Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 3, Issue 3  /  

Using the Threat of Violence to Contain Syria: An External Approach

Using the Threat of Violence to Contain Syria: An External Approach Using the Threat of Violence to Contain Syria: An External Approach
To cite this article: Finney, Nathan K., “Using the Threat of Violence to Contain Syria: An External Approach”, Infinity Journal, Volume 3, Issue No. 3, Summer 2013, pages 13-16.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


The conflict in Syria has replaced Afghanistan and Iran as the foreign policy and strategic issue of the day in the United States. Following on the heels of the professed humanitarian intervention in Libya, where U.S. and European forces used military force to prevent mass violence and depose an authoritarian ruler, many pundits and Congressional leaders have questioned why the U.S. has not taken the same approach in a bloodier Syria. Reported use of chemical weapons has only added to the call for intervention,[i] subsiding only slightly with the most recent reports of a diplomatic solution brokered by Russia and captured in a recent draft UN Security Council Resolution.[ii]

It is understandable that some policy makers immediately reach for the sword when addressing foreign policy challenges. For the last decade the use of violence has been the primary tool of national power employed to solve problems worldwide. However, the country has relied heavily upon the use of force to achieve its goals while overlooking an equally effective role for the military as part of U.S. strategy: deter thru the threat of violence.[iii] The threat of violence has been seen as leading to the most recent diplomatic break through on the possible removal of chemical weapons from the Assad regime, bringing Russia and Assad to the negotiation table.[iv] While a positive step, this simply removes a psychologically devastating weapon from the battlefield. It does not address the core issues in the conflict and will do nothing to stop the conflict.

With this is mind, the U.S. must take a new approach to the situation in Syria, which only marginally threatens core U.S. national interests. This approach should include the threat of violence to contain Syria, in effect assuring U.S. allies in the region and deterring the export of violence outside of the country. As noted strategist Edward Luttwak wrote recently, the U.S. will be disadvantaged if either side in Syria’s civil war wins.[v] Instead, the U.S. should adopt a policy of containment, supported by a strategy of coercion by denial that creates a stalemate to exhaust all parties involved.

The employment of violence inside Syria should only be used to ensure the credibility of deterrence and achieve limited aims that deny outside support and the export of instability from the country. Recent reports of the possible missile strikes by the U.S. government to show displeasure at Assad’s use of chemical weapons would not fall into this category. While using force in this manner (one in which coercion by punishment is employed to supposedly decrease the will of the Assad regime to use chemical weapons) was successful in bringing Assad to the negotiations table and would placate some of the more strident voices calling for action – any action – in response to the killing of innocents, it would more likely highlight the U.S. lack of will to do anything meaningful within Syria if actually conducted. Unless there are targets of great value to Assad that can be struck with missiles, thereby forcing a desired change in behavior, a strike would likely only leave the regime believing they have survived an attack by the world’s remaining superpower. Much like Saddam Hussein or Al Qaeda after multiple strikes from the U.S. in the recent past, Assad could believe such an attack showed weakness, not strength. An inadequate attack would instead decrease deterrence, not strengthen it.[vi]

A policy of containment regarding the violence in Syria would be different than the current U.S. approach, which seeks to remove Assad from power (largely through supporting the opposition) and thereby reduce the violence in Syria. The escalation by Assad to the use of chemical weapons is an indication that the approach is not meeting objectives. A containment approach focusing on denying the overflow of violence outside Syria would better align with U.S. national interests and can be developed by applying a rational analysis model to the situation in Syria and U.S. national interests in the region.[vii] Once complete, it will be apparent that U.S. interests in the region are peripheral, and U.S. actions should focus on factors external to Syria while denying the exportation of instability from Syria, which would mitigate the situation better than both the current approach and/or direct intervention in Syria.

The traditional rational approach begins by determining the U.S. national purpose, which is codified in expressed national values. These values, most recently found in the 2010 National Security Strategy, help formulate national interests and explain the lens through which the U.S. view issues affecting those national interests. The expressed national values of the U.S. are: American example/moral leadership in the world; comprehensive engagement with the world; and promoting a just and sustainable international order.[viii]

These values support the development of four core national interests: security; prosperity; respect for universal values; and a stable international order.[ix] The current administration, while focused on all four interests, appears to prioritize prosperity and international order over security and values in its decision-making.[x]

With the above factors in mind, we can derive the U.S. strategic vision as ‘the U.S. is the world’s source of moral leadership, a promoter of international stability, and a leader in increasing prosperity of the globe’. Security and universal values are addressed only in reference to how they will increase prosperity and/or the stability of the international system.

