The Nature of the ISIS Threat in Iraq

Kenneth M. Pollack over at Brookings has provided an illuminating account of the nature of the threat facing Iraq from the recent military successes of the Sunni coalition fighting under the “ISIS” banner. The report is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s a good excerpt:

These [ISIS and other Sunni militants] are Militias First and Foremost, Terrorists only a Distant Second. Here as well, Prime Minister Maliki and his apologists like to refer to the Sunni militants as terrorists. Too often, so too do American officials. Without getting into arcane and useless debates about what constitutes a “terrorist,” as a practical matter it is a mistake to think of these groups as being principally a bunch of terrorists.

The problem there is that that implies that what these guys mostly want to do is to blow up building or planes elsewhere around the world, and particularly American buildings and planes. While I have no doubt that there are some among the Sunni militants who want to blow up American buildings and planes right now, and many others who would like to do so later, that is not their principal motivation.

Instead, this is a traditional ethno-sectarian militia waging an intercommunal civil war. (They are also not an insurgency.) They are looking to conquer territory. They will do so using guerrilla tactics or conventional tactics—and they have been principally using conventional tactics since the seizure of Fallujah over six months ago. Their entire advance south over the past week has been a conventional, motorized light-infantry offensive; not a terrorist campaign, not a guerrilla warfare campaign. [emphasis original]

Read the full report here. Thanks to Jason Sorens over at Pileusblog for calling attention to this report!

Here is recent map of the situation from The Economist:

ISIS Offensive Map

A.K.

One Map Says it All

The Wall Street Journal ran this map of the situation in Iraq, with an ISIS offensive having taken Mosul and Tikrit and moving toward Baghdad. Meanwhile, Kurds have seized the city of Kirkuk:

Iraq Map of ISIS OffensivePresident Obama spoke live from the Rose Garden today but had little to add to what the White House has already said. He reiterated that the U.S. would respond but without troops on the ground and only once it is clear that the Iraqi government had a plan to govern more inclusively. Meanwhile, Politico is reporting on what some of the told-you-so’s are saying:

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the White House’s most persistent foreign policy critic, headed to the Senate floor to lead the charge Thursday, quoting himself from years past to say he’s been right all along.

“Could all of this have been avoided? The answer is absolutely yes,” McCain said, calling for the president’s entire national security team to be fired and warning of Obama, “he’s about to make the same mistake in Afghanistan he made in Iraq.”

“This is the education of Barack Obama, but it’s coming at a very high cost to the Syrian people to the Iraqi people [and] to the American national interest,” said Doug Feith, a top Pentagon official during the George W. Bush administration.

“They were pretty blasé,” Feith said of the Obama team. “The president didn’t take seriously the warnings of what would happen if we withdrew and he liked the political benefits of being able to say that we’re completely out.”

Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2014/06/president-obama-iraq-107800.html#ixzz34XQRYqjO

 

A.K.

“Shche ne vmeria Ukraina”: Ukraine has not yet perished.

In its strategic position between Europe and Asia with a population of about 45 million people, Ukraine is a very important country to both the European Union and Russia.  This importance is at the forefront of all of the bloodshed in Ukraine. Primarily, both trade regions would benefit from Ukraine economically, but Russia also stands to gain some power and influence with ties to Ukraine. In order to understand the escalating situation in Ukraine and Russia’s influence, it is essential to take a look at Ukraine’s political system and its modern ties with Russia (post-independence from the USSR in 1991).

ukraine

Parliament, Prime Ministers and Presidents

The President of Ukraine is elected by the population for a 5-year term, but they are also eligible for a second term. Prime ministers are appointed by the president with approval from Parliament. The Parliament must have constitutional majority. Parliament in Ukraine is called the Verkhovna Rada or just Rada. It’s meaning can be said to be “Supreme Council”. Parliament meets in the Verkhovna Rada building in Ukraine’s capital Kiev and has a unicameral (one-chamber) parliament of 450 deputies.  The Parliament determines domestic and foreign policy, approves budgets, designates elections for the President, impeaches the president, appoints the Prime Minister, appoints parts of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine and declares wars and peace.

Background on Ukraine: How They Broke Free from Russia

During the 18th century, most of Ukrainian’s territory was absorbed by the Russian Empire. Following the collapse of Russia in 1917, Ukraine had a brief period of independence from 1917-1920. However, they were forced back into Russian rule which also engineered two famines in the area from 1921-22 and 1932-1933 where over 8 million people died. Final independence was achieved in 1991 when the USSR dissolved.

