Michael P. Noonan is the director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The problem with sketching out red lines is that they can sometimes back one into a corner. Increasingly this looks to be the case in Syria where the use of chemical weapons by pro-regime forces there has seemingly – “seemingly” because the Obama administration are claiming that there is “varying degrees of confidence” that sarin gas had been used against rebel forces – crossed the line that President Obama laid out as a trigger for a more direct U.S. involvement in the conflict. Now the administration is left to do one of two things: nothing or something.
The “nothing” option is certainly a possibility, but it will inflict both domestic and international political damage on the president. The international reputation of the U.S., in particular, will be hurt and inaction could complicate interactions with other international actors such as North Korea.
The “something” option is more likely, although it gets very complicated on what exactly to do. A few permutations of what “something” might look like would be:
- Status quo-plus. Basically continue to vet and support elements of rebels that we are comfortable with in a scalable fashion – from humanitarian aid to more lethal assistance. This might be the most prudent option in the long-run, but it also would appear to be a rather underwhelming response at a time when much of the world’s attention is on Syria.
- Surgical strike(s). Reliance on aircraft or cruise missile delivering precision-guided munitions to hit crucial Syrian regime targets would certainly send a message – both kinetically through the physical damage caused and informationally through the imagery of the attacks. This option would also be domestically palatable for being a “no boots on the ground” approach. But there would also be complications with this option. Syria maintains a robust air defense network (subscription required) and U.S. doctrine in the past has been to knock out an enemy’s air defenses before conducting an air war of limited (e.g., Libya 2011) or extended (e.g., Kosovo 1999) duration. The Syrian regime will also be keen to highlight actual or invented collateral damage to undermine international support for such strikes.
- Status quo-plus plus surgical strike(s). This would blend options one and two to build a solution for the long term while also being seen to do something in the short term. This would seem to be a distinct possibility depending upon the evidence uncovered on the ground and particularly if chemical weapons are used further.
- Special operations forces plus surgical strikes. This option would put American boots on the ground to either conduct raids against Syrian chemical weapons factories or storage areas or to link-up with and conduct unconventional warfare activities with factions of the Syrian rebels with the assistance of U.S. airpower (think of Afghanistan in 2001 or northern Iraq in 2003). They might also conduct operations against particularly nasty groups of foreign fighters fighting the Assad regime. While this seems to be unlikely even members of President Obama’s own party have begun to suggest that a boots on the ground option is not off the table (e.g., Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill).
- Decisive action. This option would see a wider use of U.S. boots on the ground plus air- and naval-power to help the rebels remove the government of Bashar al-Assad. This option seems very unlikely.
None of the six options discussed above are ideal. In addition, each above mentioned possibility risks drawing the United States deeper into a messy situation where it is still unclear how to untangle the myriad interests and motivations guiding the various actors on the ground. Furthermore, a war-fatigued 2013 United States has little appetite for getting deeper involved in another ground war in the Middle East. Unfortunately there are times when such fatigue must be pushed through. If it is proven that the regime has used chemical weapons on its people and we have stated that that is a red line then we will have to do something. To do nothing would to risk further questioning of U.S. policy that will make our relations with both friends and foes abroad more complicated.
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