Alternative History: An Assessment of the Long-Term Impact of U.S. Strikes on Syria in 2013 on the Viability of the Free Syrian Army

Michael D. Purzycki is a researcher, analyst, writer and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He is a former communications and media analyst for the United States Marine Corps. He writes regularly for Charged Affairs (the journal of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy) and Braver Angels, and has also been published in Merion West, Washington Monthly, the Truman National Security Project, and France 24. He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki and on Medium at https://medium.com/@mdpurzycki. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Alternative History: An Assessment of the Long-Term Impact of U.S. Strikes on Syria in 2013 on the Viability of the Free Syrian Army

Date Originally Written:  June 9, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  July 29, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article presumes that the United States launched air and missile strikes on Syria in August 2013, in response to the use of chemical weapons against civilians by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. It is written from the perspective of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) for an audience of U.S. national security policymakers.

Summary:  One year after U.S. air and missile strikes in Syria, a stalemate exists  between the Assad regime and rebel groups. While Assad is far from defeated, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) held its own, thanks to U.S. assistance, and positions itself as a viable political alternative to both Assad and the Islamic State (IS). This stance is tenuous, however, and is threatened by both continued bombardment by regime forces and the international community’s focus on defeating IS.

Text:  On August 21, 2013, the Syrian military fired rockets containing sarin gas at civilian areas in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, as well as conventionally armed rockets at Western Ghouta. Estimates of the resulting death toll range from 281 (estimated by French intelligence[1]) to 1,729 (alleged by the FSA[2]). A preliminary U.S. Intelligence Community estimate, released nine days after the attacks, “determined that 1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack, including at least 426 children[3].”

After receiving the IC’s estimate, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered air and missile strikes against Assad regime command and control centers, and bases from which helicopters are deployed[4]. While the combined strikes did not curtail the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons, they impeded communication between units armed with chemical weapons and their commanders, and reduced the use of barrel bombs dropped from regime helicopters. Assad concluded that the benefits of further use of chemical weapons did not outweigh the costs of possible further U.S. or French strikes.

Instead of using chemical weapons, Assad continued his use of conventional weapons against his opponents, including civilians. For example, in November and December 2013, as government forces attempted to break a stalemate with rebels in Aleppo, government air strikes killed up to 425 civilians, of whom 204 were killed in a four-day period[6]. While the FSA has fought capably on the ground against the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), its fighters and the civilians they protect remain vulnerable to air strikes.

In January 2014, President Obama expanded Timber Sycamore, the supply of weapons and training to Syrian rebels by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)[7]. In addition to providing greater numbers of rifles, machine guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and anti-tank missiles, the CIA provided rebels with a limited number of man-portable air defense systems. While the rebels have repeatedly asked for more of these antiaircraft systems, the U.S. has declined to provide them, due to fears of them ending up in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria) or other extremists[8]. Thus, while the FSA has shot down several regime warplanes, fighter aircraft have largely continued to operate unimpeded over rebel-held territory.

The U.S. and France have launched strikes against SAA command and control locations on three additional occasions in the last year. While these strikes have not significantly curbed the regime’s use of conventional weapons, they have slowed the pace at which regime forces can plan and carry out their attacks. This slowing pace has enabled the FSA to better prepare for upcoming attacks, and thus reduce the number of deaths both among their ranks and among nearby civilians.

While fighting between the regime and the FSA has continued, IS has emerged over the past year as the primary extremist organization opposing Assad. In addition to its capture of large swaths of Iraq, including the city of Mosul in June 2014[9], it controls portions of northern, central and eastern Syria[10]. While IS’ former partner Jabhat al-Nusra remains focused on fighting the Assad regime, IS’ goal is the perpetuation of an Islamist proto-state, where it can govern in accordance with its extremely strict, puritanical interpretation of Islam.

The strength of IS has benefited Assad; he has cited IS’s extreme brutality as evidence that he must remain in power and crush his opponents, making no distinction between IS, the FSA, or any other force opposing the regime. The international community’s focus on defeating IS in Iraq gives Assad more opportunities to target his non-IS opponents. While it is in the U.S. interest to play a leading role in dislodging IS from its strongholds in Iraq, it risks losing influence over the Syrian opposition if it does not continue its actions in Syria. The FSA may look to other actors, such as Saudi Arabia, to help it fight Assad if it feels it is being ignored by the U.S.[11]

U.S. support, including air and missile strikes, has helped the FSA endure in the face of regime attacks. However, Syria’s non-extremist opposition faces considerable challenges. While IS’ extreme governance model of what a post-Assad Syria might look like is imposing, and is attracting thousands of foreign fighters[12], the FSA’s potential democratic and pluralist model has not inspired to the same extent. The vulnerability of the FSA and the areas it holds to regime air strikes is a significant weakness. If the U.S. insists that Assad must not be allowed to remain in power[13], he is likely to focus his attacks on the FSA, potentially overwhelming it, while leaving the U.S.-led coalition to fight IS.