How Viktor Yanukovych rose to power:

There was a mass protest, albeit peaceful, called the “Orange Revolution” in November 2004 where authorities overturned a rigged presidential election.  Official count said that Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych won the poll, but many believed it was rigged. Viktor Yushchenko, opposition candidate, (Note: This is a different Viktor Y than the Prime Minister) challenged the results and led to the streets in mass protest. The Supreme Court annuls the result of the poll. In December 2004 there is a new poll and Victor Yushchenko wins. Viktor Yanukovych challenged the results while resigning as Prime Minister. The Supreme Court rejects the challenge and Viktor Yuschenko is sworn in January 2005. The president nominates Yulia Tymoshenko as Prime Minister and the Parliament approves. In September, Yulia Tymoshenko is ousted and Yuri Yekhanurov is her successor.

In January 2006, Russia briefly cuts Ukraine’s supply of gas. In March 2006, Viktor Yanukovych’s party tops polls in Parliamentary elections with Yulia Tymoshenko taking second and incumbent Viktor Yuschenko taking third. Viktor Yanukovych allies his party, Party of Regions, with the Socialist party rather than the Socialist Party team up with the Orange Revolution supporters (Yuschenko and Tymoshenko ), who are in the the Our Ukraine party. This helps to empower Yanukovych.  President Yuschenko accepts Viktor Yanukovych’s nomination for Prime Minister rather than have Parliament call for new elections in August 2006. In December 2007, Yulia Tymoshenko is appointed prime minister, again.

In March 2008, Russia’s state-owned natural gas company, Gazprom, agrees to supply Ukraine’s industrial consumers directly. In January 2009, Russia stops all gas supplies to Ukraine after unpaid bills due to the financial crisis. In December, Ukraine and Russia sign a deal on oil transit for 2010.

In February 2010, Viktor Yanukovych is declared winner of the presidential election (5 years after Yuschenko served his full term). His main rival in the elections, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, claims the election is rigged. She steps down from Prime Minister as many of her Parliament supporters switched sides and gave her a no-confidence vote. President Yanukovych appoints Mykola Azarov to succeed her. In December 2010, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is charged with abuse of state funds. She denies the charge and says it is due to political motivations. The Supreme Court jails her after saying she abused power in a gas deal with Russia in 2009.

Why Ukraine is important to Russia & Russia important to Ukraine:

It has very fertile black soil and generates substantial amounts of meat, milk, grain and vegetables. It also has a heavy industry which provides machinery to Russia for mining and drilling. However, Ukraine depends on Russia for energy supplies. To be clear, 75% of its oil and natural gas comes from imports.  Ukraine agreed to a 10-year gas supply and transit contracts with Russia in January 2009, but due to strict terms of the contract Ukraine’s state led gas company was not able to develop.

The Weak Economy in Ukraine Leads to a Need for Aid

Steel prices dropped during the financial crisis and exposure to financial borrowing lowered growth in 2008. In November that year, Ukraine made a deal with the IMF for $16.4 billion dollars. However, the Ukrainian government stalled and did not implement reforms. As a result of the lost deal, Ukraine’s economy contracted 15% in 2009. A new agreement with the IMF was reached in 2010 and Ukraine negotiated a gas discount with Russia to continue to allow them to use a naval base in Crimea. The IMF agreement was stalled again in 2011 due to the governments lack of implementation of gas tariff increases. This was a result of opposition activists protesting in the street against tax reform on businesses.  2012 ended in a recession.

The Trade Deal the EU Proposed and Russia’s Push Back

The European Union wanted an Association Agreement with Ukraine in early 2013 which contained a free trade component with the EU as well as allowing for the existing free trade agreement between Ukraine and Russia to continue. A country may have more than one free trade agreement, but Russia does not want to work with Ukraine if Ukraine works with the European Union. The EU trade agreement would lead to lower customs, non-tariff barrifs, higher export quotas and EU standards on products. In an effort to encourage Ukraine not to work with the EU, Russia blocked all imports to Ukraine in August 2013. Import flows resumed a week later, but Russia also sent another signal to Ukarine by making Ukrainian exports to Russia go through a longer check process. This was not a blockade or embargo, but rather what Sergei Glaziev, an advisor to President Putin, said is:

The tough application of customs procedures was a pilot test for future customs practices, should Ukraine decide to make the ‘suicidal step’ of signing the Association Agreement with the EU.

Russia’s fear with an EU and Ukraine trade agreement is that Ukrainian goods will face increased competition from EU goods and cannot compete with the standards of goods of those exported to the EU. As a consequence, they will be ‘dumped’ on the Russian market, which will undercut producers. “Dumping” in trade terminology is when a country or business prices their goods lower than the price abroad in order to sell them quickly and hurt foreign producers by driving them out of business. Further, President Putin fears that EU goods would be re-branded as Ukrainian goods and then shipped to Russia.  Ukraine stands a lot to lose if Russia cuts free trade ties, specifically because they import a large portion of natural gas from Russia.

Why People Revolted in Ukraine

Russia badly hurt Ukraine by stopping natural gas supplies in 2006 and in 2009 and the people of Ukraine did not forget this or their long history with Soviet rule. As President Yanukovych continued to work with President Putin of Russia, Ukrainians felt that continuing ties with Russia distanced them from the economically strong European Union. In November 2013, President Yanukovych favored strong ties with Russia in rejection of the European Union trade agreements. Remembering the success of protests during the “Orange Revolution” which helped force a revote for President, Ukrainians took to the streets in Maidan Square in Kiev.

2014-Unrkaine-005

How It Got Bloody & Where it Stands Right Now

With Russian support, President Yanukovych called for police attacks on protestors, enacted severe anti-protests laws and supposedly abducted opposition activists. This intensified demonstrations against the government. Russia and the European Union have made statements calling for negotiations between protestors and the government. However, Russia has also made strong statements saying that President Yanukovych was elected fairly and should remain in office.  After massive gunfire from February 17-21, where about 100 protestors were killed, a cease fire was enacted. This came after support from European, Russian, and Polish leaders. The deal was accepted and the Parliament called for new elections.

However, protestors did not believe that the government was done turning their weapons on its own citizens. Confrontations continued until February 22 where the heavily armed guard in Kiev around the president was weakening. The President fled to southeast Ukraine and gave a TV interview saying he was still in power.  February 22, Parliament voted to impeach the president. Opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko is released from prison.

Where does Ukraine go From Here?

Political turmoil is not over, but hopefully the violence is. New elections should be pursued earlier than 2015 by Parliament and perhaps a deal with the European Union will reemerge. The problem is although a majority of the population does want a closer relationship with Europe, the south and east of Ukraine still want a close relationship with Russia. However, Russian does not want to cede power to anyone and does not want a Ukraine-European Union deal to occur. One thing is clear–President Putin likes to push western democracy to a breaking point by encouraging Ukraine’s former government to push back against its “unruly” people.  The problem is Ukraine is the ultimate loser in this bloodshed as it will take time and trust to rebuild its government and economy. However, the European Union and the United States also look weak for allowing conflict to persist so long, while Russian President Putin may be grinning for not only winning the most gold medals in the Winter Olympics in Sochi but also because he still has power of influence, even if it is by controlling badly needed natural gas to Ukraine.

Like Ukraine’s national anthem says, ““Shche ne vmeria Ukraina”. Ukraine has not yet perished.

 

Below is a timeline of events in 2013 that includes the start of the protests, deaths of civilians and police and an impeached president.

November 2013-Current: Timeline of Events

On November 21, Viktor Yanukovych announced that Ukraine would seek a trade economic agreement with Russia rather than the European Union.

This event started the protests, yet the Ukrainian people were already upset with the government due to slow economic growth during and after the financial crisis as well as corrupt politics.

December 17, Russia already starts to take care of the Ukrainian gov’t by cutting the price of Russian natural gas to Ukrainians and buying $15 billion worth of the troubled Ukrainian bonds.

January 22, the first tragic incidents between protestors and the police occurs. Two die by ammunition. Anti-protest laws are put into place.

January 28, the prime minister resigns and parliament repeals the anti-protest laws that sparked violence in the first place.

February 16, protestors end their occupation of Kiev City Hall after 234 jailed protestors are released.

February 18, 26 people are dead, including 10 police officers after protestors attacked police lines and set fires outside of parliament. This is in response to parliaments hesitation on constintutional reform to limit presidential powers.

February 22, Parliament impeaches President Yanukovych. He takes flight to Crimea, an island in Ukraine, with heavy Russian influence. Acting Interior Minister, third in command after the President and Prime Minister, have an arrest warrant out for the former President for “mass killings of civilians”.

kiev

Try PEACE and Cease: Syria

I take an opposite stance to A.K. on the dilemma in Syria.  Despite already uneasy relations in the Middle East, I think we must intervene, but only if America has international support.  However, I do not advocate for the strike President Obama is calling for.

