Is there a better option than “limited strikes” in Syria?

Minnesota’s Congressional delegation stance on a “limited strike.” Republican names in red; Democrats in blue. MPR Graphic/Robert Boos
Updated graphic and Minnesota delegation stance on a “limited strike” on Capitol View as positions become clear.

As members of Congress decide whether to support President Obama’s request for authorization to attack the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons on civilians and rebels, other potential responses have received less attention.

Limited U.S. strikes

The option we’ve heard the most about. MPR News reporter Brett Neely writes:

Sen. Al Franken (D) –  “This is not boots on the ground, this is sending cruise missiles in, and this is a contained and limited engagement,” said Franken in a Sept. 3 interview with MPR News. UPDATE: Franken’s office said on Sept. 5 that Franken continues to review the intelligence and the language of the resolution adopted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday in order to make sure any potential military action is limited in scope.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D) – “This atrocity violates the most basic international standards of acceptable behavior, even in war, and it is too egregious to ignore. President Obama is correct – a forceful, coordinated international response to the Assad regime’s crimes is needed. Yet, an open-ended, poorly defined authorization for the use of military force is not acceptable to me, but neither is the prospect of doing nothing in the face of this evil act against innocent civilians,” said McCollum in a Sept. 5 statement, noting that she backs a narrower resolution authorizing the use of force than proposed by Obama.

More humanitarian aid

“Two million Syrians have now fled their homeland and more than 4 million are displaced internally, according to the United Nations. Combined, that’s more than a quarter of the country’s 23 million people,” writes NPR’s Greg Myre. “This is placing tremendous strain on neighboring states like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.”

“The United Nations says it needs another three-and-a-half billion dollars to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis up to the end of this year,” reports the BBC.

In less than a year, the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan “has grown into an instant city, with 120,000 residents who have fled the war in Syria, sheltered in trailers and tents,” writes NPR’s Deborah Amos and Peter Breslow.

Arm the rebels

NPR’s Myre outlines the latest thinking on this option:

President Obama said in June that the U.S., which has been providing nonlethal aid to the rebels, would begin supplying arms to moderate rebel groups. However, the details have never been released and the arms have yet to start flowing.

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican and a leading proponent of more robust action, said it was “shameful” that the weapons have not reached the rebels.

“We should have done it two years ago,” McCain said Monday after he discussed Syria policy with Obama at the White House.

If and when the weapons do reach the rebels, they are expected to consist of rifles and bullets and other small-bore arms, and not heavier stuff like anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.

Some U.S. officials are wary of providing large quantities of heavy weapons to the rebels, arguing that the opposition is a mixed bag, ranging from secular fighters who favor a democratic Syria to Islamist extremists aligned with al-Qaida.

NPR’s Tom Bowman reported that the CIA is already training small numbers of rebels in Jordan, and now there’s talk of calling on the U.S. Army to expand those efforts. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told Congress that building up the rebels could be a more promising option than U.S. military strikes.

A sustained U.S. attack
More from NPR’s Myre:

Support for this option appears quite limited, but there are some, like McCain, who are calling for robust military action with the goal of driving Assad from power.

“We have to pay attention to this region and we have to bring Bashar Assad down,” McCain said.

U.S. firepower has been decisive in removing, or helping remove, several groups and leaders in the past decade, including the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya in 2011. Yet all of those countries remain unstable to this day.

The U.S. could neutralize Syria’s air power advantage and put the Syrian military on the defensive, giving the rebels the opportunity to advance.

But given the extended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has been adamant that the U.S. will not engage in a lengthy fight in Syria and has emphasized that U.S. ground troops will not set foot there.

Yet long before the current debate, U.S. military leaders said it would take tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Syria to properly secure that country’s extensive chemical weapons stockpile.

Multiple opinion polls show a solid majority of Americans oppose any military intervention. And aside from France and Turkey, the international community largely rejects military action. If you choose this course, you would be largely on your own.

Today’s Question: Is there a better option than “limited strikes” in Syria?

  • PaulJ

    Allow Assad to ‘degrade’ himself.

  • Pearly

    Yes, leave them alone.

  • Gary F

    It’s so naive to think that at “limited strike” will not produce a counter reaction. This country is full of people that hate us on both sides: Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Iran, and Russia. “They” meaning any of the above will just take this “limited strike” lying down? How naive can you get?

  • Gary F

    Just think, we’ve given them plenty of time to move all their schools right next to military installations.

  • Jim G

    There is always the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. It is a permanent tribunal whose charge is to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression (although jurisdiction for the crime of aggression] will not be awakened until 2017. Unfortunately three states; Israel, Sudan, and the United States have informed the United Nations Secretary General that they don’t want to be considered state parties to the treaty authorizing the Court and therefore have no legal obligations arising from their former representatives’ signature of the Statute.

    So we could go this route if we changed our go-it-alone, pay-for-it alone military strike policies.

  • John

    We could not do anything, I would go for that.
    Or we could accidentally hit one of the Russian ships and then launch an all out nuclear war preemptively against the rest of the world with our close and trusted friend Israel.

  • Gary F

    And remember, this is the administration that told us that a You Tube video caused the tragedy in Behghazi.

