By Adam Lockyer
There is a growing expectation that the US will soon take military action against the Assad regime, with a palpable feeling in Washington that they need to "do something". Yet the only military options that are politically available to the Obama administration are feeble in scale, will be ineffective in purpose and may be strategically counterproductive.
This is a political, not a military, reality. Little has changed since early last year when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, informed the Senate Armed Services committee that the US military could "do anything" in Syria. If the President wants missile strikes, they can happen within hours. A no-fly zone would be massively expensive and dangerous but well within the US Air Force's abilities. An Iraq-style invasion might take a few months to prepare, but it's still doable.
Until now, most in Washington have been hesitant to become involved in Syria. But last week's chemical attack turned this feeling on its head. On Monday Secretary of State John Kerry, not known for emotive speeches, made a very personal case for action.
"As a father, I can't get the image out of my head of a man who held up his dead child, wailing while chaos swirled around him, the images of entire families dead in their beds without a drop of blood or even a visible wound, bodies contorting in spasms, human suffering that we can never ignore or forget," he said.
The ban on the use of chemical weapons is one of the oldest and most universally accepted international norms. Following there horrific use in World War I, they have been viewed as no longer acceptable. Even Nazi Germany in its death throes did not resort to using chemical weapons.
Barack Obama said in using chemical weapons Syria would be crossing a "red line". Now, he has to defend not only the norm but also America's credibility and reputation. The problem with issuing threats is that you have to follow through.
The combination of the need to "do something" with the ability to "do anything" means that we are more likely than not to soon see cruise missiles exploding in Syria.
This would be a mistake.
The strikes would be punishment for using chemical weapons. They would not be designed to change the military balance of the battlefield. They would not be aimed at assassinating Assad and his family. The targets would most likely be airfields, command and intelligence sites and the few scattered chemical weapons depots that are safely outside of populated areas.
Over 2 1/2 years of war, the Assad regime has proven itself to be able to absorb massive amounts of punishment. It is difficult to see how limited cruise missile and stealth bomber strikes would alter their calculations.
A strike would also appear to confirm what Assad has claimed from the beginning: that the rebels are an "international force" of foreign jihadists supported by the US and Israel.
A limited attack may even encourage the Assad regime to use chemical weapons again or to fire missiles into Israel. There are significant domestic and international benefits to standing up to a US that stops short of meting out sufficient punishment.
But anything more than a limited strike will be difficult to sell to the American people. A recent Reuters poll found that only 9 per cent of respondents supported American intervention in the Syrian Civil War.
So, what should the Obama administration do?
It should not militarily strike at Syria. Using chemical weapons is a war crime. Even though Syria is not party to the Chemical Weapons Convention or the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the ICC prosecutor can open investigations proprio motu — without a referral from either the UN Security Council or the state itself — as the ICC has done in Cote d'Ivoire and Kenya.
In Syria's case, formal proceedings cannot commence without a UN Security Council resolution. In the short term, Russia is likely to continue to block this move. However, the thought of Hague lawyers assembling a case, combined with the prospect of ending up there if and when Moscow no longer finds him political and strategically convenient, may well do more to frighten Assad than the US bombing a few dozen military sites.
This article was originally published in The Australian