Why a Missile Strike on Syria Could Make Things Worse

Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View writing about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and national affairs. He is a national correspondent for the Atlantic, the author of "Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror" and a winner of the National Magazine Award for reporting. He has also covered the Middle East as a staff writer for the New Yorker.
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So what exactly is the most telegraphed missile strike in history meant to achieve?

Such a strike -- now in the works at the White House -- clearly isn't meant to speed regime change in Syria, where the government killed more than 1,300 people using chemical weapons last week, according to opposition groups. There's no indication that regime change is President Barack Obama's goal, and a limited attack probably couldn't accomplish such a thing anyway.

Is it meant to signal to Syria's barbaric president, Bashar al-Assad, that he should please resist the urge, tempting though it is, to kill his country's children with chemical weapons and instead limit himself to killing children with bullets and bombs, which he has used effectively and without much in the way of outside interference for more than two years?

Well, no, of course it isn't meant to signal such a dastardly thing. But that may be the upshot of a limited strike.

Assad's plan this week is fourfold: hunker down, survive whatever attack is materializing on the horizon, emerge from his bunker declaring victory over the perfidious Americans (no matter how many of his army bases and command posts and aircraft are on fire), and privately internalize the lesson of the American strike, which is to lay off the gas.

He may also conclude -- depending on the flow of events and the level of international anxiety that results -- that the Obama administration has spent itself on Operation Red Line and that no further attacks will be forthcoming. And he might not be wrong to consider his regime safe from further American punishment.

Which is why such an attack may not be the best idea.

What's a better idea? A better idea would be to commit the U.S. fully to the removal of the Assad regime. This doesn't require direct American military action. It requires the formulation of a long-term, complicated and obviously precarious program that would do what should have been done all along: Build up the non-jihadi branches of the Syrian opposition while working with our allies to marginalize the jihadis.

Does this count as a good idea? In 2011, it would have. Now it's a dangerous, though perhaps salutary, idea. But it isn't as dangerous as a one-off missile strike that could -- by reinforcing the notion that every brutal thing short of Obama's chemical-weapons red line is permissible -- lead to endless death.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com