Not All Interventions are the Same.

27 August 2013, 1559 EDT

It now looks almost certain that we will see a US military strike of some sort in Syria. There is a lot of angst out there about such a strike — what are its goals? What will it accomplish? and, Where will it all end? Many are asking “what the hell is the Obama administration thinking?” Many have already concluded that it will be a disaster.

This is a fair set of questions in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan. Erica Chenoweth is running a number of articles over at the Monkey Cage on what some of the political science research says when looking at the aggregate data with respect to third party intervention. It suggests that this isn’t going to end well. Maybe. But, there is a broader analysis and context that are also likely influencing President Obama’s decision.

First, not every intervention is the same — time to dust off that copy of Schelling. The use of force is one of many instruments of statecraft. It’s utility is often linked to the overall strategic objective(s), the degree to which ends and means are tied, and the overall legitimacy of the action. There is a tendency in many of the discussions out there to conflate the impending use of force in Syria with the American-led wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Since Iraq and Afghanistan have proven to be major disasters, we should stay out of Syria. Maybe.

Iraq clearly demonstrated the limits (and incompetence) of American power. The U.S. plowed its way into Iraq with 300k troops to remove Saddam Hussein (the core objective) without a plan for stabilizing the country once that objective was achieved. It also acted without any clear legitimating or legal authority. And, no surprise, it was a disaster.

But, other, more limited, interventions have been effective in controlling and mitigating violence — even in on-going high intensity conflicts. The American-led intervention in Bosnia in August 1995 stopped the war on a dime even though most security studies scholars, regional experts, and pundits at the time warned against American involvement. Many argued that American involvement would lead to a Vietnam-style quagmire, that the conflict was fueled by age-old ethnic hatreds about which nothing could be done. They were wrong. Eighteen years later, there are plenty of pathologies in Bosnia’s political and economic institutions but we haven’t seen any organized inter-ethnic violence since Dayton.

The use of military force in Bosnia was designed with a narrower objective than what we witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. and NATO attacks on Serb targets in the summer of 1995 were not designed to defeat the Serbs (regime change), but to change the strategic landscape and compel them to the negotiating table. The punitive strikes on the Serbs were designed to signal to them, without ambiguity, that they could not win. Indeed, the strategic design for the use of force was premised on the recognition that the end-game in Bosnia would have to be a diplomatic, not a military, solution. The strikes were thus taken simultaneous with a major diplomatic initiative to bring coherence and restraint to the Bosniak and Croat forces — both of which were internally fragmented and often fighting each other. Two-weeks after the airstrikes began, the warring factions agreed to a cease-fire and three months later signed the Dayton Accords.

Kosovo was similar in this regard. The use of force was designed to compel a Serb retreat from Kosovo — and to signal to Belgrade that it was not going to win. In Kosovo, there was a general sense that the intervention was legitimate, if not legal, because of the broad U.S. and European consensus that a major Serb attack against Kosovo was imminent. It was that imminence that gave the action international legitimacy even though there was no UN Security Council resolution authorizing the action.

The question then is — what are the informative cases for Syria? Is it closer to the Balkans or to Iraq and Afghanistan? Or something all together different? Not an easy answer.

It’s pretty clear that the primary objective here is to punish the Syrian regime and deter a future chemical weapons attack in Syria. The Obama administration is focused on a very limited strike and doesn’t want to see an outright rebel victory. The logic of this strategic objective makes sense to me. I am persuaded by Daryl Press and Jon Mercer’s respective works that precedent effects, reputation, and credibility concerns are often overstated. But, their works look at how third-party leaders infer or read other actors’ responses elsewhere — not at how actors respond to bluffs in a particular case. It seems pretty clear that if the U.S. does not punish the perpetrators of this attack, these same perpetrators almost certainly will calculate that they can act again with impunity. And, as we’ve seen in the past week, the use of chemical weapons quickly changes the international political dynamics. In other words, if there is no action now, there will almost certainly be events on the ground that provoke international action later. It’s probably not a question of whether, but when, the international use of force happens.

The secondary objective appears to be that the administration hopes that a military strike might move the conflict towards some kind international pressure on the warring factions to move toward some kind of negotiation process. To be sure, it is difficult to imagine today why, or how, the government or any of the opposition factions would join in some kind of negotiations, but there are plenty of cases in which conflicts looked intractable before something altered/shocked the war leading to negotiations. It was largely inconceivable in the spring of 1995 (or even the days immediately after Srebrenica in June 1995) to envision that we would have a negotiated, power-sharing agreement ending the war six months later.

The war in Syria is largely at a strategic stalemate. The battle has ebbed and flowed over the past year, both sides are trying to break the stalemate (and still believe they can), but it doesn’t appear that either side can. My reading of why Assad likely used chemical weapons last week is based on the pressure he is under from his own constituencies to turn the battle.

In this regard, there are signs that both Assad and the main rebel factions are rational, strategic actors and aware of the strategic environment in which they operate. A military strike may alter that strategic environment by signaling that no one can win. I’m in the midst of an analysis of the battlefield trends in Syria over the past two-and-a-half years using GDELT data set and an extensive set of interview data — I’ll be presenting a preview of this analysis in a paper at this fall’s ISSS-ISAC conference in DC. My initial findings suggest that the Syria regime forces have routinely escalated and de-escalated the intensity of violence in response to U.S. and international policy initiatives in ways that are similar to what Joshua Goldstein and Jon Pevehouse found in their analysis of the conflict in Bosnia.

The key then (and something I have heard some whispering about, but have seen no real movement) is to move quickly in conjunction with the use of force to generate the requisite international diplomatic energy to push warring factions toward some end-game strategy.

Finally, this war is spilling outside of the Syrian borders and is going to get worse unless something changes the equation. As I posted last week, the spike in violence in Iraq and in Lebanon is related to the on-going violence in Syria. Jordan and Turkey are both reeling from absorbing the bulk of the 2 million Syrian refugees. With upwards of another 8 to 10 million internally displaced — we are going to see more massive waves of refugees crossing borders as the violence continues. And, the Kurds from Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria are currently discussing their own strategies in light of the on-going events. Furthermore, the upheaval throughout the region is a major contest over basic conceptions of legitimacy, authority, governance and social, religious, and political order.

Of course, there is plenty of risk and uncertainty in all of this. What happens if an initial strike does not deter the future use of chemical weapons? What happens if it doesn’t move the warring factions to the negotiating tables? Could the administration refrain from escalation if its use of force does not achieve these objectives? What kind of viable mechanism could be developed or implemented to stabilize an agreement — even if one could be reached? How to cope with various spoilers to the process that are almost certainly going to challenge any process? The administration would do well to actively deliberate all of these contingencies now rather than wait and be surprised — as happened to the Bush administration on Iraq.

International politics rarely gives policymakers clear answers to any of these questions and all of us would do well to remember that all of our analyses are probablistic. The challenge for decisionmakers is that major foreign policy disasters stem from both mistakes of commission (over-reaction) and mistakes of omission (under-reaction/passivity). Historians often have a better lens from which to determine which is which than decisionmakers who have to make decisions in real time. There are clearly limits and risks to what such limited military action can achieve, but we do have a pretty good sense of where this conflict is headed if nothing is done to alter the current trajectory. This, it seems to me, is the context in which President Obama has to make his decision.