It will be five to ten days before U.S. cruise missiles strike Syria. After that happens, several story lines are worth following.
First, the Syrian government may not be winning. Syrian soldiers and militia are not capable of seizing urban redoubts. If they had the capability to do so, they would not have used chemical weapons. This suggests neither side can sustain an offensive against the other side’s cities, leading to an eventual division of the country.
Second, Syria would not have used chemicals had they respected the resolve of our president when he declared a “red line.” Obama’s reputation for leadership — now severely degraded — will be somewhat restored if the strikes are strategically meaningful.
Third, a modest strategy is to prevent any Syrian aircraft from flying and to strike airfields routinely to prevent air resupply from Iran or Russia (plus of course providing weapons and training to selected rebel groups).
Fourth, we should not be more concerned about the terrorists in Syria than we are about terrorists in Lebanon, Pakistan, Somalia, or Yemen. The rewards of deposing the Assad government — cleaving Iran from a client state in the Middle East and diminishing Hezbollah — outweigh the risks of gradual takeover in Syria by Taliban types with no funding and no passports.
Fifth, the incentive among all terrorists for mass murder increases if the Syrian use of chemicals goes without severe punishment. Mr. Obama should state the names of those Syrians implicated, a list from Assad on down, and declare they are war criminals and will be hunted down. This act is sure to affect the calculations of all senior officers not (yet) on that list.
Sixth, Iran remains the first-order threat. Its development of a nuclear weapon will cement the growing view of America as feckless. That perception will cause a regional geopolitical paroxysm and a proliferation of nuclear-armed, unstable states. We must view what we do or do not do in Syria with a careful eye on how that affects Iran’s resolve.
Seventh, the credibility of the General Dempsey has diminished. He has asserted that hundreds of ships were needed to strike Syria. Whether he was acting on his own or as the White House messenger in relaying an extreme statement to justify inaction, he has lost face in the region and among the other members of the Joint Chiefs.
Eighth, as true warriors and in defense of their budget, the Air Force will want to be included in the strikes – strategically, the successful employment of American aircraft would rightly concern Iran.
Ninth, the U.S. Navy’s image will be enhanced by strikes, especially if only four destroyers deliver a hard blow. Iran will be left to ponder its vulnerability.