Experts said Tuesday that the limited strikes proposed by President Barack Obama would prove ineffective and likely only embolden Iran and terrorist groups.
The United States could degrade Assad’s air power by striking stationary targets such as air bases and airports and covertly aid moderate rebels that have resisted integrating with jihadist groups also fighting Assad, the experts said during a panel discussion at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).
However, Obama wants the United States to appear involved in the conflict without having to actually become involved, said Tony Badran, a research fellow at FDD and expert on Syria and Lebanon.
Badran pointed to a story in the Wall Street Journal Tuesday describing internal deliberations the Obama administration held to formulate a response to a chemical weapons attack by Assad.
"The White House wants to strengthen the opposition but doesn't want it to prevail, according to people who attended closed-door briefings by top administration officials over the past week," the Journal reported.
The Journal cited concerns from administration officials that a CIA weapons program announced in June to provide the rebels with small arms has thus far been unable to establish a secure "pipeline" to prevent those weapons from flowing to jihadist groups.
"If this is the kind of logic that continues, whatever the nature of the strikes, it’s not going be very helpful going forward," Badran said.
"If it’s divorced from a broader strategy, the effect is going to be rather limited."
Badran added that the conventional media narrative that Assad’s forces have been building momentum on the battlefield contradicts recent gains by the rebels in the suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian capital in the country’s southern region.
Assad’s choosing to attack those suburbs with chemical weapons—killing 1,429 people including at least 426 children, according to U.S. intelligence assessments—signals a position of weakness rather than strength, he said.
"It was an act, if anything, of rage and frustration rather than confidence and gaining ground," he said.
John Hannah, a senior fellow at FDD and former national security adviser for Vice President Dick Cheney, argued that the use of chemical weapons by Assad evinces the need for a broader U.S. strategy to ensure that al Qaeda-linked groups like Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq do not obtain these weapons and co-opt the more moderate rebel groups. The U.S. must realize that Syria will no longer remain an Arab nationalist state ruled by a dictator, he added.
"There remains a real and viable armed opposition fighting force that is not jihadist and are people the U.S. can work with," he said.
Badran also suggested striking the Syrian government’s airfields northeast of Damascus, such as one airbase that is a critical conduit to supplies from Iran, an ally of Assad.
The Syrian conflict has claimed more than 100,000 lives since public protests sparked a civil war in 2011. The United Nations said Tuesday that more than 2 million Syrian refugees have cascaded into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, marking the gravest crisis since the Vietnam War.
Members of both political parties have expressed skepticism about the president’s plans for limited strikes and questioned the wisdom of aiding the opposition, citing concerns that Syria has become a "breeding ground" for thousands of foreign jihadists. Congress is expected to vote on authorization of the strikes next week.
Other experts argue that the jihadist groups are mostly concentrated in northern regions of Syria and that moderate opposition groups could prevail over Assad if provided with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapon systems.
Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, wrote in a Wall Street Journal column Saturday that moderate rebel groups have defended minority Alawite and Christian villages from Assad’s forces and extremist groups and worked closely with local administrative councils.
Conversely, jihadist groups have imposed Sharia law in the north and incited protests from thousands of citizens, wrote O’Bagy, who has made numerous trips to Syria in the past year and just returned from a trip in early August.
"The U.S. must make a choice," she wrote. "It can address the problem now, while there is still a large moderate force with some shared U.S. interests, or wait until the conflict has engulfed the entire region. Iran and its proxies will be strengthened, as will al Qaeda and affiliated extremists. Neither of these outcomes serves U.S. strategic interests."