As reports grow about the likelihood of U.S. military action against Syria, politicians, defense experts, pundits and retired generals have been quick to put forward their ideas for the size and shape of such an operation. Most proposals focused on carefully managed strikes intended to, depending on the perspective of the one making the proposal, “punish” the Assad regime, demonstrate U.S. resolve, reclaim the Obama Administration’s diminished credibility in the region or just prevent further use of chemical weapons. Frankly, based on experience in the region, notably repeated use of limited strikes against both well-established regimes and terrorist groups, none of these proposals are very compelling.
The case for going big against Syria is much stronger on a number of grounds. First, Assad must have known that he risked some form of military reaction for this second and larger use of chemical weapons. He chose to take the step anyway, suggesting that he had an insufficient fear of his likely fate or that he felt extremely desperate. In either case, a punitive response by the U.S. and a coalition of the willing would have to be relatively large and comprehensive in order to change this calculus. This means striking targets that the regime values highly: strategic command and control, major airfields, military headquarters and even key ground force installations such as the depots for Syrian ballistic missiles.
Second, even if it were possible to conduct such strikes without degrading the Syrian air defense system – and it really isn’t – leaving these capabilities intact would not only give the Assad regime a false sense of its own ability to survive but would also create an unnecessary risk to friendly forces and countries in the future, particularly if further strikes were deemed necessary. It is hard to imagine that if Assad is able to preserve some portion of his long-range strike capabilities along with chemical weapons that he would not use them preemptively if he believed a second wave of coalition air strikes was imminent. So air defense targets must be added to the initial target list.
Third, in light of the size of the strikes required to accomplish the missions outlined above and their likely impact on the regime’s war waging abilities, it makes sense to seek to shorten the duration of the civil war by also including on the target list key ground force units or, at a minimum, their logistics support network. To leave the regime weakened but still intact and able to continue the fight for an indeterminate amount of time and possibly employ again weapons of mass destruction would be the height of folly.
Accomplishing these missions will require more assets than the four cruise missile equipped destroyers currently in the eastern Mediterranean. There are the carrier air wings from the USS Nimitz and USS Harry S. Truman in the Arabian Sea that could strike from the east with sufficient tanker support. Some combination of B-1s, B-52s and B-2s equipped with a mix of long-range standoff weapons, GPS-guided JDAMs and possibly a few large bunker busters would be needed. It would also be smart for the U.S. to deploy additional air assets, including F-15E Strike Eagles and even the F-22, to the region to provide additional offensive and defensive capabilities. What you really would like to have are a couple of wings of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
Finally, there is the question of proportionality. How many cruise missile launches are sufficient as an appropriate and proportional response to what Secretary Kerry called a “moral obscenity”? The answer is all of them. A regime that sees nothing wrong with planting bombs in downtown Beirut to kill local politicians opposed to their hegemony over Lebanon, launching massive air strikes and artillery barrages on civilian neighborhoods and secretly building facilities to make nuclear weapons has now escalated its depravity by the use of weapons of mass destruction.
The Assad regime is no longer fit to be in the company of other nations. There is no “punishment” that fits the crime short of its demise. Nothing else will send the appropriate message that even in extremis, weapons of mass destruction cannot be employed. We should not take the lead in overthrowing this regime; but we should see to it that its ability to continue to murder its own civilians by the tens of thousands is destroyed and with that the regime’s survival.
There are many who have argued for doing little or nothing on the grounds that we cannot determine the course and outcome of the Syrian civil war and other bad actors might come to power if Assad is overthrown. This is likely but also irrelevant. The bad actor currently using chemical weapons is Assad. Depriving him or his successors of such a capability is a good thing in itself. Since we cannot control the future and have shown poor judgment in shaping the present, let us be content with eliminating this bad actor from the world stage.