    • Fred Garvin

      This is a president who warned Syria not to cross his red line (one year ago).
      Then this past week he denied that he said it was his red line.
      Obama lies, people die.

      • Gary F

        And a Nobel Peace Prize winner, to boot!

        • Fred Garvin

          Yeah–A rather sad commentary on the idiots on the Nobel committee.

  • david

    Like everyone else I say butt out! Its not our problem.

  • Rich in Duluth

    Yes
    Provide humanitarian aid to the refugees and use diplomacy to try to slow the flow of arms into the region and to mediate the conflict.

    Supporting the refugees will buy us friends in Syria, when this is all over. Bombing will buy us more enemies.

    The International Court can prosecute whoever did the gas bombing.

  • lindblomeagles

    I get the military strategy behind Obama’s thinking: weaken Syria just enough to dissuade them from aiding Palestinians in Israel, to isolate Iran from the rest of the Arab World, and to bring some stability to a region facing turmoil in Israel, Egypt, and now Syria. And let’s not forget, the Russians did not hand over Snowden regardless of what we think of Snowden’s actions, so there is a perception that America is weakening.
    The problems for me are these: will any action really lead to Assad’s ouster or strengthen his resolve? will the region grow weary over heavy US presence there, especially if the millions of civilians on the ground can’t improve their economic prospects as is now the case in Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan? do we really have all the facts about Assad and the rebels, especially since whomever wins this civil war is going to have a place at the UN? And can democracy really exist in a region whose power structure favors monarchanistic rule?
    I don’t think diplomacy will work because the international community has already asked Assad to step down and he’s dug in on staying. Moreover, the Russians don’t appear interested in talking to Assad either. I’m not sure ground troops are any better because the Syrians have already shown they have chemical weapons and we do not want to incur the intrusion of Russian and Chinese machinery and troops into the war either. The strikes seem like the best idea, provided you don’t fire them onto Syrian cities.

    • Fred Garvin

      ” get the military strategy behind Obama’s thinking: weaken Syria just enough to dissuade them from aiding Palestinians in Israel, to isolate Iran from the rest of the Arab World, and to bring some stability to a region facing turmoil in Israel, Egypt, and now Syria.”
      That’s not Obama’s strategy–at least nothing like what he’s disclosed publicly or to the Congress.
      It sounds like you’re trying to fill in some large gaps to justify your suport for Obama.

  • Gary F

    And Arab countries will be paying us to go after Assad. Paid mercenaries. Yikes.

  • Sue de Nim

    The trouble with this question is that by necessity none of us knows what the plan is exactly, or what the target(s) will be. We only know the broad outlines and have only a vague idea of what the president expects to accomplish; the rest is a military secret for now. Is it a good plan? Will it work? Obama has certainly been more judicious in his use of the military and more aware of the need to consider unintended consequences than his immediate predecessor was, but after the Iraq fiasco skepticism is understandable.

  • VeeBee

    Let’s call on Russia to promise to take it to the UN IF there is any more gas used anywhere in the world and not take it upon ourselves to punish a country. It seems unlikely that any country is going to dare do it again with all this uproar happening. Call off the Air-Strike…work for peace in the world…not fear punishment and destruction to “SAVE OUR FACE”.

  • Jodin Morey

    Whether or not the Syrian government “deserves” to be punished, I’m sure military action is NOT the best answer. First of all, the Syrian conflict is an internal affair, no matter how ugly. Secondly, the Middle East has good reason to not trust us given our past with them, and therefore many factions within the population see this as reason alone to oppose, with violence, whatever we do. Thirdly, there may be a chain reaction. Israel, Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia have all weighed in heavily regarding this situation. It has already bled into a regional conflict involving both Hezbollah and Israel. If we get involved, Iran would also most likely get involved (in a more overt way than they already are).

    Our highest priority should be minimizing deaths/suffering. Yes, several hundred people were killed by the gas attack. So, should we initiate an action that could kill hundreds of millions? War is a very poor response to atrocities.

    The United States finds itself in a deserved position in the Middle East. That is, whoever we are perceived to be assisting (for example, the Syrian resistance) will immediately lose credibility around the Arab world, including in Syria. The meddling by the United States in Middle Eastern affairs in the past has limited our ability to be of assistance in that part of the world. I think it would be a better idea to let the United Nations, or better yet the Arab League take the lead, and we can offer them support, but only when they ask for it. Or, how about we use our military reaction to support the refugee camps which have formed around Syria with aid and protection. This way, we can be seen as the good guys, and be hopefully persuading those refugees to not take up arms with Al Qaeda (which is currently happening through Al Qaeda recruitment efforts).

    History has shown us that it doesn’t matter what promises a president makes regarding how limited the military action will be, the lines get crossed. I don’t believe that our experience in Syria will merely be a few drone strikes at purely military sites designed to take out chemical weapons. If I could believe this, and I could believe it wouldn’t escalate the situation into a wider war, I might support it. But I think this scenario is laughably improbable.

    • WBrogren

      I agree with your comments 100%, only wondering why this logical and based on historic facts statements and thinking is NOT what we get from our politicians?