I’ve spent most of today trying awkwardly to avoid the topic of Syria. I’m giving up. I think it’s time that we have a real heart-to-heart about it. What is the Obama administration thinking? Who do they think they are? Nothing about their proposed intervention makes any sense at all to me. Seriously. I just don’t get it.

In chess, you usually try to make sure you know how your opponent is going to respond before you move, as well as how your opponent will answer your reply and whether you will like your position at that point. Most players want to be able to see at least two moves ahead, that is, they want to know what their next two moves will be as well as the opponent’s. Looking much farther than that becomes difficult, and it isn’t always necessary for a player who understands the game well. A player looking eight moves into the future confronts about as many possibilities as there are stars in a galaxy. Still, you’ve got to be able to see at least two or three moves ahead.

My question is, at what level of depth is the administration carrying out its analysis of the situation in Syria? Has any of Obama’s subordinates given any though to how Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is likely to respond to an attack on his forces? What will our response be, and what will happen then? Is the administration looking more than one move ahead?

How Assad responds depends on his perceptions. The most informative piece I’ve read on the crisis in Syria, which also explains how the regime is likely to react, is this column by Robert Danin. He is a former State Department official who has actually talked to Assad:

The Syrian leader will focus on the United States’ self-imposed prohibitions on any military action — no U.S. “boots on the ground,” no effort to overthrow the regime, no serious effort to tilt the balance of power in Syria, no “long-term campaign.” And then he will sigh in relief. Assad will take succor in Obama’s stated commitment to steps that “would be very limited and would not involve a long-term commitment or a major operation.” And why not? This amounts to saying that, other than using chemical weapons, Assad’s ruthless killing to date does not merit a U.S. response. …

As long as Assad believes the United States is not attempting to forcibly remove him from power, he probably ignore our missiles. His forces will continue using chemical weapons, perhaps even with greater frequency and insolence. It will be clear to them that the risks of doing so are not existential, and they will want to prove, if only to themselves, that they will not be intimidated.

As a result, the United States will probably be obliged to continue launching missiles, but with each strike, the risks accumulate. Assad’s motivation to use chemical weapons will increase, not decrease, as his conventional arsenal is destroyed, and if the attacks are intense enough that he and his forces fear for their survival, the United States risks a regional war. Mirella Hodelb, reporting for the Lebanon Star, suggests that Assad’s allies are seriously considering a counterattack:

The sources said that Iran and Hezbollah would throw their weight and military skills behind President Bashar Assad if the strike presented a serious threat to the regime or would significantly weaken the Syrian army, the regime’s backbone.

“Short of that,” one diplomat said, “Hezbollah and Iran are unlikely to be involved.” …

Diplomatic and political sources also revealed Syria too has a bank of targets to hit in response to any U.S. attacks, namely in Israel as well as U.S. military bases in neighboring countries such as Turkey and Jordan.

It’s difficult to know whether the voices of reason in the Iranian government would prevail, or whether there are military commanders who are already looking for an excuse to attack Israel. I just hope that someone in the administration has a plan for how the United States will respond if Iran retaliates, and I’m not really sure that anyone does.

Another possibility is that the missiles bring about the immediate collapse of Assad’s forces. David Ignatius is optimistic after a conversation with one rebel commander:

If the United States strikes, the rebels will push to seize the advantage, and the fighting could enter a decisive new stage. The United States hopes that if the opposition forces gain ground after an attack, the regime and its Russian allies would be more ready to negotiate a cease-fire.

This is essentially the endgame that Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, described in a speech yesterday. If this is the administration’s strategy, however, it would be much more effective if they avoided talking about narrow, limited, and tailored strikes. Instead, the administration should be preparing for regime change through military force. The current debate here in Washington will encourage Assad’s allies to support him as they’ve been doing if he is weakened and prolong the killing. Iran and Hezbollah will bet that the United States lacks the political appetite for continuing to escalate the conflict.

Again, I’d be less concerned if I believed that someone in the administration is considering how the United States will respond if Iran or Hezbollah send more arms and fighters to Syria in response to a military intervention, or if they retaliate overtly. Power simply dismissed these risks yesterday with the argument that the current situation is unacceptable. It could still get much worse, though, particularly if we intervene.

“The cost of not taking targeted, limited military action are far greater than the risks of going forward in the manner that President Obama has outlined,” Power said. She talked about the consequences of the continued use of chemical weapons in Syria, both for Syrians and for the rest of the world in future conflicts, but she never explained how a military intervention would solve any of the problems she identified, or why the administration is trying to solve those problems with a “targeted, limited” action. Most of all, she never said what the United States plans to do if the violence worsens as a result of our actions there. The administration appears to be suffering from exactly the same myopia that doomed Iraq in 2003.

Max Ehrenfreund

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund