Syria and the risks of a purely punitive intervention
During the last few days there has been a lot of talk about how a likely military intervention in Syria by the US and its allies against the Bashar al-Assad’s regime would be carried out. In this context, many analysts have talked about the risks of carrying out a purely punitive operation in retaliation for the chemical attacks that occurred on Wednesday, August 22 in the outskirts of Damascus.
The punitive interventions have an inherent flaw: they lack a long-term vision; they are merely tactical, not strategic. After all, as indicated by its own name, these are interventions with very limited and concrete goals. They do not intend anything beyond the direct punishment and, depending on their magnitude, they can have more or less deterrent effects. What they seek is to coerce an actor to ensure non-repetition of bad behavior, in this case the use of chemical weapons by al-Assad’s regime.
Many analysts look back at the US bombings against Libya in 1986 and Iraq in 1998 as examples of punitive interventions commended as very successful in the short term, but with no significant deterrent effect over time. As noted by Ken Dilanian in the Los Angeles Times,
Two years after the U.S. bombed Tripoli, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 passengers and crew. Investigators later concluded that the U.S. attack was a primary motive for Kadafi to support the Lockerbie bombing.
But that is not all: one of the most serious consequences (and unfortunately one of the most significant as well) of the aerial attack against Libya was that Qaddafi changed his mind regarding the acquisition of a nuclear bomb. This unintended outcome has been thoroughly analyzed by Maalfrid Braut-Hegghammer in the article Libya’s Nuclear Intentions: Ambition and Ambivalence,
The 1986 bombings demonstrated that Libyan forces were unable to effectively defend and protect the capital (including al-Qadhafi’s residence). Subsequently, national security appears to have become the main motivation for the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. The 1986 attacks appear to have shocked the leadership. In the aftermath of these attacks, al-Qadhafi said “if we had possessed a deterrent—missiles that could reach New York—we would have hit it at the same moment. Consequently, we should build this force so that they and others will no longer think about an attack… the world has a nuclear bomb, we should have a nuclear bomb.” According to a Libyan official, the regime’s desire to create a nuclear deterrent to prevent foreign (and, in particular, American) intervention in Libya surged after the 1986 attacks.
So, the attack did not bring about the expected deterrence, not even real punishment. On the one hand, the Libyan leaders were still alive and the bombing did not put the regime on the brink to collapse; on the other, it intensified Qaddafi’s desire to get an atomic bomb—for many then, a counter-intuitive consequence. 42 people were killed in the attack, and the Libyan dictatorship remained intact until 2011.
On the bombing campaign against Iraq in 1998 (code-named “Operation Desert Fox”) Dilanian quotes the paper Operation DESERT FOX: Effectiveness With Unintended Effects by Mark Conversino, whose main findings are highly illuminating for the Syrian case (here I share an expanded excerpt):
When DESERT FOX ended a mere 70 hours after it began, Saddam remained firmly in power—minus some of his infrastructure—and the Iraqi dictator could claim to his people and to the world that once again, he had withstood an onslaught from the most powerful form of America’s and the West’s armed might—airpower. The status of Iraq’s WMD programs would remain a mystery and these programs were now beyond the scrutiny of the UN. (…) Many airpower theorists had long cautioned against using airpower in penny-packets or in hyper-constrained political environments.
In Syria, the political choices are extremely limited for different reasons (i.e. the meager results of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US policy of “retreat” from the Middle East and its pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, the obstacles in finding a credible interlocutor among the opposition groups, the rising radical extremism and sectarianism over Syria and other Arab countries in the region, the role played by regional actors such as Iran or Hezbollah, the enormous risk of intervening militarily without the United Nations Security Council’s endorsement…), and none of the options available guarantees an improvement of the situation of the Syrian population.
Actually, Obama has been very cautious even after the latest chemical attacks, and it appears that any kind of intervention is going to be at a small scale and without deployment of ground forces. That is, it will not cause, at least in the short term, the collapse of the Syrian regime—in fact, the extreme prudence displayed until now by the Obama administration regarding the possibility of sending lethal aid to “some” rebels makes that outcome even more remote.
However, if the main goal of the intervention is to prevent more chemical attacks, then why do they not just attack the chemical weapons’ arsenal, as some people in Israel are calling for? Because, as noted by Dina Esfandiary, from the International Institute for Strategic Studies:
Finally, Brandon D. Newton adds another risk is his monograph Punishment, Revenge, and Retribution: A Historical Analysis of Punitive Operations:
The objective of punitive strike is to punish. If there is not sufficient proof that some injury or damage has occurred, it will be increasingly difficult to justify. The passage of time will compound this.
The most likely behavior of the Syrian regime under attack is difficult to predict and it also will be necessary to look at the reactions from other countries within the region which exercise a great amount of influence over the warring parties in order to draw any conclusion.
Any substantive diplomatic or military move will ultimately depend on the size of the intervention and its direct effects on the conflict (its effects on the balance of forces.) However, as I said above, purely punitive interventions do not usually carry on a bigger strategy beyond the military action. With such a limited sight, it will be very hard to force the actors to sit and negotiate a ceasefire.