Threading needles in Syria

Erica, Erik, and several scholars over at the Duck have done a great job of rounding up and discussing political science research on intervention that might be relevant to the likely US attack on military installations in Syria.  I think I agree with Erik, however, that the cases typically studied (frequently peacekeeping operations) probably don’t have a lot to tell us about this one.

As explained by administration officials—in  remarkable detail— they are thinking about this as a punitive action to impose costs on Assad for violating an international norm that they believe is important to uphold.  Degrading Assad’s military capability is also mentioned, but seems to be secondary or rather the means by which costs are to be imposed, rather than the core objective.  So the most relevant comparison cases would be punitive strikes designed to “reestablish deterrence,” such as, in part, recent Israeli interventions in Gaza and southern Lebanon; the US strikes against a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 1998 in reply to embassy bombings; the US air attacks on various targets in Iraq in 1998; perhaps Reagan’s bombardment of Syrian positions in Lebanon in 1983 after withdrawing the Marines from Beirut; and, going farther back, the US’s graduated bombing campaigns of North Vietnam, which were carefully designed to try to send the sort of signals that the Obama administration now wants to send to Assad, but which didn’t work so well.

See Wallace Thies’ book for an analysis of this last case.  He found, if I recall, that the North Vietnamese didn’t really get the careful, contingent messages the Johnson administration was trying to send.  I’d add that they did correctly get that bombing was not very costly for the US and thus didn’t convey a willingness to actually invade the North.  That would be all the more so in the case of Obama and Syria, since his officials have been very clear that they do not intend an intervention in the sense of using force to give a decisive advantage to one side (as in Kosovo or Bosnia).  I can’t think of a case where the idea was to use force to thread such tiny needles.

Needle 1:  The attack can’t be so large that it kills so many civilians that the reaction is, You killed almost as many as the gas attack did!  (And you can bet that the Assad regime will do what it can to make it so attacks do kill, or appear to kill, a lot of civilians.)  Further, at least according to Max Fisher’s reporting, the administration doesn’t even want to cause the Assad regime to collapse completely, because they imagine that the best endpoint is not rebel victory but some kind of negotiated power-sharing deal.  (At least that’s how I interpret Fisher’s explanation of what they are thinking).

But, as many have pointed out, the attack can’t be too small, or it looks pathetic and pointless, and you have Assad still there thumbing his nose at you.   This needle eye is so small that it may not exist.

Needle 2:  The strike has to serve its purpose for enforcing an international norm against the use of chemical weapons, but at the same time not really take sides in the civil war, or commit us more seriously to military action on behalf of the rebels.

This one is particularly interesting and a feature of the case that is different from most past military interventions.  It’s somewhat reminiscent of the first part of the Bosnian war, where the UN and European response was very much along the lines of “we want to help these people, we want to provide humanitarian relief and encourage a negotiated settlement, but we don’t want to take sides.  We must be neutral.”  It didn’t work.  The humanitarian imperative made the intervenors subject to all kinds of manipulation by the combatants, and in the end taking sides was necessary to get a resolution.

I’m also interested by Fisher’s suggestion that the administration sees the endgame as a negotiated peace deal between the regime and the rebels.  Why, we should ask, haven’t they cut a power-sharing deal already?  Because it is nearly impossible to do this with people you are correctly convinced would kill you if they got any opportunity to do so (see also, Egypt).  How is that going to change, or how is a strike on Assad’s military going to make such fears less strong?  A strike will simply increase the rebel side’s expectations and hopes for more intervention on their side, while doing nothing to make the Assad regime imagine that it would be safe to make a deal.

A negotiated settlement in Syria is not likely any time soon, unless maybe Assad’s forces basically win, and he cuts a deal with the less jihad-y rebels that is enforced by the implicit threat that they can return to fighting with the more extreme rebels if Assad’s side reneges (because the extremists are going to try to keep a civil war going for sure—see Iraq).  On the other hand, an externally enforced power-sharing deal would require a major and very costly third-party intervention that would be rejected by most locals and attacked by the extremists, and additionally would probably require a regional political settlement that would be a diplomatic miracle at this point.  So I’m struggling to see how the administration sees getting to a power-sharing deal, or how the punitive strike would help here.

All that said, there is still a reasonable case for trying to enforce a norm against chemical weapons use, and it’s possible that the administration will be skillful and/or lucky enough to thread both needles.  I wish them luck, which is definitely going to be needed, and also hope they will reconsider whether hoping for a negotiated settlement is a realistic policy.













