I’ve been arguing for air strikes in Syria for a while now, seeing it both as a potentially useful first step toward ending the violence there, but also as a valid stand-alone policy for the purposes of punishment and bolstering future deterrence in mass killing scenarios.
Part of my reason for making this argument is that I think air power is potentially more effective that many analysts believe. For reasons that are not wholly clear to me, we tend to focus on what air power can’t do. And indeed, it cannot, by itself, dislodge entrenched conventional forces, it cannot (usually) break civilian morale, it cannot stop mass killings, and it cannot win hearts and minds.
But, I think we need to take a harder look at what a sustained air offensive does do in terms of breaking down the resilience of military organizations, particularly their ability to operate as a coherent whole, responsive to top-down direction. Air offensives tend to atomize military organizations and enforce demodernization as troops abandon large, easily targeted platforms and above-ground installations. The types of organizations that can best handle that are, paradoxically the very best organizations, i.e those with strong leaders at all levels who are able to improvise and operate autonomously, and the worst, i.e. those who never relied on platforms and never actually accepted top-down command and control. But the Syrian forces are in that sweet spot for vulnerability to air strikes — a lumbering, top-down organization that would have trouble operating in a decentralized and demodernized context. I will continue to flesh out this argument, but if you actually consider what airpower does rather than focusing on what it does not do,I think the potential vulnerability of Syrian forces becomes more apparent.
That said, I don’t want to come off as a huge supporter of intervention by itself. As a practical matter, the single best course of action at this point is to find a way to extend a credible offer of asylum to Assad beyond the reach of the ICC, along with specific NEO plans to get him and his close associates out, combined with guarantees for the security of the Alawi community.
Right now, we’ve given Assad no plausible way out. I think air power can be more useful than critics realize, but it is also probably much less useful at this point than a thoughtful asylum offer would be.