Endnotes:

[1] “Syria/Syrian chemical programme – National executive summary of declassified intelligence.” Ministre de l’Europe et des Affaires étrangères, September 3, 2013. https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/Syrian_Chemical_Programme.pdf

[2] “Bodies still being found after alleged Syria chemical attack: opposition.” Daily Star, August 22, 2013 http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Aug-22/228268-bodies-still-being-found-after-alleged-syria-chemical-attack-opposition.ashx

[3] “Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013.” White House, August 30, 2013 https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/08/30/government-assessment-syrian-government-s-use-chemical-weapons-august-21

[4] Shanker, Thom, C. J. Chivers and Michael R. Gordon. “Obama Weighs ‘Limited’ Strikes Against Syrian Forces.” New York Times, August 27, 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/28/world/middleeast/obama-syria-strike.html

[5] Walt, Vivienne. “France’s Case for Military Action in Syria.” TIME, August 31, 2013. https://world.time.com/2013/08/31/frances-case-for-military-action-in-syria

[6] “Syria: Dozens of Government Attacks in Aleppo.” Human Rights Watch, December 21, 2013. https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/12/21/syria-dozens-government-attacks-aleppo

[7] Mazzetti, Mark, Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt. “Behind the Sudden Death of a $1 Billion Secret C.I.A. War in Syria.” New York Times, August 2, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/world/middleeast/cia-syria-rebel-arm-train-trump.html

[8] Seldin, Jeff and Jamie Dettmer. “Advanced Weapons May Reach Syrian Rebels Despite US Concerns.” Voice of America, October 26, 2015. https://www.voanews.com/middle-east/advanced-weapons-may-reach-syrian-rebels-despite-us-concerns

[9] Sly, Liz and Ahmed Ramadan. “Insurgents seize Iraqi city of Mosul as security forces flee.” Washington Post, June 10, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/insurgents-seize-iraqi-city-of-mosul-as-troops-flee/2014/06/10/21061e87-8fcd-4ed3-bc94-0e309af0a674_story.html

[10] Gilsinan, Kathy. “The Many Ways to Map the Islamic ‘State.’” Atlantic, August 27, 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/08/the-many-ways-to-map-the-islamic-state/379196

[11] Chivers, C.J. and Eric Schmitt. “Saudis Step Up Help for Rebels in Syria With Croatian Arms.” New York Times, February 25, 2013.
https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/26/world/middleeast/in-shift-saudis-are-said-to-arm-rebels-in-syria.html

[12] Karadsheh, Jomana, Jim Sciutto and Laura Smith-Spark. “How foreign fighters are swelling ISIS ranks in startling numbers.” CNN, September 14, 2014. https://www.cnn.com/2014/09/12/world/meast/isis-numbers/index.html

[13] Wroughton, Lesley and Missy Ryan. “U.S. insists Assad must go, but expects he will stay.” Reuters, June 1, 2014. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-syria/u-s-insists-assad-must-go-but-expects-he-will-stay-idINKBN0EC1FE20140601

Alternative Futures / Alternative Histories / Counterfactuals Assessment Papers Michael D. Purzycki Syria United States

Options for a Consistent U.S. Approach to Humanitarian Intervention

Michael D. Purzycki is a researcher, analyst and writer based in Arlington, Virginia.  He is a former communications and media analyst for the United States Marine Corps.  He writes regularly for Charged Affairs (the journal of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy) and Better Angels, and has also been published in Merion West, the Washington Monthly, the Truman National Security Project, and France 24.  He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki and on Medium at https://medium.com/@mdpurzycki.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  Genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other forms of mass violence lead to destabilizing refugee flows and constitute humanitarian catastrophes.

Date Originally Written:  February 15, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  February 24, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of the United States government.

Background:  The United States’ responses to episodes of mass killing in recent decades have been inconsistent. The U.S. has intervened militarily in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya. It has declined to intervene in Rwanda, Darfur and Syria (prior to the conflict against the Islamic State). This inconsistency calls into question American moral and geopolitical leadership, and creates an opening for rivals, especially China and Russia, to fill. America’s decision not to respond with military force when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people arguably emboldened Assad’s ally Russia.  Following this U.S. non-response Russia sent forces to Syria in 2015 that have committed multiple atrocities, including intentional bombing of hospitals[1]. Meanwhile, massive flows of refugees from Syria, as well as from other Middle Eastern and African countries, have destabilized Europe politically, empowering demagogues and weakening European cohesion. Climate change is likely to exacerbate existing conflicts, and make massacres and refugee flows more common[2].