6 Responses to Threading needles in Syria

  1. Andrew Kydd August 29, 2013 at 4:13 pm #

    Two thoughts. First, if the goal is simply to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons to kill civilians, this is a very modest demand that does not conflict with Assad’s objectives, and so limited punishment has more of a chance of achieving it. He can simply kill them with artillery as he has been doing thus far.

    Second, if the goal becomes the larger R2P goal of getting Assad to not target civilians at all, this is more ambitious because it may lower, in his mind at least, his chance of winning the civil war. If we don’t want the rebels to win either, the approach should then be to target his military to an extent that reduces his chance of winning to what it would have been if he had not targeted civilians. Additionally, if the strikes impose personal costs on the leadership, then targeting civilians becomes suboptimal because it does not increase the chance of winning and comes with personal costs. In game theory land, (see my paper with Scott Straus linked to in Erica’s post) this works (with certain caveats). In real life there are additional complications. It will initially be unclear how many tanks Assad needs to lose before he becomes willing to stop killing civilians. However, if the number is less than all he has, we may be able to find this out over time. In addition, we have to credibly assure him that if he stops killing civilians we will stop killing tanks. Maintaining political support for such a policy may also be challenging. However, the needle seems to be thread-able, at least in theory.

  2. Dani K. Nedal August 29, 2013 at 5:32 pm #

    If the goal is to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons to kill civilians it might be more than a modest goal, it might actually be wholly unnecessary if it turns out that the attack was either not committed by the Syrian armed forces (which is still a possibility) or not authorized by Assad or other higher-ups (more likely, IMHO). If, for instance, the attack was perpetrated without authorization due to slacks in oversight – which is not unheard of during civil wars! – then US shooting cruise missiles into Syria will probably do nothing to prevent it from happening again. If that is the case, then the absence of future gas attacks would still be more likely explained by Assad and his generals keeping their troops in a tighter leash.

    On the other hand, if the chemical attack was perpetrated by insurgents trying to rope the US into the war (which some in the intelligence community still don’t discard), then a very limited US response might have precisely the opposite effect, prompting more chemical attacks to force the US to escalate even further.

  3. Scott Monje August 29, 2013 at 5:44 pm #

    Another case to add to your list would be Reagan’s bombing of Libya in 1986.

    Your point about the subtle message not getting through is also made by Jervis; it’s the interface between one side’s signaling process and the other side’s perception process, which may not mesh.

    For instance, in 1940 the British were waiting for the Germans to commit an atrocity so they could teach them a lesson. After the Germans bombed Rotterdam, the British thought they had it and bombed the Ruhr district in retaliation. But–in part because the British were responding to exaggerated accounts of what had happened in Rotterdam, and probably because Rotterdam is not in Britain–the Germans didn’t put the two together. Moreover, the Ruhr bombing proved to be so ineffective that the Germans paid little attention to it. So the intended signal was never received and the lesson never learned, although the British thought they had made their point.

  4. Rex Brynen August 29, 2013 at 6:47 pm #

    US action needs to be seen in the context of one very important line in today’s UK JIC statement–namely the certainty of the (UK) intel community that the regime has used CW on at least 14 prior occasions. In other words, there is an apparent pattern of gradual Syrian escalation in the last 18 months or so, whereby the regime has purposefully tested, developed tactical delivery systems for, deployed, and increasingly used CW in the war. Ghouta was probably a miscalculated usage (unlike many prior attacks it occurred at night, which significantly affects the persistence and hence lethality of Sarin), but it was part of a clear regime effort to use CW to gain an edge in the war.

    In this case, the US has so explicitly expressed its counter-CW purpose for a strike that the risks of misperceived signals is sharply reduced.

  5. dearieme August 30, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

    It’s as if you are obsessive adolescents fiddling about with the design brief for a perpetual motion machine. However elegantly you manipulate the technical details, the bloody machine can’t work.

  6. Ray Lopez August 31, 2013 at 1:30 am #

    Syria is not so much needle threading as an example of gunboat diplomacy. Google is your friend, “Don Pacifico Affair” or

    Substitute “Crimes v. humanity” for Don Pacifico. The rationale for the West? Homogenization of countries means more trade opportunities, less chance for failed or uncertain regimes getting hold of or building nuclear weapons, like Pakistan did, like Israel did, like Taiwan and South Africa almost did.