Understanding the values, interests, and vision discussed above, a strategic appraisal of U.S. interests in Syria (and the region) can be developed. This begins by determining the intensity of interests; namely, whether they are vital, important, or peripheral to the four national interests and strategic vision.[xi] In this case, U.S. interests in the region are peripheral. If the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, it would be unlikely to affect U.S. core national interests. Even if the state collapses further and draws in more outside actors, the security of the American homeland, their economic prosperity, and the overall international order will remain secure. However, the situation will continue to impact the U.S. core interest of respecting universal values, which will affect the ability of the U.S. to exert moral leadership around the globe. Domestic policy has taken greater precedence over issues like Syria since the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring and they do not look to abate. The U.S. government, and its people, is much more focused on economic issues and the size/capabilities of its armed forces than in intervention around the world. This assessment of U.S. interests will assist with choosing the types of military actions the U.S. should pursue in Syria.[xii]

General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in response to criticism from legislators on his duty to keep Congress informed as to the advice he has provided to the President, recently published a memorandum addressing the options available to the U.S. in Syria. The options included:[xiii]

  • Training, advising and assisting the opposition
  • Conducting limited stand-off strikes
  • Establishing a no-fly zone
  • Creating a buffer zone to protect certain areas inside Syria
  • Controlling Syria’s chemical weapons

These options cover the concerns of domestic and international audiences and include the use and threat of violence to achieve a policy of a reduction in violence and ultimately forcing Assad out of power. The options, which are not exclusive (i.e. they can all be done, or elements of one or more can be tailored to create an overall approach), include improving the capability of the forces fighting the Assad regime, striking key elements of the Assad regime to reduce their capability and capacity to fight, protecting rebel forces from aerial attack, creating safe zones for civilians (and ostensibly opposition forces), and gaining and maintaining control of weapons of mass destruction possessed by the Syrian government.

Each of these options assure allies and deter adversaries (including the Assad regime, its Iranian supporters, and Hezbollah), but is too focused on the internal dynamic in Syria. Given that our interests are peripheral and mainly concerned with maintaining the security of our allies in the region, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and deterring our adversaries in the region, an approach focusing on external factors and containing the spread of violence outside of Syria would be more appropriate. As Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling pointed out, the threat of future violence withheld, not the violence that has already been committed, compels people to sue for peace.[xiv]

Therefore, a policy of containment regarding possible further effects of instability in Syria better aligns with US interests, particularly given current domestic concerns. It would allow the U.S. to maintain leadership and positive engagement with the region, provide increased defensive capacity to U.S. allies, and mitigate instability coming out of Syria that affect both the international system and the global economy.

This policy can be attained through the achievement of five objectives:

  • Contain weapons of mass destruction (which is currently being attempted through the recent draft UNSCR resolution)
  • Fix Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria
  • Fix sub-state and transnational extremist forces in Syria
  • Assure allies in the region, particularly those bordering Syria
  • Prevent humanitarian disaster from overwhelming neighboring states

These objectives are focused on containing the export of violence and instability from Syria, not on solving the complex issues internal to Syria.[xv] While the ultimate form and function of the Syrian government will affect the future stability and prosperity in the region, the U.S. and its allies can do nothing definitive inside the country that will shape a favorable regime at this point. Instead, the U.S. should mitigate the overflow of instability and support the fixing of enemy elements within this conflict. This will weaken those opposed to the U.S. (primarily Iran, Hezbollah, and Islamic extremist elements), while simultaneously bolstering allies of the U.S. in the region and increasing their capacity to secure their borders.

Each of the objectives described above address the desired policy of containment and provides avenues for the expression of all the elements of national power, with a large focus on coercion through denial attained by the threat of violence. The diplomatic element of national power will take precedence and be directed toward the states bordering Syria, as well as through the development support provided for humanitarian issues. The information element of national power will support diplomatic needs through reassuring allies in the region, as well as mitigating the strategic narrative provided by Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, and the extremist elements supporting the rebels. The military element of national power (including intelligence) will provide intelligence and surveillance support on enemy elements within Syria, identify and track weapons of mass destruction, and provide defense support to neighboring allies (to include theater anti-ballistic missile capabilities, counter-terrorism support, etc.).[xvi] Finally, the economic element of national power will undergird the other elements through the provision of the small amount of resources required by the strategy.

The ways in which these objectives will be achieved will include such tasks as:

  • Determine and track biological and chemical capabilities to prevent leakage from Syria (which could be achieved through the current draft UNSCR resolution)
  • Identify and track forces/capabilities provided to Assad by Hezbollah and Iran; externally disrupt their ability to provide the Assad regime an advantage over the rebels (i.e. disrupt lines of communication from Iran/Lebanon to Syria)
  • Identify and track extremist elements in rebel groups; mitigate their strategic communication narrative by supporting moderate elements with information operations
  • Provide security support to allies that border Syria, including chemical and biological detection, anti-tank, anti-air, and anti-missile capabilities. Provide quick reaction forces in the region to support the use of force, if necessary
  • Support UN/NGOs in the establishment and management of secure and stable refugee camps on the borders with Syria

These are not the only tasks that could be conducted to achieve the objectives outlined, but are the broad approaches that could to be employed.