Significance:  From a strategic perspective, sudden massive inflows of refugees destabilize allies and weaken host country populations’ confidence in international institutions. From a moral perspective, the refusal of the U.S. to stop mass killing when it is capable of doing so threatens American moral credibility, and afflicts the consciences of those who could have intervened but did not, as in Rwanda[3]. From a perspective that is both strategic and moral, non-intervention in cases where U.S. and allied force can plausibly halt massacres, as in Bosnia before August 1995, makes the U.S. and its allies look weak, undermining the credibility of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other security institutions[4].

Option #1:  The U.S. adopts a policy of humanitarian intervention during mass violence.

The U.S. government could adopt a de facto policy of intervening in humanitarian crises when it is capable of doing so, and when intervention can plausibly halt mass violence. The policy need not be formalized, stated or written down, but need only be inferred from the actions of the U.S. The U.S. could adopt the following criteria for intervention:

“1. The actual or anticipated loss of life substantially exceeds the lives lost to violence in the United States.
2. The military operation to stop the massive loss of life would not put at risk anything close to the number of lives it would save.
3. The United States is able to secure the participation of other countries in the military intervention[5].”

Risk:  Even with military units prepared for and devoted to humanitarian intervention, it is possible a successful intervention will require a larger force than the U.S. is able to commit, thus possibly weakening the credibility of U.S. power in humanitarian crises. Commitment of too many units to intervention could harm America’s ability to defend allies or project power elsewhere in the world. An unsuccessful intervention, especially one with a large number of American casualties, could easily sour the American public on intervention, and produce a backlash against foreign commitments in general.

Gain:  Intervention can halt or reduce destabilizing refugee flows by ending mass killing. It can also help guarantee American moral leadership on the world stage, as the great power that cares about humanity especially if contrasted with such atrocities as Chinese abuse of Uighurs or Russian bombing of Syrian hospitals. The saving of lives in a humanitarian intervention adds a moral benefit to the strategic benefits of action.

Option #2:  The U.S. adopts a policy of non-intervention during mass violence.

The U.S. could refuse to intervene to halt atrocities, even in cases where intervention is widely believed to be able to stop mass violence. Rather than intervening in some cases but not others, as has been the case in the last three decades, or intervening whenever possible, the U.S. could be consistent in its refusal to use force to halt genocide, ethnic cleansing, or other atrocities. Absent a formal declaration of atrocity prevention as a vital national security interest, it would not intervene in such conflicts.

Risk:  A policy of non-intervention risks bringing moral condemnation upon the United States, from the international community and from portions of the U.S. population. The U.S. risks surrendering its moral position as the world’s most powerful defender of liberal values and human rights. Furthermore, refugee flows from ongoing conflicts threaten to further destabilize societies and reduce populations’ trust in liberal democracy and international institutions.

Gain:  Non-intervention lowers the risk of U.S. military power being weakened before a potential conflict with China, Russia, Iran or North Korea. This option helps the U.S. avoid charges of inconsistency that result from intervention in some humanitarian crises but not others. The U.S. could choose to ignore the world’s condemnation, and concern itself purely with its own interests. Finally, non-intervention allows other countries to bear the burden of global stability in an increasingly multi-polar age, an age in which U.S. power is in relative decline.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] Hill, Evan and Christiaan Triebert. “12 Hours. 4 Syrian Hospitals Bombed. One Culprit: Russia.” New York Times, October 13, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/13/world/middleeast/russia-bombing-syrian-hospitals.html

[2] “Climate Change Could Force Over 140 Million to Migrate Within Countries by 2050: World Bank Report.” World Bank, March 19, 2018. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/03/19/climate-change-could-force-over-140-million-to-migrate-within-countries-by-2050-world-bank-report

[3] Power, Samantha. “Bystanders to Genocide.” Atlantic, September 2001. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/09/bystanders-to-genocide/304571

[4] Daalder, Ivo H. “Decision to Intervene: How the War in Bosnia Ended.” Brookings Institution, December 1, 1998. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/decision-to-intervene-how-the-war-in-bosnia-ended

[5] Solarz, Stephen J. “When to Go in.” Blueprint Magazine, January 1, 2000. https://web.archive.org/web/20070311054019/http://www.dlc.org/ndol_ci.cfm?contentid=1126&kaid=124&subid=158

Mass Killings Michael D. Purzycki Option Papers United States