Fighting Fire with Fire—What is the Point of a Limited Attack on Syria?

I can’t help but wonder what President Obama hopes to accomplish.

Are we taking military action simply to “send a message”?   If so why not use words rather than weapons?

Obama can be a powerful orator. Why not take to the bully pulpit and explain, to the world, the horrors of what is happening in Syria? .

A few days ago, New York Times columnist Charles M . Blow asked a provocative question: “Is America’s moral leadership in the world carved out by the tip of its sword?”

Wouldn’t it be better to demonstrate our “moral leadership” in some other, wiser way?  Can anyone point to an instance where a limited military action brought an end to violence?

Over at the Guardian Michael Cohen insists that we must attack in order to “enforce global norms”—in this case, the rule that the use of chemical weapons is simply beyond the pale.  Cohen claims the taboo dates back to World War I.

Has he forgotten about our use of Napalm in Vietnam?  Is he simply too young to remember the photo of a 9-year-old girl, wailing “too hot, too hot,” as she runs down the road, “naked after blobs of sticky napalm melted through her clothes and layers of skin like jellied lava.”

Writing for the Atlantic, James Fallows quotes budget-policy expert, Mike Lofgren: “The US has in the recent past violated international norms on aggressive war, torture, rendition of POWs, assassination, use of chemical weapons (phosphorous, napalm, etc.), land mines, ad infinitum.”

Some politicians say that we must “punish” Syria. But do we really think that a military strike will deter the Syrian government? Some suggest that if the resolution to attack fails to pass Congress, this could “embolden Assad”?  Could Assad really be any bolder than he is now?

If the goal is to “teach Syria a lesson” will Syrians learn the lesson that Iraqis learned when we bombed their country: to hate the U.S.?

                                   Likely Fallout                                      

As tensions rose, a senior Israeli defense official confirmed to the BBC that a missile had been fired to test its defense systems,

BBC’s Richard Galpin, who is stationed in Jerusalem, suggests that the test “is a sign that Israel is taking very seriously the possibility that any US air strikes could lead to retaliatory attacks on Israel – either by Syria itself or by its ally, the Shia militia Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

Does everyone understand that the use of force inevitably leads to more force?

   Can We “Take Out” Syria’s Arsenal of Chemical Weapons?                                         

Ideally, we would target Syria’s chemical weapons without hurting civilians. This would be a worthwhile goal. .But Jonathan Marcus, BBC’s  Defense correspondent raises some serious questions as to whether the U.S. could or should “target chemical weapons facilities directly”.

“On the face of things,” he writes, “this is probably highly unlikely.

“Some elements of the Syrian chemical weapons complex may be buried underground but large parts of it can easily be seen on satellite images.

“Much of it is reasonably close to populated areas – and this is the problem. Attacking such sites with regular explosive bombs might well wreak considerable damage but it could also open up chemical weapons stocks to the air, disperse them over a large area, and potentially cause large numbers of civilian casualties.”

For many years, he adds, “the U.S. has been trying to develop “warheads that could be used to destroy chemical weapons stocks without the dangers described above.  So-called ‘Agent Defeat Weapons’ are probably available to US commanders. They operate in various ways but the essential feature is intense heat – it is like a super-incendiary bomb – that destroys the chemical or biological agent in situ.

“The temperatures needed are dramatically high, within the range of 1,200C to over 1,500C.”

Ultimately, he suggests “the scale of the Syrian facilities and their proximity to civilians may convince US planners to avoid targeting CW sites altogether. There may perhaps be elements of these installations that can be hit – for example, power supplies. But a safer option might be to target other aspects of Syria’s capability, especially delivery systems.

This would mean striking artillery and rocket systems; aircraft; maybe even missile production facilities. Headquarters and other buildings associated with units linked to the chemical weapons programme could also be struck. . .”

At that point, this limited strike is beginning to sound very much like the beginning  of a limitless war.

Of course, war is exactly what some Congressional hawks want. “It would be ironic,” observes BBC’s North American editor, “if  Obama’s decision to get congressional backing forced him further down the road to war than he thought was wise last week.”

Why am I quoting so many BBC correspondents?  Because they are less likely to have strong feelings about the President himself.  In the U.S. we are so polarized, and passions run so high, that even the most objective journalist has a hard time separating his view of Obama from his commentary on what the president says and does.

If you don’t think Syria is going to become a partisan political football in the U.S. media, consider this headline:Citing Syria, CNN moves up return of ‘Crossfire’



4 thoughts on “Fighting Fire with Fire—What is the Point of a Limited Attack on Syria?

  1. Maggie:

    We need to wait for the UN report and even then we have to consider if we will may the situation worst. It does not look like the rebels are better at all.

    • Run75441-

      Exactly. The rebels also are terrorists. And “overly-confident that they will be able to destroy the chemical cache.”
      Presumably, if they try they will kill many civilians.
      Meanwhile further violence will only breed more violence in the Middle East.
      See this excellent piece on Syria
      At the end it talks about diplomatic and humanitarian solutions.

      • SOME of the rebels are terrorists. Let’s not fall into the trap of overly broad generalizations.

        The real problem with interfering in Syria is the same one that’s kept us out of it thus far: we can’t tell the “good” guys from the “bad” guys in the rebellion. Some of them are openly jihadists, but even if an al-Queda group did NOT win control, there’s nothing to say that whoever does take over won’t be as bad as the Assad regime is.

        Every choice is a loser here. Ordinary people are getting hurt, and will continue to get hurt, regardless of what we do or don’t do.

        Without a clear objective in getting involved, a genuine national interest to be served, and a clear exit strategy for getting out (none of which I’ve heard), then we have no business doing anything but giving humanitarian aid to the rebels.

  2. Panacea–

    You are entirely right– the rebels are a mixed bag.

    But , as you say, “Every choice is a loser here. Ordinary people are getting hurt, and will continue to get hurt, regardless of what we do or don’t do.”