John Kerry is once again muttering darkly about Bashar al-Assad’s latest alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people. Judging by the foreign policy commentary of the past several days, America has the following options with regards to the Syrian civil war:
1. The Idealist Solution – Invade Syria, arm the rebels, initiate an extensive bombing campaign, put boots on the ground, overthrow the Assad regime, and keep the peace throughout the inevitable post-Assad skirmishes (and possible civil war) that follow.
2. The “Realist” Solution – Nurture a prolonged war between the Assad regime and the rebels in order to bleed both sides, neither of which is our friend. (Many would disagree that this is a realist solution, but it’s often identified as such.)
3. Arm the Rebels – Supply the Free Syrian Army with weapons without engaging in direct combat against the regime.
4. The Air Power Solution – Bomb Syrian regime targets, including airfields and weapons sites, without putting boots on the ground.
5. Don’t Get Involved – Fairly self-explanatory.
Some of these options are oversimplifying and crudely sketched; all of them have complex arguments both in their favor and against. But to distill them down: #2 would be both morally evil and unpredictable given the Assad regime’s use of WMDs and the growing influence of Islamist ideology within the ranks of the rebels. #3 is simply impractical at this point; the al-Nusrah have infiltrated the Free Syrian Army so deeply that they can’t be neatly segregated from the democrats. #1 would mean a massive expenditure of money that the United States doesn’t have right now, and require the military to somehow steer Syria through the current civil war, followed by a second likely civil war, on the thin hope that a stable, democratic light will appear at the end of the tunnel.
That leaves #4 and #5. #4 is what probably will happen, given that, as Eliot Cohen writes, air power is “like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.” The Obama administration is trapped between its desire for inaction and its ill-advised comments about chemical weapons being a red line. Neutralizing Assad’s weapons with a set of limited air strikes is considered laughable by the Pentagon. It will satisfy neither neocons, who want to vanquish Assad, nor realists, who don’t want the United States to go barging into a conflict that isn’t in America’s national interest. But it’s the easiest option, which makes it appealing to our war-wary, image-obsessed president.
If you wonder why #5 seems so appealing to some writers like me, you might consider just how lousy all the other options are.