The approach laid out above differs from the current American direction toward Syria in one significant way: a focus on objectives that can be achieved outside of Syria. The current policy is the removal of Assad from power and the provision of support regarding the imposition of stability on Syria through rebel groups. It is primarily internally focused, with less attention on the impact on neighboring allies. This has led to the creation of red lines that cannot be enforced with the current strategy (i.e. the use of chemical weapons) and the support of rebels with non-kinetic and kinetic means.[xvii] There is a high risk of escalation with the current scenario, pitting Assad’s unlimited approach to the conflict (as he is battling for regime survival) against our limited desired ends (and even more limited desired means to be employed in the conflict).

In comparison, the strategy put forth here would draw a line between internal and external activities, focusing on the latter and minimizing the former. This approach would best address U.S. national interests by deterring adversaries that seek to export instability from Syria through the threat of violence, while mitigating any negative effects outside the borders of Syria and assuring American allies in the region. Syria would be allowed to determine its own course while also providing an opportunity to fix and deplete the resources of U.S. adversaries in the area.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government


[i] For example, see: Hadas Gold, “John McCain want Syria Intervention,” Politico,, accessed 23 August 2013 and Fred Kaplan, “Obama’s Guns of August,” Slate,, accessed 24 August 2013.
[ii] Reuters, “Text of Draft United Nations Resolution on Syrian Chemical Weapons,” The New York Times,, accessed 27 September 2013.
[iii] The threat of violence is one of two elements that make up strategy. For example, see Colin Gray’s definition found in Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), page 18: “The direction and use made of force and the threat of force for the purposes of policy as decided by politics [emphasis added].”
[iv] Associated Press, “Kerry warns Syria: ‘Threat of force is real’ if chemical weapons deal not honored,” The Washington Post,, accessed 27 September 2013.
[v] Edward N. Luttwak, “In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins,” The New York Times,, accessed 29 August 2013.
[vi] See, for example, the recent opinion piece by Eliot A. Cohen, “Syria will require more than cruise missiles,” The Washington Post,, acessed 29 August 2013.
[vii] This rational analysis is based upon the U.S. Army War College strategy formulation model, found in J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr., ed., U. S. Army War College Guide to National Security Issues, Volume II: National Security Policy and Strategy, 5th ed. (Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2012), 413.
[viii] Barack H. Obama, National Security Strategy (Washington, DC: The White House, 2010), 10-12.
[ix] Ibid, 17.
[x] Decisions such as the withdrawal from Iraq; the temporary surge in Afghanistan; the military support of operations in Libya, Uganda, and Mali; a focus on Free Trade Agreements with Colombia, South Korea, Panama, and the European Union; and domestic legislation such as the Affordable Healthcare Act all display a trend toward divesting expensive military operations, increasing the integration of allied nations and the burden sharing of international security, and improving the foundations of the American economic system over a strict focus on the promotion of universal values or security.
[xi] According to the U.S. Army War College, the intensity of national interests can be described as: (1) Vital–-If unfulfilled, will have immediate consequence for critical national interests; (2) Important--If unfulfilled, will result in damage that will eventually affect critical national interests; or (3) Peripheral--If unfulfilled, will result in damage that is unlikely to affect critical national interests.
[xii] General Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has gone on record saying that our interests in Syria are peripheral and that the opposition’s goals do not align with U.S. interests: UPI, “Dempsey: No Armed Role in Syria, Rebels don’t back U.S.,”, accessed 23 August 2013.
[xiii] Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey, “Letter to the Chairman of the Committee on Armed Services on Options Regarding Syria,” Washington, DC, July 19, 2013; also found at: Gordon Lubold, “Breaking: Every Military Option in Syria Sucks,”, accessed 23 August 2013.
[xiv] Namely, Thomas Schelling in The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).
[xv] Such measures that support bordering nations can be seen in the recent reporting of Turkey’s security force’s arrest of al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in their country with sarin gas: Foreign Military Studies Office, “Al Nusra With Sarin Gas?,” OE Watch,, accessed 29 August 2013.
[xvi] These military missions support those described by the Defense Planning Guidance and the National Military Strategy, including: countering weapons of mass destruction; providing a stabilizing presence; and performing humanitarian operations as described in the DPG and countering violent extremism and strengthening international and regional security described in the NMS. See Barack H. Obama, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (Washington, DC: The White House, 2012), 4-6 and Michael G. Mullen, National Military Strategy (Washington, DC: The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Office, 2011), 5-15.
[xvii] Two reported chemical weapons attacks have been reported, the most recent in late August. While such attacks were declared as international “red lines”, nothing has been done in response to their use, greatly reducing the ability of such red lines to deter adverse behavior or assure allies in the region. More can be found at: Max Fisher, “Five reasons the U.S. doesn’t act on Syria chemical weapons reports,” The Washington Post,, accessed 21 August 2013 and John Wihbey, “Matt Baum on the Situation in Syria,” Harvard Kennedy School of Government,, accessed 29 August 2013.