By Josh Zuckerman
To policy makers and the general public alike, the Syria crisis is a problem without an answer. The biggest reason for this lies in the fact that the United States has yet to articulate its policy goals towards Syria. If one listens to what has been coming out of Washington, two themes of America’s “desires” regarding Syria can be seen. One, America really wants to bomb Syria. Two, America wants to end the violence against civilians.
At this point an American bombing campaign would be counter productive in light of America’s strategic interests. Bombing advocates argue that air strikes could topple Assad’s regime, destroy his chemical arsenal, punish him for using chemical weapons, and help the Syrian people. These are nice thoughts, but none of them are true. America’s top strategic interest in Syria is the elimination of its chemical weapons in order to keep them from falling into the hands of Hezbollah. While the regime has denied it would ever do such a thing, the fact that Hezbollah forces are already fighting along side the regime and that Israel has destroyed two Syrian convoys allegedly delivering advanced-weapons to Hezbollah illustrates the risk . Many think bombing can solve this problem, but it cannot. First of all, many of the Syrian chemical weapons are stored in bunkers that are to deep to be destroyed by US bunker buster. Although the US successfully tested its new class of massive ordinance penetrators, the GBU-57 B , it is unlikely that the GBUs have enough firepower to incarnate the chemical weapons deep under ground. In other words, they can hit the bunkers, but they cannot destroy the chemicals stored in them. A successful bombing campaign would also require the US to actually know where all of Assad’s weapons are. The fact is America does not because Assad has spread the weapons out in hundreds of locations. Like it or not, having Assad’s cooperation in allowing the UN to take control of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal is the best option for keeping those weapons out of Hezbollah’s hands. Assad has done despicable things, but a punitive strike in this situation is the ultimate example of cutting your nose to spite your face.
Additionally, bombing Syria will not cause the regime to collapse. The US has the capability to wipe out his air force, disrupt his communications, attempt to destroy the majority of Assad’s munitions, and more. But what will that do? The Syrian Air Force is Assad’s greatest tactical advantage over the rebels, so damaging the air force will weaken the regime’s control. Beyond that however, bombing will only kill civilians and drag the US into another endless war. The past year of fighting has made it abundantly clear that the war has already been fought to a stalemate. Assad has no way to reassert control over most rebel-held lands, and the rebels have no way of taking more from the regime than they already have. Those who advocate bombing to topple the regime consistently overlook the nature of the conflict. The Alawites support Assad because given the current sectarian undertone of the conflict; they know if the regime falls they will face bloody reprisals. Therefore the army’s rank-in-file will fight to the death meaning they will only be defeated on the battlefield. Furthermore, if the New Yorker’s recently published a piece by Dexter Filkins that profiled Qassem Suleimani leadership of Iran’s extensive support network operating on the ground in Syria is to believe, it must be assumed that much of the resources that can be destroyed by US air power, such as guns, ammunition, and soldiers will just be replaced by Iran.
Not only does bombing Syria have limited strategic value, it will not help the Syrian people at all. Bombing always hurts civilians more than combatants. Missile strikes, even when they hit their targets, cause immense collateral damage to civilian infrastructure. Furthermore, conventional missiles release toxic compounds that are as harmful as the agents found in chemical weapons. The only way to end the Syrian people’s sufferings is to end the war. As stated above, Assad’s forces will only submit to force if they are completely defeated in the field, which is impossible without a significant ‘boots on the ground’ intervention. That leaves diplomacy as the only way to help the Syrian people. If the US bombs now, Russia, Iran, and Assad will harden their positions killing whatever diplomatic hope there is for ending the conflict.
At this point, the United State’s best strategy is unclear. Bombing is clearly not an option. However, if America really wants to help the Syrian civilians, its top priorities should be creating internal safe zones and putting a cease-fire in place. Getting Assad to allow the UN to destroy his chemical arsenal was a major diplomatic achievement, even if it was accidental. However, little has changed on the ground for civilians as Assad has simply started to firebomb his people instead of gassing them. There is simply no way around it: the fighting needs to stop.
In my opinion, the US should needs to pursue a two-pronged strategy. The first prong is diplomacy. The US must get the international community to step up and provide more aid to the Syrian refugee to prevent them from over whelming the camps and radicalizing. The US must also advocate for an unconditional cease-fire until negotiations take place and establishing safe zones. Meanwhile, the US must start a full-scale Special Forces operation on the ground in Syria. The goal of this operation should be to train the secular elements of the free Syrian army and provide them with the advanced weaponry they need to fight Assad. As stated above, Assad’s biggest advantage over the rebels is his air force. Using fighters to attack forces on the ground, however, requires pilots to fly slow and low making them perfect targets for shoulder launched surface to air missiles and MANPADs . Providing the Free Syrian Army with such weapons and the requisite training will dramatically reduce Assad’s tacit advantage, but more importantly, protect civilians from Assad’s indiscriminate aerial assaults. Accomplishing either goal will be difficult, but if America truly cares for the Syrian people, that should be the agenda henceforth. What America chooses to do is unclear, but in the mean time we cannot forget about the suffering that is taking place and thus we must pursue any and all ways to deliver much needed aid to the Syrian people.
Photo Credit: Flickr member ICRC, Photo added May 15, 2013