Are there any grand strategy considerations behind the Obama administration’s desire to bomb Syria? Yes, though they rest on doubtful premises.
The increasing importance of al-Qaeda-linked radical Sunni fundamentalist groups to the civil war in the north of Syria has posed a dilemma for the Obama administration, which began calling for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad in late spring of 2011.
The US now doesn’t want the regime to fall relatively quickly as in Libya, because the al-Qaeda affiliates have become too powerful and could well take over Damascus. Highly undesirable. The US does not want that outcome, and neither do Israel or Saudi Arabia, the two pillars of US policy in the region.
So US policy is to join with Saudi Arabia and Jordan to encourage a second front at Deraa with anti-al-Qaeda fighters a la sons of Iraq and limiting access for heavy weapons to Jabhat al-Nusra at the northern front by intercepting them in Turkey. Turkey and Qatar are upset with this policy and both try to subvert it, undisturbed by the al-Qaeda tendencies of their allies.
So far the Sons of Syria haven’t exactly come together quickly, and this strategy is likely a multi-year effort. It also has the potential for provoking a Syria-Jordan War, since Jordan is clearly the base.
The chemical attack in Ghouta seems likely a military response to these Jordan-trained, Deraa-based guerrillas coming up into Rif Dimashq. The Obama administration’s plans for a missile strike in response to the chemical attack is part of the southern, “Sons of Syria” strategy comes because that strategy cannot succeed if the regime is allowed to use chemical weapons to level the playing field. The US will therefore threaten the Baath regime with a rapid Libya-like overthrow, with US air support given to the rebel cause, if Damascus goes on using chemicals. The US hopes that the Baath will be afraid of a Libya scenario and will therefore agree to fight fair, and then the US, Saudi Arabia and Jordan will continue with the ‘Sons of Syria’ strategy with the further fighting playing out with conventional weapons.
In the meantime, the radical Sunnis of the north will be left in place but starved of the resources needed to make further progress against the regime there. The US strike will not only punish the regime for chemical weapons use but also opportunistically attempt to degrade some regime capabilities, presumably especially those useful in the Deraa-Rif Dimashq front.
There are three big problems with the US intervention strategy:
1. There is enormous space for mission creep
2. The premise that the regime can be forced to fight the southern rebels fairly is not entirely plausible
3. The US-Jordan-Saudi rebel forces are Sunni and could well be radicalized by their fight with the Alawite army; the idea that people keep the ideology you pay them to have is simplistic.
As for mission creep, the Baath regime may believe that the threat of sustained US air intervention is a bluff, and may call that bluff by continuing to fight the ‘Sons of Syria’ with chem units. The US at that point would either have to go in hard or go home, and as Les Gelb admitted, it is impossible in Washington circles to advocate cutting one’s losses in the face of a failed gambit.
One way the incipient Washington strategy could succeed is if Russia and Iran can be enlisted in forcing the regime to stop using chemical weapons. It would not shorten the civil war, but it might avoid a US quagmire. The signs that President Obama will go back to the UN Security Council are positive, and might be a step toward this outcome.