Okay, you’re asking here about the Obama administration’s not-so-subtle signals that it wants to launch some cruise missiles at Syria, which would be punishment for what it says is Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians.
It’s true that basically no one believes that this will turn the tide of the Syrian war. But this is important: it’s not supposed to. The strikes wouldn’t be meant to shape the course of the war or to topple Assad, which Obama thinks would just make things worse anyway. They would be meant to punish Assad for (allegedly) using chemical weapons and to deter him, or any future military leader in any future war, from using them again.
The above quoted comes from Max Fisher's recent Washington Post piece, "9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask," a sort of Syrian Civil War for Dummies guide to help the average schlub keep up with current events. This answers question #7: "Why would President Obama just lob a few cruise missiles at Assad and call it a day?"
The answer lies with question #6: "Why hasn't the U.S. shoved its collective foot up Assad's authoritarian ass until he can taste our Freedom™ and Liberty™-flavored shoe soles?" Because, as Fisher explains, all of our other military options would literally make things worse:
- A full-on ground invasion would be Iraq all over again, only this time it's Barack Obama's presidential ass in the sling.
- An air strike? Forget about it. Too much time and political capital needed to maintain a no-fly zone a la Iraq.
- A targeted assassination of Bashir al-Assad would just open up a power vacuum for some other asshole or group of assholes to fill, putting the U.S. and ordinary Syrians right back where they started.
- Giving the Syrian rebels all the weapons they can tote and letting God/Allah sort them out wouldn't work, either. Too many opportunities to accidentally outfit the next Taliban with decent weaponry for dominating future internecine conflicts. Besides, the Saudis gave Syrian rebels some weapons and look at what happened with that.
- Doing nothing is also an option and it's one some on the left would rather Obama take. But doing nothing puts a bigger dent in his credibility in foreign matters than doing something.
So the only option left on the table is to smack Assad on the wrist with a cruise missile-shaped ruler and hope he's shook enough to stay away from chemical weapons for the foreseeable future.
Personally, I'm not so sure that this will be enough. We're talking about a guy whose goons have had no compunction against raping and killing civilians, children included. As far as everyone's concerned, Bashir al-Assad is a Bad Dude, as are is his majority-Alawite armed forces. To send any sort of message to Assad, it'd have to be a rather painful one - and there's always the fear of innocents accidentally sharing that pain.
According to Omar Dahi, the answer involves action that eschews actual military intervention of any form with something that actually helps the Syrian people:
What should be the response to these events? The answer for those who care about the fate of Syrians is the same as it has been to the ongoing violence previously, which is to push for a political settlement and an immediate cessation of violence coupled with humanitarian aid for Syrians.
A US- or NATO-led attack, which appears to be imminent, is likely to be disastrous for Syrians (as well as Lebanese and Palestinians). If the attack is intense enough to completely destroy the Syrian regime it will destroy whatever is left of Syria. If it is not, it will leave the regime in place to retaliate where it is strong, against its internal enemies, except now having its nationalist credentials bolstered as having fought off US aggression. Either way the strike will be devastating to millions inside Syria, not to mention the millions of refugees and internally displaced populations who are living hand to mouth and who depend on daily humanitarian aid that will surely be disrupted or stopped. There is no such thing as a surgical strike, and no possibility in a country as densely populated as Syria for an attack that does not incur civilian casualties. This is excluding the fact that US foreign policy in the Middle East, past and present, including its own complicity in chemical weapons attacks, makes it impossible not to be cynical about the motives behind this attack. Moreover, in the past two years people within the region became convinced that US policy towards Syria is dictated—as before—by what benefits Israel, which had not desired a total regime collapse but was benefitting from a perpetual conflict in its northern border so long as it remained contained.
It's not just Israel that has its eyes on Syria. Russia would very much like to keep its naval port on the Mediterranean while Iran would someday love to have the same. The Saudis seem to be working to cajole Russia into backing away from Assad, but the way it's going about it is likely to make things even worse.
In the short term, there seems to be nothing that can be done. As Fisher explains, the long-term ramifications are just as bleak: the various Syrian factions are likely to continue killing one another for years until fatigue sets in or someone achieves something resembling a victory. Afterwards, a precarious peace among numerous ethnic groups - at least until something somewhere sparks up yet another conflict.