Before I make my argument, I want to explain simply the conflict in Syria right now and the U.S. involvement in chemical warfare.

“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.” Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays

Bashar al-Assad: His Party and Rise to Power

The Ba’ath party came into power in the late 1940s as a movement against French rule in Syria and has held the reigns of Syrian’s dominant party ever since. The party always wanted conformity, but in 1970 Hafez al-Assad took power after winning violent wars.  He then spread the wings of the Ba’ath party.  He wanted mass political support and vanguardism, which is a revolutionary movement to take the working class and move them toward revolutionary politics to safeguard the party’s ideals.  (Vanguard revolutionary politics is made famous by Vladimir Lenin of Russia.)   Lenin more accurately describes this,

“Such workers, average people of the masses, are capable of displaying enormous energy and self-sacrifice in strikes and in street, battles with the police and the troops, and are capable (in fact, are alone capable) of determining the outcome of our entire movement — but the struggle against the political police requires special qualities; it requires professional revolutionaries….. I assert: (1) that no revolutionary movement can endure without a stable organisation of leaders maintaining continuity; (2) that the broader the popular mass drawn spontaneously into the struggle, which forms the basis of the movement and participates in it, the more urgent the need for such an organisation, and the more solid this organisation must be (for it is much easier for all sorts of demagogues to side-track the more backward sections of the masses); (3) that such an organisation must consist chiefly of people professionally engaged in revolutionary activity; (4) that in an autocratic state, the more we confine the membership of such an organisation to people who are professionally engaged in revolutionary activity and who have been professionally trained in the art of combating the political police, the more difficult will it be to unearth the organisation; and (5) the greater will be the number of people from the working class and from the other social classes who will be able to join the movement and perform active work in it..”

The party expanded from 60,000 members in 1970 to over 1 million members today.    In a country consisting of only 22 million people this number is large.  The Ba’ath ideology is mostly driven from Islam, since most Syrians follow the Sunni branch of Islam.  Essentially, Ba’athists’ want an Arab united nation and believe that socialism is the key to a unified, free Arab state.

In June 2000, Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father. He is military trained at the academy in Homs, Syria and was elected as president at only 34 years old, unopposed. Previously, you had to be 40 to be President, but they changed the rules before he was elected.  After he was elected, there was political unrest due to the authoritarian nature of the state, powerful police and a stagnant economy.  Assad never threatened to dismantle the Ba’ath party, but he initially released hundreds of political prisoners and loosed freedom of expression restrictions.  This is known as the “Damascus Spring” where citizens’ who were calling for reform were actually heard.

Assad vowed to clean up the economic state of the country before moving to any serious political reforms.  However, by 2005 Assad’s economic liberalization only benefited a few political elite at the expense of many.  In 2007, Assad was re-elected as president (there are 7 year presidential terms in Syria).

2011 When The Civil War Began

Early in 2011, 15 schoolchildren were arrested and tortured for demonstrating anti-government sentiments.   Antigovernment protests were beginning to uprise not only in Syria, but in the Middle East and Africa as well, commonly called the Arab Spring. Citizens were peacefully calling for democracy and freedom, but were met by hostility from the Syrian government.

Syria has an emergency law that allows the arrest of anyone who does not have “permission” to peacefully demonstrate, which essentially gave Assad the power to arrest anyone who does not agree with the government.  Assad claimed in early 2011 he was going to abolish this law, but instead deployed more tanks and troops to meet protestors.  Assad has often claimed that the Syrian government is the victim and that citizens were not peaceful, but rather armed insurgents.

Later in 2011, opposition groups were increasingly armed and by early 2012 Syria turned into an all-out civil war. Turkey, U.S., Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been said to arm rebels, while Syria was being given arms from Russia and Lebanon (via Hezbollah.)  Syria was sending artillery to level civilian homes, opening massive fire on protestors, and was taking over rebel camps despite rebel group’s intermittent successes at bombing Syrian headquarters and winning small battles.

On August 21 in Damascus, the Syrian government is said to have chemically attacked the opposition in one of their main camps. Assad has denied this assertion.

“There has been no evidence that I used chemical weapons against my own people,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said in an interview in Damascus.

Mideast Syria

Roughly 1 million Syrians have fled the country since Assad’s second presidential term.  There are approximately 80,000 dead Syrian rebels, while another 30,000 Syrian troops are dead. Roughly 10,000 of these citizens are children.

