Risk of NATO overstretch in Syria

By Anders Corr, Ph.D.

The Obama administration is currently under pressure by certain US lawmakers, as well as Britain, France, and Israel, to take limited military action in Syria. These actions could include securing a humanitarian corridor into the country, providing military equipment to the non-Al Qaeda affiliated Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), and destroying the Syrian Air Force (WSJ).

Such measures might remove a bit of pressure from rebels and provide a public opinion boost to current participating governments in the US, France, and Britain, in that voting publics in those countries would feel that their governments were doing something positive to end the Syrian crisis. However, due to the limited nature of the proposed military measures, they would not alter the balance of forces on any side of the complex conflict and could lead to notable negative consequences.

Western military action would be a public-relations win by Al Qaeda rebels and the Syrian government, who would justifiably claim that the FSA and SOC are supported by westerners. Limited US measures would also stake the reputation of the US on the FSA and SOC winning. A loss or failure to win by the FSA and SOC one, five or ten years down the road, after US material support, would appear as another failure or inconclusive outcome on the part of the US. Corruption or excesses within the FSA or SOC would become a western liability. Recent inconclusive or failed outcomes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Mali, as well as less attributable such outcomes in Egypt (because of little or no military involvement on the part of westerners) are besmirching western reputations, galvanizing opponents of the west, and making the west look weak. There is little more dangerous than looking weak to the enemy, in that it invites attack and retaliation.

Why is the US not using the greater firepower available to it to decisively win the recent wars into which it enters? Al Qaeda controls swaths of territory, yet the US does not destroy that territory as we would have during World War II. New rules by which the US military comports itself have gone into effect since World War II. We now must obtain permission from international organizations such as NATO or the United Nations to take action on foreign soil. Civilian casualties are major embarrassments and could even lead to war crime prosecutions of US generals. The information age gives leadership more command and control, and thus responsibility for, their soldiers’ actions. Voting publics are increasingly intimate with the effects of war, and will quickly vote against heads of state who violate the norms in which they believe, namely multilateralism, democracy, human rights, and Westphalian sovereignty.

A dilemma results, in that western nations have immense military power that they cannot utilize to expand their influence. Voters correctly perceive the relatively large military power of their countries, and so pressure politicians to take action. When such politicians attempt brush-fire wars such as in Afghanistan and Iraq, they expend great amounts of resources and lives to win within the humanitarian, democratic, sovereignty, and multilateral strictures placed on them by their respective western voting publics. But when facing opponents not bound by such rules, western  powers are likely to fail or at least not conclusively win. Like powerful organized crime organizations, insurgents simply threaten the lives of mid-level political officials to get what they want. It is a low-tech strategy that stymies the biggest military powers and leads to long unwinnable wars.

The current US administration, therefore, is right to think carefully before involving the US in another middle east war likely to cost much in lives and treasure, and with an uncertain outcome..