WASHINGTON — Not long after the uprising in Syria turned bloody late in the spring of 2011, the Pentagon and the National Security Agency developed a battle plan that featured a sophisticated cyberattack on the Syrian military and President Bashar Assad’s command structure.
For President Barack Obama, who has been adamantly opposed to direct U.S. intervention in a worsening crisis in Syria, such methods would seem to be an obvious, low-cost, low-casualty alternative. But after briefings on variants of the plans, he has so far turned them down.
The Obama administration has been engaged in a largely secret debate about whether cyberarms should be used like ordinary weapons, whether they should be rarely used covert tools, or whether they ought to be reserved for extraordinarily rare use against the most sophisticated, hard-to-reach targets.
And looming over the issue is the question of retaliation: whether such an attack on Syria’s air power, its electric grid or its leadership would prompt Syrian, Iranian or Russian retaliation in the United States.
It is a question Obama has never spoken about publicly. He has put the use of such weapons largely into the hands of the NSA, which operates under the laws guiding covert action. As a result, there is little of the public discussion that accompanied the arguments over nuclear weapons in the 1950s and ‘60s.
But to many inside the administration, who declined to speak for attribution on discussions about one of the United States’ most highly classified abilities, Syria puts the issue back on the table.
One of the central issues is whether such a strike on Syria would be seen as a justified humanitarian intervention, less likely to cause civilian casualties than airstrikes, or whether it would only embolden U.S. adversaries who have themselves been debating how to use the new weapons.
Jason Healey, the director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council, argues that it is “worth doing to show that cyberoperations are not evil witchcraft but can be humanitarian.”
But others caution whether that would really be the perception.
“Here in the U.S. we tend to view a cyberattack as a de-escalation — it’s less damaging than airstrikes,” said Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution scholar who has recently published a book titled “Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know.” “But elsewhere in the world it may well be viewed as opening up a new realm of warfare.”