The U.S. Pledge Against Chemical Warfare

During WWI, chemical gases (chlorine, mustard gas, etc.) were used to cause suffering via choking and burns on the battlefield.  After WWI the first worldwide decree against chemical warfare was signed via the Geneva Protocol.  The shortcomings were large in that it did not prevent stockpiling of chemical weapons and it did not prevent using chemical warfare against countries who did not sign the agreement.

During WWII chemical weapons were used by the Nazis and in Asia and during the Cold War many nations were stockpiling weapons.  Not until 1992 did the Conference in Geneva adopt a separate Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to develop a framework to eliminate chemical warfare as a weapon of mass destruction.  In 1997, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was formed and has been in cooperative agreement with the UN ever since.   This organization prevents chemical weapon production and verifies the destruction of chemical weapons.  Only 7 UN members out of 189 have not ratified the treaty (Angola, North Korea, Egypt, South Sudan, Syria) and Burma and Israel have signed it but not ratified it yet. 182 nations have come to a collective agreement on chemical warfare and ways to punish countries, but for those that haven’t signed the Treaty it is not as clear as to how the other nations of the U.N. should respond to a chemical warfare.

The Economist provides a timeline of uses of chemical weapons below:

weapons

Why International Agents Aren’t Willing to Help

One word: Russia.  The Washington Post sums up the reasons why Russia wants to protect Bashar al-Assad in a pretty succinct way:

“The four big reasons that Russia wants to protect Assad, the importance of which vary depending on whom you ask, are: (1) Russia has a naval installation in Syria, which is strategically important and Russia’s last foreign military base outside the former Soviet Union; (2) Russia still has a bit of a Cold War mentality, as well as a touch of national insecurity, which makes it care very much about maintaining one of its last military alliances; (3) Russia also hates the idea of “international intervention” against countries like Syria because it sees this as Cold War-style Western imperialism and ultimately a threat to Russia; (4) Syria buys a lot of Russian military exports, and Russia needs the money.”

Two big world powers oppose each other on the Syrian dilemma and the other U.N. countries are hesitant to step across the line to either side.  However, by many people abstaining from entering Syria via the U.N. Security Council meeting last week other countries essentially are saying that no one wants to upset Russia.

Why the U.S. should NOT be involved

Two reasons come to mind here.  The first is that it is costly, which A.K. rightfully pointed out. We have been fighting two wars in the Middle East in Iraq and Afghanistan and still have yet to cut our losses.  We got Saddam Hussein and Bin Ladin, but we didn’t dismantle Al-Qaeda and we haven’t stopped terrorism from spreading. We are losing American lives and American dollars in the Middle East. Why spend more on another Middle Eastern war? The second reason is because the American public does not support a war at this time.  Americans are sensitive to the current wars we are in. Let’s face it, wars are never popular, but wars are also inevitable. Problem is we are in war right now and losing. Americans don’t want another failed attempt and they are right in being weary about being involved.

Why the U.S. MUST intervene

First, there is the humane stance. Killing innocent lives is always painful to watch. Regardless of rebel troops opposing the government this entire war started peaceful before Assad used brute force against its own citizens. Second, we have already been supporting Syrian rebel groups with weapons and money via defense contractors since early 2011. At no point does the U.S. want to be on the losing side of any war and have our resources go into the opposition hands. Third, we don’t want Russia to push us around.  Most countries respect the U.S. as the most powerful in the world, but Russia has always been wary of our intentions and is perhaps the one country really not afraid to push our buttons.  Just because Russia chooses a different path does not mean we should shutter away from what we believe is the right call.

Solution: Don’t strike, just CEASE (with PEACE)

Striking in Syria is not the solution. This will also endanger civilian lives by sending down drones or explosives, which is counterintuitive to what we, as Americans, really want to do—help the Syrian citizens. (If the argument is only about America displaying military power, than that argument is null.)  However, the U.S. should be pushing a ceasefire declaration by the U.N. Security Council. In doing so, this may help rally full support of other U.N. nations. So, if Syria chooses to continue to use chemical weapons or massive force against citizens the U.S. will have partners in war.  This has to be our path now. If we go to war we need more international support from countries other than Turkey and France. (Although getting early support from France is a small victory in and of itself.)

We need world unification on issues of freedom and not more displays of the ‘strength’ of the American military.  Going alone in this fight against Assad and his army proves the latter, while weakening the former.  We need support from other U.N. nations before entering into Syria.

