It seems likely that during the next few days, the U.S. will carry out a limited strike on Syria. So far, the only strategic rationale for that strike has been tied to the use of chemicals weapons and enforcing barriers against the use of these and other weapons of mass destruction. The Obama Administration has gone out of its way to avoid any implication that it might also tilt the balance in the Syrian civil war, restrict the growth of Iranian and Hezbollah influence, reduce the pressure on an Iraq sandwiched between Iran and Syria, and reestablish U.S. credibility with our other regional allies while helping to protect them.
There is something to be said for the politics of the Administration's narrow approach. It severely limits the U.S. commitment to the use of force, it may well deter Syrian gas and more conventional attacks on civilian populations, and it will have some effectiveness in reducing the risk of any use of chemical weapons or weapons of mass destruction in the future. No ally has to publically commit to any broader form of intervention, and the U.S. can claim it is acting under a provision of the Chemical Weapons Convention and to deal with crimes against humanity to legitimize its action in international law.
The Key Issue is Not the Tactics of the Strikes but the Strategic Aftermath
The real issue, however, is what happens afterwards. A series of strikes on key Syrian facilities and command and control capabilities might alter the balance in the civil war, but the impact seems likely to be limited. There is a chance of some form of Syrian retaliation, or action by Hezbollah and other non-state actors that support Syrian and Iran.
More importantly, the civil war will go on - killing, wounding, pushing refugees out of their homes and often into neighboring states, and the Syrian economy will move further towards collapse. Sectarian and ethnic tensions will get worse and push all involved towards extremes. The risks Sunni extremists will gain advantage over the vast majority of Sunni moderates will grow. Alawites will grow more violent and extreme, and the forces behind Kurdish separatism will grow.
The morning after any U.S. strike, the world will start asking "what next?" What is the role if the U.S. is now going to be dealing with the Syrian civil war? What is the U.S. strategy for the Levant, the Gulf, and the region? The U.S. may earn some broader credibility for its strikes, although it may also face Syrian challenges in the UN over "illegal aggression," real and false claims of collateral damage and civilian deaths, and charges that its act increases regional instability and "chaos." Its critics and enemies will do everything possible to discredit U.S. action, backed by all those who oppose the use of force in the U.S. and the West, and its friends and allies will immediately start asking "what now?"
No amount of spin and victory claims can get around these issues. Nothing can stop critics from validly raising every past U.S. mistake in past interventions in the region and the world. If the Administration differs, studies, and argues internally - rather than presents a clear picture of the future - the benefits of even the most successful strikes will vanish within weeks.
No U.S. Action Can Control the End State, but Every U.S. Action Can Influence It
The Administration does face critical problems. The United States faces serious uncertainties in choosing any course of action in Syria. Nothing the U.S. does can predictably control the end state in Syria much less in any other part of the MENA region. The internal forces in these given countries will dominate the outcome in a nation that must now work out the consequences of half a century of incompetent authoritarian leadership, failed economic development, and suppression of tensions between an Arab Alawite elite, an Arab Sunni majority, a Kurdish minority, and other Christian and Druze minorities.