Find a way to punish Assad, but don’t blow up Syrians to message Iran.

Since the beginning of the Syrian insurrection, insurgency and civil war I have opposed Western intervention. Evidence of human rights abuses has piled up, and still I have opposed intervention. The human rights abuses have in many cases been putative war crimes, and still I have opposed intervention.

The war crimes now apparently include a gratuitous use of a nerve agent. Nerve gas is an especially horrifying weapon. It falls within the category of choking and asphyxiating chemicals. It falls within the category of banned chemical weapons. It has been put, for the purposes of retaliation, into the category of weapons of mass destruction.

If you want to send a message call Western Union

There is a Western impulse to do something, however quixotic, to punish the Assad regime for this crime. This impulse is laudable. The impulse must, however, be resisted until an appropriate means of punishment has been settled.

I have opposed intervening in Syria in spite of the fact that I consider Bashar Assad’s regime to be vile and illegitimate. I have opposed intervening because the aims of intervention have generally been vague. I have opposed intervening because the means required to achieve implicit aims (removing Assad from power, for instance) have not been put forward into a realistic force package capable of success. I have opposed intervening because the risks and consequences of failure or partial success (or even complete success) for Syria and the region have not been accepted by potential actors. I have opposed intervening because the enthusiasm required to sustain an operation of realistic scale has not been demonstrated by any potential actor. Using nerve gas on Syrians hasn’t changed any of that sufficiently to warrant using military force to retaliate, on behalf of a shocked world, against Assad.

There is a concept of ‘axiological targeting’, which involves using kinetic attack (a jargon term for ‘blowing stuff up’) against things which a dictator holds dear. The classic case was the British and French destruction in 1860 of the Yuan-ming-yuan, the summer palace complex of the Chinese emperors, to retaliate against Chinese war crimes in the Arrow War.

The logic was that the overwhelming majority of Chinese people would never be allowed to enjoy the palace complex, and destroying it would punish only senior decision-makers.

I would lay good odds Assad has got a primary school’s worth of children on whatever things he holds dearest.

Is there an Assad summer palace? A place that is enjoyed by him and his monstrous elite, which ordinary Syrians never enter? Perhaps. Is there a way to destroy that place without killing Syrians just as dead as if they’d breathed Assad’s nerve gas? Perhaps. Would this axiological targeting hurt Assad sufficiently to punish him (or cause him to punish the commander who ordered the gassing)? Perhaps. Could the risks of partial success or utter failure be managed? Perhaps. If I were a betting woman (and I am not), I would lay good odds that Assad has got a primary school’s worth of children on whatever things he holds dearest.

Remember that we in the West, and our strategic partners in the Middle East, have an interest in a stable Syria. The most likely source of stability in Syria is ‘Ducky’ Assad (or ‘that bastard Assad’ as I have occasionally called him). Stringing him up without a reliable replacement would be aesthetically satisfying, but strategically shooting ourselves (and our strategic partners in the Middle East) in the foot.

I have heard it suggested, by Israelis among others, that a vigourous attack on Syria would signal to Iran that the West would not tolerate use of banned weapons against Iran’s enemies in the region. That is, spanking Assad would deter his friend Khamenei from using a nuclear (or chemical or biological or radiological) warhead against Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Israel. Sending a message to Tehran by blowing up Syrians in the hope of punishing Assad shows a bizarre faith in armed force as a means of achieving policy aims.

The faith is misplaced because an operation against Syria that is not focussed on a clear strategic means of achieving policy, an operation that is not enthusiastically supported by the countries involved, an operation that assumes that things will all go according to plan; this operation would not deter Tehran one bit.

The people who want to send a message to Tehran by blowing up Syrians are, it seems to me, the same people who a few months ago were telling me that Iran is not susceptible to deterrence. The Iranian state is irrational, they’ve been telling me. Mad mullahs would accept the fiery destruction of the Islamic Republic in a second strike if they could only achieve their lunatic aims with a first strike.

Both these views of Iran are myopic. Would a few high explosive warheads blowing up Syrian soldiers or their barracks send a clear signal to Iran? Would they deter Iran which kept fighting Iraq in spite of battlefield slaughter of tens of thousands and high explosive warheads raining down higgledy-piggledy on their major cities? Would Ali Khamenei quake in his boots at the thought of a couple of Tomohawk missiles? Not a chance.

Not a chance.

Sam Goldwyn said, ‘If you want to send a message call Western Union.’ If you want to signal Iran, find another way to do it. This probably wouldn’t work, couldn’t work and certainly didn’t work.

I do not have any particular faith in the United Nations as an organisation, nor do I have any particular faith in its ability to put weapons inspectors (who, I understand, are very good) where they can inspect what needs inspecting. I don’t have any mystical attachment to the UN’s principle of ‘one dictator one vote’, nor to the idea that getting a resolution out of the General Assembly would somehow legitimise action that the Security Council has blocked.

In particular, I think that much of the world respects the Russian veto. The Russians, however autocratic, homophobic or undemocratic they may be, are pursuing a transparent interest-based foreign policy, especially with respect to Syria. They are clear about their support for Assad, right or wrong, as a stable dictator. They are clear about the reasons underlying their support. Most important, the Russian foreign minister has been consistently clear about his reasoning for opposing anyone’s intervention, and the reasoning stands up to examination. Russia’s pawn in this game is unpleasant, but Lavrov the player earns respect.

And what about Obama? Was it wrong for him to query support for attacking Syria by asking his legislature? On the contrary, it was aesthetically and strategically right. I have a nostalgic, romantic attachment to the idea of legislatures declaring war; and I find it aesthetically pleasing to see executives seeking (and not getting) the approval of their legislatures to embark on military adventures. I would be even more pleased to see a formal declaration of war asked for, or refused, by a legislature, because blowing up Syrians is making war on Syrians regardless of the weasel words we might attach to such an operation. Asking Congress made it clear that he wasn’t going to start Obama’s War on his own hook.

Seeking a legislature’s approval for military operations is significant because national enthusiasm is such an important part of war. For a president or prime minister to make war without the support of his people is possible, sometimes necessary, but always different from doing so with enthusiastic support. The United States’ armed forces spent the 1970s and 1980s configuring themselves so that they could not be easily sent to war without congressional support, and this strange mirror opposite to military dictatorship may finally be showing its value.

Should all military operations be subject to legislative approval? No. Executives sometimes need to act quickly or secretly or against popular opinion. They must retain the ability to do all three regardless of popular opinion or their legislators’ thoughts to the contrary. Sometimes, however, a clear demonstration of political will, or in this case lack of political will, is salutary.

If we are certain that the nerve gas attack was ordered by Assad, then he needs punishing. Doing it by blowing up Syrians other than himself or his closest associates probably wouldn’t work. Find another way, even if it takes years.

About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is a core partner in Nusbacher Associates, a strategy think-tank. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom and was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.