“Is it going to be a new era toward more chaos or more institutionalization? That is the question,” Assad said. “The end is not clear yet.”

Another Perspective on Syria

I wrote recently against intervening in Syria. Meanwhile a whole host of notables have come out in favor or intervention, including Hilary Clinton and even retired four-star General and former CIA Chief David Petraeus. But most of the arguments tend to boil down to the notion of American credibility, i.e. Obama said he was going to do it so he must do it; otherwise, the world will run amok! More cynically, Mr. Obama must now follow through or personally lose face. Billions of dollars are a lot to spend to save face, I should add.

At any rate, the Economist recently summed up its argument in favor of intervention as follows:

The arguments for intervening in Syria are narrower and less Utopian than they were in Iraq. First is the calculation of American interests. The international arena is inherently anarchic. Only laws and treaties that are enforced impose any order. By being the world’s policeman, America can shape the rules according to its own interests and tastes. The more America steps back, the more other powers will step in. If it is unwilling to act as enforcer, its own norms will fray. If it is even thought to be reluctant, then they will be tested. China already prods at America; Vladimir Putin’s Russia has begun to confront it—and not only over Syria. Whether Syria was a vital American interest before this attack was debatable, but not after Mr Assad’s direct challenge to Mr Obama’s authority.

 

Second is a reaffirmation of Western values. America’s potency comes not just from its capacity to project force, but also from the enduring appeal of the values invoked by its founders. Those are stronger than Mr Obama seems to think. With China’s economy slowing and its political corruption evident, the Beijing consensus will seem ever less enticing to citizens of the emerging world. Mr Bush tainted America’s values with inept invasion, prisoner abuse and imperial overstretch. Meeting Mr Assad’s atrocities with appropriate force will help to rebuild American moral authority in the world. If Congress must be involved, it should send that message just as loud and clear as it can—and so should Mr Obama’s allies.

I don’t find this argument particularly compelling, but I’m not a retired four-star general either.

A.K.

 

Syria and the World in Which We Live

Over a 100,000 people dead is both heartrending and deplorable. This fact alone is enough to generate the desire to intervene in Syria. The recent use of chemical weapons creates a legal justification for intervention. The question is whether there is any good to be accomplished through an intervention besides the venting of justified moral outrage against the Assad regime. I am deeply skeptical. Here’s why.

Let’s be clear about what could be accomplished with the awesome might of the U.S. military. The U.S. could topple the Assad regime. First, this would require the use of U.S. ground troops in Syria, which the American public would not suffer post-Iraq/Afghanistan. Moreover, as both Iraq and Afghanistan have recently demonstrated, restoring any political order would not be easy or cheap, or necessarily possible—especially anything resembling democracy and the rule of law.

Second, the U.S. could do what the Obama Administration says it has planned: a limited, remote strike. Secretary of State John Kerry said in congressional testimony that the administration means not simply to “send a message” to Assad, but to degrade his ability to use chemical weapons in the future. Given that the U.S. is unlikely to be able to actually target chemical weapons facilities, it is unclear what this degradation might mean. Would Assad’s conventional weapons be targeted? With all this prior warning, Assad is likely to have dispersed his assets, reducing the impact of any limited strike. Moreover, would undermining Assad’s ability to defend himself using conventional weapons only increase his sense of desperation and recourse to chemical weapons? Maybe. Indeed, Senator Rubio pointedly asked General Dempsey if he knew of a limited strike capable of deterring Assad from using any and all means available to prevent his overthrow. (The calculus is simple for Assad: overthrow and possible death versus a strike from the U.S. which is limited in duration and not aimed to overthrow.) This was and is a good question. The general’s (non)answer does not inspire confidence:

Furthermore, given the Hobbesian dilemma presented in Syria, weakening Assad may not be such a great idea. Most analysts have concluded that extremists currently predominate in the Assad-opposition. Thus, it is difficult to contemplate how the U.S. could significantly weaken Assad without strengthening the hand of extremists within Syria. In congressional testimony Secretary Kerry’s (non)answer on this point was equally uninspiring.

These simple observations cannot be lost on the Obama Administration, which suggests that this proposed strike is little more than a message—a well-deserved message of moral outrage and condemnation, but a mere message all the same. In a world where these signals did not cost billions of dollars added on to a large budget deficit with fiscal battles looming, I would applaud such a message. In this world, as a matter of policy, I find the President’s proposed strike on Syria hard to justify.