Cato: Limited Strikes on Syria a ‘Slippery Slope’

By Stew Magnuson
Congress approving limited military intervention in Syria may lead to a “slippery slope” of heavier, and more costly, involvement in the war-torn country, a pair of scholars at the libertarian-minded Cato Institute think tank said Sept. 4.
“Any estimates of the costs of the discreet military operations, whether they are cruise missile strikes, other stand-off weapons, or something more extensive … are misleading because we have to take some account of cost incurred in the event the Syrian regime collapses, and civil war deepens,” Christopher A. Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, said during a conference call with reporters.
The mission is poorly defined, and with pressures to ratchet up involvement, it will be difficult to keep the conflict contained regardless of the language crafted in any authorization coming from Congress, he said.
“The public is overwhelmingly opposed to intervention in Syria, so most members know that they will be casting an unpopular vote if they do vote ‘yes,’” he said.
On the other hand, foreign policy is rarely a decisive factor in elections, he said. “I think that is still the case."
As for the funding needed, Preble referenced remarks made by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who estimated that the cost of imposing a no-fly zone to protect areas where U.S. troops could train rebels would total $1 billion per month.
And then, if the Assad regime is ousted, the country may descend into a civil war, just as Iraq did.  “Obviously the cost of the Iraq war flowed mostly from the civil war,” he said.
Erica D. Borghard, a Columbia University PhD candidate, said, “These kinds of strikes are unlikely to change decisively the military balance on the ground.”
Assad has had time to move assets to more populated areas, she said.
“What happens after a limited strike fails to decisively change the military balance on the ground? Where does the president go then from here,” she asked.
The stated nature of the proposed strikes has been punitive. The Obama administration alleges that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people, so Syria and other countries need to be deterred from doing so again.
However, already some are advocating for regime change. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have advocated for robust training of Syrian rebels, Borghard noted. Limited strikes are a “slippery slope” and some will start pushing for more intervention, she said.
There is already tension between White House officials and those who want this to be more than a message to deter the regime from using chemical weapons, Preble said. McCain and Graham have been emphatic that this shouldn’t be “just a shot across the bow,” he added.
“The issue is we really don’t have viable partners on the ground,” Borghard said. There is no one Syrian rebel group. This is a multi-party civil war, she said.
The groups more closely aligned with the United States are militarily inferior to those affiliated with al-Qaida and jihadist movements, she said.
These U.S.-aligned groups’ weaknesses will make an even greater incentive for the United States to become more involved in propping them up by putting boots on the ground, Borghard said.  
Further, limited strikes may embolden Assad if he can absorb them. It may not have the deterrent effect envisioned, she said. Even if the purpose of strike is deterrence, it has to change to cost-benefit calculus of the recipient, Borghard said.
“If Assad feels he can absorb this strike and carry on with his business then it doesn’t send an effective deterrent signal,” she said.
Preble said there may be an opposite effect. Countries may interpret the U.S. strike as a reason why they would want to keep or acquire chemical weapons, he said. They have already seen how Libya’s leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi ended his  rudimentary nuclear weapons program with some assurances that he was afterwards a member in good standing in the international community.
“Within a few years, he was dead,” said Preble.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, War Planning, International

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