As the U.S. Congress and White House debate whether and how to respond to the Syrian government's alleged use of chemical weapons, one thing is already certain: a U.S. military strike inside the warring country has the potential to produce unintended consequences.
The best such scenario for the White House would be to help the opposition score a decisive victory against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, paving the way for pro-democratic forces to take power.
In the worst case, intervention would help the opposition score a decisive victory against Assad and Islamist groups such as the Al-Qaeda-aligned Al-Nusra Front would end up in charge.
"One of the greatest challenges for the United States, and frankly for our NATO allies, the international community at large, has been, to what degree do we support the opposition and change the balance of power in Syria?" says Mark Jacobson, a former U.S. Defense Department official who now specializes on emerging defense and security-policy threats as a fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
"We don't exactly know who is in the opposition or, more specifically, we don't exactly know what actions they will take if they are able to overthrow the regime."
No matter which group takes over after Assad, Jacobson says, the road ahead won't be easy. "Make no mistake: if Assad falls, there's an entirely new set of problems having to do with rebuilding a failed state," he says. "And this will mean the sort of attention from the international community that, frankly, I think many [countries] are trying to avoid at this point."
To achieve Obama's objective of deterring the future use of chemical weapons, Jacobson predicts Pentagon planners will choose high-visibility targets such as Syria's Defense Ministry and Air Force.
"After all, the reason we are contemplating military action is that Assad has indiscriminately put his population at risk. It's unlikely that we will see attacks on chemical weapons themselves," Jacobsen says. "The Assad regime has been moving these around for some time, [and] you increase the likelihood for civilian casualties, whether it's through the improper destruction of the weapons or because Assad has placed military forces in heavily populated areas."
What If Assad's Regime Survives?
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told members of Congress earlier this week that he was "100 percent certain" Assad would use chemical weapons again if the United States didn't act. But what if Washington acts and Assad doesn't get the message? In the event Assad used chemical weapons in the future, Jacobson says, the U.S. military would have to reengage with "overwhelming force."
That scenario concerns Dov Zakheim, who was undersecretary of defense under President George W. Bush. Zakheim says the United States could achieve its goal of "teaching Assad a lesson not to use chemical weapons," but also runs the risk of being dragged into a full-blown regional war. Whichever way you look at it, he says, "the outcomes are not very pleasant."
"If Assad survives, Hizballah is still in business, Iran is still in business, and Assad is still in business," Zakheim says. "If Assad falls, then we are now going to be blamed for regime change once again, and the Iranians may well decide the only way to avoid their regime being changed is to follow the lead of North Korea and acquire nuclear capability openly, more quickly, and more defiantly -- and then what does the United States do?"
That was one of the big questions at a September 3 Senate hearing: Would Iran be emboldened in its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons if Washington did not hold Assad accountable? No one said "no."
What If A Wider War Breaks Out?
But Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the Middle Eastern Studies program at Syracuse University, is skeptical. "I don't think I agree with that rhetoric," he says. "It seems to me more of a justification for going to war against Syria than the real basis of reality with Iran."
Boroujerdi says Iran "has its own set of complex dynamics" and will act in its own interest, regardless of what happens in Syria. He also throws cold water on the theory that Iran would refuse to negotiate on its nuclear program if the United States intervened in Syria. He says the success or failure of this month's talks between Iran and the P5+1 negotiating group will depend on what's on the table, not on the battlefield.
As for Russia, one of Syria's strongest allies, military and diplomatic analysts foresee a possible increase in supplies of weapons to Assad following a strike, but not much else.
Retaliatory attacks on Israel in the event of U.S. intervention are also unlikely, says the German Marshall Fund's Jacobson. "I happen to think, amongst others, that neither the Iranians nor the Syrians are suicidal in that regard, and that dragging the Israelis into this changes the entire scope of the conflict, and will almost undoubtedly result in the complete destruction of the Syrian regime."
What concerns Middle East watchers the most, he says, is that while it may be relatively easy to hold Assad accountable for using chemical weapons by firing off a few missiles, "it is going to be extraordinarily difficult to decouple that from the larger problem of the opposition and the civil war in Syria."