Wise heads in the White House have no doubt parsed this problem, which prompts one to wonder whether the real plan is to hit regime forces very hard, turning the tide in this conflict. As the president noted in his speech, our military "doesn't do pinpricks." But if this is really the direction in which we're headed, then the problem of our pursuing the same war aim as al Qaeda pops up. As Nibras Kazimi presciently pointed out in his Syria Through Jihadist Eyes, published just before the war, al Qaeda and other zealots see the Assad regime as "the perfect enemy." Defeating the "intelligence barons and soldiers who run the country," as Kazimi labels them, is a goal of many -- not only jihadists. But keeping an al Qaeda-friendly government from power after the fall of the regime would require greater military involvement in Syria, and for a long time.
Given that President Obama's strategy will not relieve the suffering of the Syrian people if the military action he proposes is too light, and that our principal enemy, al Qaeda, will reap great dividends if the action taken is heavy enough to topple the Assad regime, the logical thing for Congress and the American people to ask should be: "Is there a middle way to proceed?" Those with memories of Clinton-era strategy will frame the question in terms of "triangulation."
What would a third way look like? If the goal is the protection of the Syrian people -- the "plainly just cause" to which the president alluded -- then the military action taken should start simply with giving air cover to areas controlled by anti-regime forces. This would prevent Assad's air force from bombarding these people, and protection of this airspace would not require a lengthy suppression of regime air defenses. If Assad used his long-range missiles instead of attack aircraft, then counter-missile fire would be used against the regime's launchers. And if Assad resorted again to chemical weapons, then the case for a more full-bodied response would be far easier to make. Russia and Iran would have little choice but to cut Assad adrift if he used WMD yet again.
The attractiveness of this middle-way alternative to the president's plan lies in its conception of "military intervention" as being about using intervening forces to shore up rebel defenses, not to strike immediately at the regime. Bashar al-Assad would thus have what the Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling called, in his classic Strategy of Conflict, the "last clear chance" to avoid a catastrophic escalation of violence. This approach, ratcheting up the violence only if Assad tried to do so first, would leave room for diplomatic efforts to bring the war to an end. One possible outcome might be the enactment of a ceasefire, followed by a negotiated settlement that would move the country more toward democracy while keeping Assad as head of state for a while -- but making sure to eviscerate the power brokers around him who tamped down his own liberalizing tendencies when he first came to power.
Obtaining such a result would require the rebels to be willing to make peace with Bashar al-Assad remaining in office -- something President Obama, as of last night, seems willing to accept. But a peace agreement would also require the regime to see most of its organizational strength dissolved. If one side or the other -- or both -- fail to seize the chance to end this tragic war along these lines, then the protection provided by American and allied forces -- and there will be allies in support of this approach -- would still be in place, there at least to reduce the human suffering. A worthy goal in its own right.
Overall, the third way I have advanced would avoid the many contradictions that bedevil the Obama plan. Some may say that seeing this alternative work all the way through to a negotiated peace along the lines I have suggested is quite a longshot. Yes, probably so. But it is a plan with much better odds of succeeding than President Obama's threatened shot across the bow.