WASHINGTON — President Obama’s proposed authorization for the use of force appears to be straightforward: “deter, disrupt, prevent, and degrade” the future use of chemical weapons by Syria.
Yet at the same time, Obama — and a growing number of members of Congress, which is slated to vote on the proposal next week — insists that US officials would not design any strike that seeks to topple the regime or involve US ground troops in a civil war.
It is a paradoxical mission for the Pentagon, which is built for winning wars. Any strike against the Syrian regime, military specialists said, must be painful enough to force President Bashir Assad to rethink using poison gas but not so damaging that it could dislodge his grip on power or lead him to let loose on his own people or his neighbors.
“They are trying to thread the needle,” Jeffrey Martini, a Middle East analyst at the government-funded Rand Corporation, said of the administration. “They need to hit Assad hard enough so he will be deterred from the future use of chemical weapons but on the other hand they can’t push him into a corner.”
Obama on Tuesday repeated his military aims, which he said would be “a limited, proportional step that will send a clear message not only to the Assad regime, but also to other countries that may be interested in testing some of these international norms, that there are consequences.”
The aim of the strike, he said, is to “degrade Assad’s capabilities when it comes to chemical weapons.”
Among the likeliest targets, according to top former military officers and Pentagon strategists, will be the means by which the Syrian military could use or order the use of chemical weapons. These would include communications facilities, military units that control such weapons, and storage and transportation facilities that support the wider chemical weapons program.
But a full-scale effort to destroy actual supplies of poison gas is not expected. Such an all-out strike could unintentionally kill more civilians or damage the regime’s ability to maintain control over its vast stockpiles in the midst of a grinding civil war.
“There is some reasonable intelligence that those materials could be targeted,” said Hank Brightman, director of applied research and analysis at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “But it could have the unintended consequences. What they may be more likely to do is strike command-and-control nodes that would dissuade military officials.”
A report released by Rand on Tuesday outlined a central dilemma: “Air power could be used to reduce the Assad regime’s ability or desire to launch large-scale chemical attacks, [yet] eliminating its chemical weapon arsenal would require a large ground operation.”
John Pike, a military specialist at GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank in Alexandria, Va., predicted that American commanders could be considering other targets that are especially important to Assad, his inner circle, and top military leaders.
“Deterrence is about placing at risk what the enemy holds dear,” he said.
One such set of targets could be the Syrian network of air defense missiles purchased from Russia to protect the country from its neighbor and historic enemy Israel.
“He likes his air defenses. He puts great stock in those,” Pike said. “You might take those out.” And, Pike added, Assad “has a really nice palace in Damascus.”
Other aspects of Syria’s large military complex could also be in peril, analysts said.
According to government assessments, Syria has one of the largest, best trained, and loyal militaries in the Middle East, including at least 600,000 troops, thousands of tanks and artillery pieces, missiles that could reach a number of its neighbors, and a Russian-supplied air force.
On Tuesday, the nation’s top military officer told Congress he is confident that American forces have a plan that can achieve the president’s objective and minimize the chance of expanding the conflict or dangerously weakening the Assad regime.
“We can calibrate that,” General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where senators from both parties expressed concerns about the ability to achieve the stated aims.
Dempsey explained that the air or missile strikes would be directed at the Syrian’s military’s ability to use or transfer its large stockpile of chemical weapons, including VX and sarin nerve gas and mustard gas, a blister agent.
But he also acknowledged certain factors could prove to be beyond the military’s control or ability to predict.
“There is always the risk of escalation on the other side,” he said.
And therein lies an exceedingly difficult challenge of launching a limited military strike designed to have real impact — what some experts are now calling a “Goldilocks” challenge. Like the character in the children’s tale, they explain, the Obama administration is seeking to apply force that is not too hard, not too soft, but just right.
It is further complicated by the difficulty predicting Assad’s motives, given that he allegedly used chemical weapons after being warned that would prompt American action.
Richard Trager, a specialist on deterrence theory at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the United States has sent mixed messages to Assad.
“You are trying to go up to the line but you don’t want to cross it. In this case there is the worry that there will be some provocative reaction” by Assad, he said. “He could be pushed to use chemical weapons again.”
Pike said the US military will “be walking a very fine line between disrupting his command and control to the point he might have a hard time doing this again but also disrupting it to the point that the wheels might fall off.”
Any US military operation “has the potential to escalate or expand the conflict and could lead to unwelcome responses from Assad’s allies or to wider or deeper US military involvement,” said Karl Mueller, a senior political scientist at Rand and lead author of the new report.
On Tuesday evening Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed to a resolution that sought to address those concerns and frame Obama’s authority to strike Syria. The revised language, which the full committee has yet to vote on, assures that the authorization “is narrow and focused, limited in time, and assures that the Armed Forces of the United States will not be deployed for combat operations in Syria,” said committee chairman Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat.
Some analysts worry that pressure on the United States to avoid another quagmire will undercut the effectiveness of any strike.
“Obama can keep it as small as it was supposed to be and then you will have a symbolic strike and nothing much happens and life goes on,” said military strategist Edward Luttwak, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Martini, too, has misgivings about the potential for success but sees little alternative.
“I don’t know if we are capable of threading the needle,” he said, “but I think we should try.”