As a general rule, it is a wise idea to properly consider victory conditions before engaging in military action. This consideration also involves assessing the means by which to achieve the proposed victory and the consequences of both success and failure.
In the past, we have gone off to war without proper consideration of the victory conditions and with delusions regarding how the war would play out. Iraq is, of course, the blood-stained example of this.
In some ways, Syria is reminiscent of Iraq: we have a president proposing military action based on claims about weapons of mass destruction. In the case of Iraq, we never found any such weapons. In the case of Syria, it seems rather certain that chemical weapons are present. It also seems likely that they have been used by someone. It is certain that thousands have been killed and millions of people have been displaced. There is obviously a need for something to be done regarding Syria, but what remains to be determined is what can be done and what should be done.
Because of the American experience with Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama has been proposing a very limited approach with no “boots on the ground.” The main objectives are to punish the government for allegedly using chemical weapons and to thus deter it from using them again (assuming they were used before). As such, one victory condition would be to punish Syria and another would be to deter the use of chemical weapons.
On the face of it, blowing stuff up would be punishment—so that is an easy condition to meet. Of course, there is the question of whether or not the punishment would be just. Deterrence is rather more difficult to achieve, although these seems to be no new evidence that Syrian forces used chemical weapons again (assuming they were used once). One rather important matter is that even if the Syrian government were deterred in regards to chemical weapons, they would still presumably be free to continue the battle with conventional weapons. As such, victory would seem to be that Assad’s forces are killing people with bullets, shells and bombs rather than killing them with chemical weapons. I suppose that might be seen as some sort of victory.
There is also the broader goal/victory condition of regime change. Although the proposed attack is not supposed to be aimed at toppling the government, one objective seems to be to get rid of Assad. This raises numerous concerns.
One is, obviously enough, determining what it would take for him to relinquish power. Can he be removed by diplomacy or will force be required? Another is, also obviously, what would happen if he leaves or is removed from power. As it stands, the opposition to Assad is divided into various factions and each has its own distinct agenda. If Assad left or was removed, then that victory could lead to some rather negative consequences. For example, the civil war might shift to a battle between the various opposed factions and the killing would continue. As another example, an extremist group might eventually take power. As another example, Syria might become divided into zones controlled by various factions—perhaps similar in some ways to the divided Somalia. A failed state would obviously be a problem for everyone with interests in the region. There is also the real possibility of significant outside intervention as well. Iran, Russia and China certainly do not want Syria to collapse and Israel certainly does not want to allow its bitter enemies to gain a solid base of operation in Syria.
One thing is rather clear—we cannot bomb Syria into becoming a democracy. It might also be the case that the only way for us to not lose in Syria is to not become entangled in the civil war. While it is horrible that people are being slaughtered and displaced, we most likely lack the capability to make things any better in Syria. After all we also cannot bomb Syria into becoming a stable, war-free country.
What we can do, which we are already doing to some degree, is to provide humanitarian aid to those who have been displaced by the war and to protect them from violence. After all, by leaving they have made it clear they do not wish to be part of the civil war and keeping them from being murdered would not be morally ambiguous.