Reality Check

Reality Check

Vets the truthfulness of claims and measures the efficacy of public policy

Reality Check: 'No Boots' Strategy in Syria An Empty Promise?

Pres. Obama will give an address to the nation next Tuesday to make his case for military action in Syria

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Lawmakers claim that their no boots on the ground policy means no extended involvement in Syria. Is that true? Sam Brock takes a look in this edition of Reality Check. (Published Friday, Sep 6, 2013)

    Many members of the U.S. Congress remain lukewarm on the prospect of approving a limited military strike in Syria, this as House and Senate leaders ratchet up calls for Congress to pass the resolution.

    “Currently I’m undecided, I’m still asking questions and looking for more facts and more information,” said Ron Kind, D-Wisconsin, highlighting the same concerns as many of his colleagues.

    “I’ve asked the administration…what the next day may look like,” Kind continued. “If we do launch cruise missiles in to try to degrade [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad’s chemical weapon capability, what might be the likely response from him, from Hezbollah, perhaps Iran? I do not want to see the United States dragged into a prolonged military engagement.”

    If only administration officials had a crystal ball.

    In the meantime, much of Congress remains laser-focused on keeping any resolution tightly-worded and short in duration, with the promise of a ‘no boots on the ground’ strategy a prerequisite.

    The problem with that approach, however, according to multiple national defense experts, is that there really is no way to guarantee U.S. involvement will not morph into a larger-scale operation.

    “There are lots of permutations that could lead to us being drawn in more fully, and the president’s saying, ‘no boots on the ground,’ frankly isn’t an answer to the question - how are we going to get drawn in and what are we going to do about it,” said Kori Schake, a conservative - leaning fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former member of President George W. Bush’s National Security Council.

    Schake said President Obama is pursuing a limited air strike approach that will neither degrade Syria’s chemical weapons supply nor deter our enemies from engaging in similar conduct.

    “Those are irreconcilable objectives,” Schake said, “and that’s the problem.”

    Peter Weber, a liberal-leaning national security expert at UC Berkeley, agrees with Schake that without a critical objective- such as the removal of Bashar al-Assad- it’s unclear what the administration would actually achieve by intervening, especially on such a limited scale.

    He says the downside, however, is considerable.

    “The truth is, they’re not really sure, I think, just how extensive this intervention is likely to be,” Weber said. “But after the strike happens there may be some form of retaliation, and then as far as I’m concerned all bets are off.”

    Both Schake and Weber pointed out that in the strictest sense, there would be ‘boots on the ground’ either way, since special operation forces would have to go on-site to identify potential targets for the Air Force or Navy.

    Schake asserts, however, that the entire idea of a ‘no boots on the ground’ strategy is a technical discussion that doesn’t address our shaky political objective.

    “What is the political objective,” she posed. “And are we committed enough to see that through by political, economic, intelligence and military means?”

    Schake supports the overthrow of Assad by supplying the rebels with ammunition and resources, but not the current track for intervening, which she says is tantamount to “kicking a hornet’s nest and then walking away,” leaving our allies in the region vulnerable.

    On this point, too, Weber agrees, particularly as it pertains to the effectiveness of current strategy.

    “I think the current phrase they’re using is ‘degrade the chemical weapons capability,’ which probably means striking against the ways [Syria] can deliver chemical weapons,” Weber said.

    “But, do you know what,” he continued, “that stuff can be dispersed fairly broadly across the country, and it can be hardened and put inside of concrete warehouses. There are lots of things Assad can do knowing that the United States is going to try and take out these targets, to make it harder on us.”

    Which brings us back to square one - both experts agree the efficacy of a limited air strike is questionable.

    So what happens if the U.S. attacks Syria, doesn’t deplete or degrade its chemical weapons capability, but does incite retaliation against U.S. allies or targets throughout the region? Then what?

    “We can get sucked in [to a longer engagement] by only using stand-off weapons, depending upon what the adversary does in response to this,” Schake said. “Whether that adversary is the Syrian government, rebels trying to draw us further in to fight their war for them, the Iranian government, Hezbollah or Hamas.

    “The president is taking about going to war, and attacking Syria *is going to war,” Schake said. “Suggesting that we can do that much, but absolve ourselves from any responsibility for the consequences is actually terribly misleading.”

    The Senate is expected to vote on a limited resolution next week.

    Even if it passes, however, the measure is expected to face much stiff resistance in the House.