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Limiting Syria Mission to Missile Strikes Might Be Tough

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As it considers a military strike on Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Assad's regime, the Obama administration says it is not intent on regime change, but sending a message that deployment of such banned weapons will not be tolerated.

But while the administration says it has no intent of getting embroiled in a wider war, "nobody's talking about boots on the ground" in Syria, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Thursday--analysts say any U.S. strike will inevitably lead to greater involvement and require a commitment to help bring the moderate opposition to power.

"To President [Barack] Obama, a regime-change policy appears as the quickest path to a quagmire," Michael Doran, an analyst in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, wrote online for the Brookings Institution. "It is actually avoidance of regime change that will more likely lead to a quagmire."

The administration has not said what kind of strike it plans in Syria. Warships may target Syrian government infrastructure from afar in an effort to punish the regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons and deter it from future use -- but without securing weapons sites or toppling the government.

Some observers say plans for limited operations underline a gap in the way military and civilian leaders think about military force and its purpose. Technology has lowered the bar for military action at the same time popular culture has embraced the idea of the military's surgical precision, through the use of cruise missiles, drones and special operators. The result, these analysts say, is that military force becomes easier for civilian leaders to both imagine and justify.

In Syria, A lack of other good options may also play a role in the administration's eventual decision.

In a July letter to Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, outlining options in Syria, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, warned any action would likely cost billions, risk American lives and potentially drag the United States deeper into war than it might intend.

"We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action," Dempsey wrote. "Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid."

Analysts say limited operations rarely lead to the success envisioned, and military precision is often over-estimated. For military forces trained to fight and win in overwhelming style, such operations can even suggest weakness or indecision, they say.

"There is a very wide, and I would say growing, gap between military and civilian officials on the perception of what limited force can achieve," Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a recent interview.

Zenko has coined the term "discrete military operations" to describe limited uses of force such as the one reported to be in consideration against Syria, where the goal is to achieve a narrow objective, under strict rules of engagement and without destroying an enemy, controlling its territory or changing regimes. He has counted 36 such operations since 1991, with varying levels of success.

The operations typically use long-range 'stand-off' weapons like cruise missiles or drones that put few, if any, servicemembers at direct risk. They require little of the logistical groundwork needed for a conventional war, and they need no congressional approval.

Limited operations attract civilian leaders who want to send a stronger message than otherwise possible while avoiding the costs of full-scale war, Zenko and others say. Backers often say they reinforce the nation's image abroad and make its future threats more credible.

Limited operations have grown in frequency with advances in weapons systems and the absence of a counter-balancing superpower such as the Soviet Union, said Richard K. Betts, a Columbia professor who researches the connection between civilian and military leadership.

"We've gotten more accustomed to doing it on a more frequent basis since the end of the Cold War," he said.

Examples include the 1998 cruise missile strikes against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan after the al-Qaida bombings at American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; the enforcement of Iraqi no-fly zones between 1991 and 2003; and the 1993 cruise missile attack against Iraqi targets as punishment for a supposed assassination plot against President George H.W. Bush.

Yet the operations are not as effective as imagined, Zenko argues. In the 36 incidents he counts, military objectives were achieved little more than half the time, he said, while the political goals were realized in a mere 6 percent of the attacks.

Because limited operations often aim to change a regime or group's behavior by deterring it from an action or coercing it into one, measuring success is more difficult than in a conventional war, where victory depends on military objectives such as the number of targets destroyed or territory captured. Even if the enemy changes its behavior, linking the change to the military action isn't easy.

In cases where the operations are meant to punish a regime for past actions, success depends solely on whether military objectives are achieved, Zenko says.

The civilian world overestimates precision military weapons, he said, which can be affected by human error, technical malfunctions and poor intelligence. Many operations include some military setbacks; some operations are outright failures, such as the February 2001 strike against Iraqi air defenses in which all but two of the 28 missiles fired missed their targets.

"People just have this conception that is tremendously at odds with how these weapons are used," Zenko said.

The risks of even the most limited operations, meanwhile, are high, Zenko and others point out. They raise expectations and potentially set the stage for more attacks, increasing the risk of wider war or greater intervention than initially intended.

Such limited attacks also frustrate military planners. While civilian leaders may consider the use of force itself as a sign of strength or credibility, the military expects to win when it fights, said Betts, the Columbia professor.

"The civilians can breathe a sigh of relief that they did something, if the pressure was on them to do something instead of just stand by," Betts said. "Whereas the military can be frustrated that they didn't achieve much or opened themselves up to more risks."

Zenko said that from the military's perspective, if the operation is a failure, it can open the military to public criticism.

The expected operations in Syria, based on reports citing administration sources, are meant to punish the regime for crossing the "red-line" set by President Barack Obama last year and deter it from future use of chemical weapons. But both Betts and Zenko fear it will only encourage a commitment that the U.S. doesn't intend to give but that could be hard to avoid in the future.

"Once you've intervened once, it's really hard not to intervene again," Zenko said.

The idea that the nation's credibility is at stake unless it uses military force creates a depressing calculus, Betts said.

"This may be a no-win situation," he said. "If you do nothing militarily, then the Iranians and North Koreans may say, 'They're a paper tiger, and there's nothing to fear.' But if you do something small and symbolic, they may say, 'Yeah, we may have to sacrifice a little something, but in regards to standing up to a world superpower, it's a price we can pay."

beardsley.steven@stripes.com

Twitter: @sjbeardsley

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