Skip to main content

A U.S. strike would be self-wounding

By Kapil Komireddi, Special to CNN
September 3, 2013 -- Updated 1052 GMT (1852 HKT)
A protester demonstrates against potential U.S. intervention in Syria on Saturday, September 7, in Chicago. President Barack Obama has sought congressional approval to attack Syria in response to allegations that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons on their own people. A protester demonstrates against potential U.S. intervention in Syria on Saturday, September 7, in Chicago. President Barack Obama has sought congressional approval to attack Syria in response to allegations that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons on their own people.
HIDE CAPTION
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
Protests against military action in Syria
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kapil Komireddi: If U.S. engages in Syria over chemical weapons, it could be in for the long haul
  • He says rebels -- now including jihadists -- have long tried to draw outside forces to cause
  • He says opposition will know that use of chemical weapons works to its advantage
  • Komireddi: U.S. could end up fighting Syria's jihadists and the Assad regime

Editor's note: Kapil Komireddi is an Indian journalist who writes on South Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama said he is not seeking "regime change" in Syria. Military action in Syria, he said this weekend as he sought congressional approval, will be limited. These assurances are meant to reassure those who fear a repeat of Iraq. But the idea of a limited intervention is an illusion. Once the United States becomes directly involved in Syria, there can be no turning back.

The purpose of limited strikes would be to convey a message to Bashar al-Assad: Don't use chemical weapons. But a U.S. attack could potentially widen, rather than halt, the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Syria, as a united entity, exists today only on the map. On the ground, competing interests have fractured the country. No party can claim to represent even a modest plurality of Syrians, and no power can claim authority over a majority of the territory. But a formidable Arab state exists in Damascus, and the numerous forces striving to seize it or bring about its demise are so hopelessly riven internally that they cannot possibly win without external support. For more than two years now, they have attempted to incite Western intervention by exhibiting evidence of the Assad government's brutality.

Is it 'High Noon' for Obama on Syria?

Kapil Komireddi
Kapil Komireddi

By intervening now to inflict limited punishment on al-Assad because chemical weapons have been used, the United States is erecting a precedent that could be exploited in the future by the more unscrupulous factions of the opposition looking to provoke further interventions. The knowledge that Washington will intervene if chemical weapons are used could create an incentive for their re-use by those who would benefit from such an intervention.

By seemingly spurning meticulous multilateral investigations led by the United Nations in a rush to fix the blame on al-Assad, the United States is signaling also that, in its opinion, only the regime is capable of carrying out large-scale chemical attacks. This template will produce deadly temptations. As the novelist Amitav Ghosh, who spent long years studying insurgencies in Asia, has observed, in civil conflicts "the very prospect of intervention" often becomes a stimulus for the "the escalation of violence" by the weaker side.

If limited use of chemical weapons can succeed in drawing the United States into the conflict in a way that 100,000 deaths by conventional arms could not, they could be viewed by al-Assad's adversaries -- particularly by the foreign fighters affiliated with al Qaeda -- as a blessing rather than a scourge. The effort to "liberate" Syria could become dependent for its success on the partial annihilation of Syrians with chemical weapons -- since they are the only agents of murder that can trigger a U.S. reaction.

Obama, Congress in Syria quagmire
Understanding Syria's al-Assad family
Congress wants more details on Syria
iReporters mixed on Syria intervention

We cannot be certain about the security of the chemical weapon stockpiles in the Syrian government's custody. Its power structure has so far remained largely intact, but, as last year's suicide bombing in Damascus that killed al-Assad's inner circle and maimed his brother demonstrated, the regime is not impregnable.

Syria vote could have consequences for 2016

In a land shattered by war, loyalties are constantly shifting and obtaining fatal nerve agents may not be tremendously difficult. In 1995, for example, an obscure Japanese cult called Aum Shinrikyo managed to kill 13 passengers on the Tokyo subway by releasing sarin gas developed from commercially available chemicals.

So what will the United States do the next time chemical weapons are used in Syria? More than 1,000 deaths are prompting the United States -- despite the absence of conclusive evidence linking the Assad regime to the crime -- to intervene. Can it refuse to live up to its own precedent if 10,000 Syrians were killed in a fresh massacre after Obama's "limited" intervention has concluded? Won't the voices that are now so stridently opposing patient investigations and diplomacy in favor of military action amplify their demands?

But a deeper military involvement will be so self-wounding as to be suicidal. Syria has become a catchment for foreign fighters from more than 60 countries. Their ambition is not simply to defeat al-Assad. It is to establish a theocratic state in the most resolutely secular corner of the Arab world. It is the rise of these jihadists that has compelled Syria's secularists and religious minorities, who at the beginning of the uprising in 2011 had marched alongside the opposition, to return to al-Assad's fold.

To rid Syria of al-Assad's dictatorship and prevent it from falling into the hands of jihadists who are cut from the same ideological cloth as the men who drove the planes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the United States may have to commit itself to Syria for more than a decade -- fighting the jihadists, subduing al-Assad and his allies in Hezbollah, protecting Israel and preserving Lebanon's fragile peace. After Afghanistan and Iraq, is there an appetite for such an enterprise anywhere?

Military has concerns about Syria mission

Intervening in Syria will perhaps pacify Obama's conscience. But in Syria, there's every chance that it will escalate the conflict. Ultimately tantalizing the losing side in the Syrian civil war with a brief, punitive, "limited" entry on its behalf will only hasten the creation of conditions that will eventually suck America back into the conflict.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kapil Komireddi.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT