea to lump those together. They really are different things.

    Anyway, whether you think the answer to the question (shall we do this to deter future chemical weapons useage by tinpot dicators) is yes or no, there really can be no question that this is us donning the Team America, World Police uniform yet again. I admit to skepticism of that entire idea, so of course I’m going to pick away at this.

  22. C. Clavin says:

    Nukes…kinda scary.
    Biologicals? Really f’ing scary. You release biologicals on an airplane…no one knows it has even happened…within 72 hours it’s circle has expanded exponentially. Within a week or two you have a full-scale plague.
    My fear of chemical weapons is it’s potential as a gateway to biologicals.
    Of course both are outlawed by the Geneva Coventions…but Republicans decided to shred those when they institutionalized torture. So why should Assad pay attention to them? And then there is the whole complicity in Iraq using chemicals against Iran.

  23. Rob in CT says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Except that that posits a really, really effective biological agent. It’s not at all clear that the bioweapons that have actually been developed thus far are particularly effective. Scary? Hell yes. And the potential exists for creating something really nasty.

    My fear of chemical weapons is it’s potential as a gateway to biologicals

    How so?

  24. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @grumpy realist: I’m even more cynical about this: the benefit will be to undercut the ground from all the neocons stampeding at the bit for war. We may not actually do anything in the end. Obama will dangle this out there like a fresh juicy tidbit, and the Republican party will tear itself to bits in Congress arguing over whether to do it or not and How Much Authorization The POTUS Needs. The Pat Buchanans vs. the John Boltons. I’m rooting for injuries.

    Are you really that stupid? They only people stampeding for war are Obama and those who say “if he says it’s OK, then fine.” Speaking as a quasi-neocon, I have zero interest in fighting in Syria. Right now, it’s bad guys killing bad guys, and I see no US interest in stopping that.

  25. Mikey says:

    @Rob in CT: I think in this particular context (Syrian civil war) the problem with use of chemical weapons is their indiscriminate-ness (as you point out, “often at the mercy of the wind”) and primary target being civilians. In general, I think they qualify as WMD because they can kill a lot of people in a very short time with minimal ordnance expenditure.

    And I agree with you 100% when you write:

    Anyway, whether you think the answer to the question (shall we do this to deter future chemical weapons useage by tinpot dicators) is yes or no, there really can be no question that this is us donning the Team America, World Police uniform yet again. I admit to skepticism of that entire idea, so of course I’m going to pick away at this.

  26. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Rob in CT: This goes back to the whole “weapons of mass destruction” BS. The Bushies lumped together three types of weapons – chemical, biological and nuclear – in one catchphrase. One of those is *not* like the others.

    Give yourself a little history lesson. The acronyms NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) and CBR (Chemical, Biological, Radiological) have been around for decades. It’s a handy shorthand for non-conventional weapons that tend to be very destructive, in area, persistence, or both.

  27. Gavrilo says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Of course both are outlawed by the Geneva Coventions…but Republicans decided to shred those when they institutionalized torture. So why should Assad pay attention to them?

    Because waterboarding a few terrorists is exactly the same as unleashing chemical weapons on civilians.

  28. Rob in CT says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    I already acknowledged that, Jenos. That was something I should’ve caught on edit, but it timed out before I realized it. Mea culpa.


    A few suspected terrorists (some of whom turned out to be nobodies or outright innocent). Other than that, yeah. I wouldn’t place the two things on an equal footing.

  29. mannning says:

    A pinprick will not deter Assad. It is useless. Doing a Clinton won’t work.
    Destruction of some valuable real estate will not deter Assad. Things can be replaced.
    Destruction of a significant portion of his military power will deter Assad. How to do it? Air power alone cannot achieve the large casualty rates needed, especially without overflight. Missiles can’t either.
    Killing Assad just might do the trick. The question is: How? He will be way underground!
    Invading Syria will not deter Assad, unless we overrun most of the nation. Not a good idea.
    Doing nothing and letting the civil war go to completion is a probable plus for Assad.
    Supplying rebel forces might give them an edge, but Russia is supplying Assad. Iffy!

    I do not envy Obama at this point. Get ready for a USELESS PINPRICK! It’s his only viable act.
    All of the allies get to launch one or two Tomahawks each. We get to waste 50 or more, and to field the backwash from civilian casualties. Not a winner, either.

    Just what are the diplomats doing right now?

  30. dazedandconfused says:

    Want to know what our diplomats in the region are doing, the person to look at is Netanyahu. He got pretty worked up yesterday, exhorting us to “do something”, he is.

    What do the Israelis want us to do? Well, overthrowing Assad with the strongest opposition being Salafi hot-heads? I don’t think so. I agree with Luttwak, they want it to just keep on keeping on. No winner. Assad may be winning a little too quickly at the moment so they would have us slow him down a bit.

    I think we will seek to take out is expensive IAD system and leave for now. Make sure he isn’t deluding himself about his helplessness, but not a heck of a lot more than that. We might suggest through back channels he rid himself of his stocks. They are about as much liability as asset, as they are the major thing that is upsetting to Bibi.

  31. mannning says:


    Yes, the S-300 variant Russia has sent or helped to build is something of value to remove, and the numbers of them are not all that big. Perhaps also there are some ballistic missile storages that should be eliminated too. Add some radar and communications sites, and we just might do a bit of real harm.

    Most of this can be replaced in time, however, so unless something happens before the replacements arrive from Russia, it ends up with Syria essentially back to their current levels