The point of attacking Syria, and what it would take to make the point

Charles Krauthammer said yesterday that if a U.S. attack on Syria isn’t about “regime change” than it is a “pointless exercise.”

I disagree. An attack that truly weakens, but does not topple, the Assad regime would decrease the likelihood that Assad (and Iran/Hezbollah) will win the Syrian civil war; increase the possibility that Assad won’t again slaughter innocent people with chemical weapons; and strengthen the notion the international norm against using chemical weapons can’t be violated with impunity.

Indeed, Krauthammer seemed to recognize this. He went on to say that “if it’s going to be an attack, what it should be aimed at. . .[is] weakening the regime, of stopping Assad who is now winning, and giving the rebels a chance to win or weakening Assad.”

All of this is less than regime change, although it might help bring regime change about.

What military action would weaken the regime and deprive Assad of his military momentum? Any action that significantly degrades his military capacity.

The two things that come to mind are (1) taking out, or significantly diminishing, his air assets and (2) taking out, or significantly diminishing, his chemical assets. Both probably would require sustained U.S. action. A few missile strikes wouldn’t be sufficient.

Are there risks to the U.S. of sustained action? Of course. In fact, even a few missile strikes would carry some risk.

One concern is that Syria would retaliate against Israel. Anything is possible, but I seriously doubt that Assad would risk drawing Israel into his civil war.

It also seems very unlikely that Iran would retaliate. Iran’s overriding objective surely is to avoid an attack against its nuclear program. A strike at Israel or at U.S. interests would work against that objective.

A more realistic concern is becoming military engaged with Russian assets. I don’t know enough to assess the likelihood of such engagement, but it’s something President Obama must weigh.

But this concern, and others, should not induce Obama into a token attack. If that’s all Obama believes the U.S. can undertake without excessive risk, then he shouldn’t launch any attack at all.


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