US authorities remain as indecisive as they did for the previous two and a half years- always one step behind Russia and Iran in position and commitment. To be fair, these two had a large head start- they were already inside and in-league with the al Assad Dynasty. But the inaction of defeating the regime at a time of what could have been their downfall through a greater assertion of power was lost to further arms supplies by Russia and increased military aid from Iranian fighters and supplies.
Sunni Muslim states have done much more through contributions of the rebels but many are extremists. International jihadists from all over are also pouring in the conflict; even al Qaeda affiliates from Iraq.
Whatever the US does decide to do now after chemical weapons were allegedly used by the regime will not be enough and will be too late to make substancial positive gains for the US national interest as a whole. This is because the threats of harm from Iran and allies are not baseless. Nor will Russia take too kindly to it. The Russians, the Syrian government and the Iranians will all find a way to harm the US national interest.
Syria remains a quandary because of the large humanitarian crisis, the Islamic extremist involved in the “opposition” and the authoritarian government- neither that the US supports or wants in power in the aftermath of war. The lack of a strong third option has made the US and Western position much weaker and more difficult to overcome. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran have a clear and coherent group to support and have already taken steps well beyond the US to secure their survival as opposed to their defeat.
No matter what Washington decides, Russia and Iran want Syria’s government to remain in power more than the West. Until this dynamic changes, if we consider this a game of states, the US and allies will be one step behind Russia and company.
Even if the President decides to launch a strike, it will be a political one to further his personal credibility, but not a tactical one. A gradualist involvement trap might lead us further into an unwanted war where Russia and Iran are right there fighting us indirectly. For those countries, it is a matter of a strict territorial access to furthering economic, security, and other national objectives. With Iran, add religious objectives but only as a last resort. First, for both is “hold” and then later will be a “build” strategy.
As the humanitarian crisis continues, future atrocities and chemical weapons attacks cannot and should not be ruled out. The US needs a better response plan. One solution is for the US to use proxies and ramp up covert action through military assaults and avoid direct attacks from conventional platforms. But even this has the potential to bring even greater regional instability through nations like Israel that might be more than willing to at first glance to attack key positions of chemical weapons, regardless of any loss of civilian life- where the US would be reluctant to do so. So the US must fight Assad while protecting him at the same time. Turkey and Jordan are not likely to make a move without their personal threat tolerances breached.
Even strikes that are approved by Congress and the President will be more akin to the President Bill Clinton’s firing of cruise missiles into Iraq and Afghanistan- which only led to two full scale military operations with boots on the ground a decade later. This is a show of policy but not strategic success.
What will be the result should be the key question asked. What if Assad releases more chemical weapons and then blames them on the US and or NATO missile strikes? How will this action put the US in a better position than it is in right now?
*First Published in In Homeland Security