Experts said Thursday that the Obama administration’s latest plan to order limited strikes in Syria would fail to influence a bloody conflict that has only worsened since the president’s call two years ago for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
The conflict, which started as peaceful protests against Assad’s rule and escalated into a rebellion against the dictator, has attracted thousands of Sunni jihadists who oppose Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect of Shiite Islam.
Experts at the Brookings Institution said the window of opportunity for U.S. intervention was much wider before the Syrian conflict became a sectarian one.
"The president could have taken those elements, created an opposition, and built up the [pro-democratic] Free Syrian Army, and then we wouldn’t be looking at a unilateral action," said Michael Doran, a senior fellow at Brookings Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
"Now he’s got the opposite," he added, referring to opposition in Britain and among U.S. lawmakers.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee narrowly passed a resolution Wednesday authorizing limited strikes in Syria for a period of 60 days in retaliation for the chemical weapons attack but blocked the use of American ground troops.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) successfully amended the resolution to encourage a "comprehensive strategy" to aid the more pro-Western elements of the Syrian opposition. The measure now heads to a full vote in the Senate next week but might face more staunch opposition in the House.
Jeremy Shapiro, visiting foreign policy fellow at Brookings, opposed the strikes and said Obama lacked a broader plan to stabilize Syria and should not compound the "mistake" of drawing a red line. Otherwise, the strike would be successful, he said.
"It’s difficult to imagine the attack failing on its own terms since its not supposed to accomplish anything," he said.
A major sticking point for many opponents of intervention in Syria is the influx of foreign jihadists into the country. U.S. officials claim that anywhere between 15 percent and half of the 70,000 to 100,000 opposition fighters are extremists, according to reports from the New York Times.
The Times also reported that groups with loose connections to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) operate in lawless regions of the country outside of government influence, such as one band of about 300 fighters that recently executed Syrian soldiers in a video and has promised "the extermination" of Alawites.
However, other experts who have visited the region say the al Qaeda-linked groups Jabhat al Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq are mostly confined to northern parts of the country while more moderate rebel groups attempt to protect Alawites and Christians, work with local administrative councils, and fight Assad head on near Damascus.
Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at Brookings’ Saban Center, said the state of the opposition remains murky.
"Anyone who tells you the various al Qaeda factions are 30, 40, 50 percent of the opposition—your alarm bells should go off. How do they know things like that? It’s doubtful al Qaeda knows," Riedel said.
Doran argued that it is in the United State’s strategic interests to try and assist the FSA while a moderate opposition still exists in preparations for a post-Assad Syria. The conflict has evolved into a regional power struggle, he said, noting that Iran and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah are backing Assad.
Failure to act would also hamper alliances with nations like Turkey, who have turned a "blind eye" to the entrance of jihadists into the region, he said.
"The goal of acting is not to have a military presence on the ground but to translate our interests and our skin in the game to our allies," he said.
"Supposedly we have a global strategy to combat al Qaeda," he added.
"It’s a huge strategic failure we have to think about."