Streetwise Professor

August 24, 2013

Syria: All the Options are Terrible

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 4:18 pm

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has been very negative about any US military involvement in Syria.  The military takes this position when either (1) it truly believes that the use of military force will not achieve a satisfactory outcome at a satisfactory cost in lives and money, or (2) it has serious doubts about the political support for military engagement.  In the case of Syria, I strongly suspect that (2) drives Dempsey’s opposition to US intervention, but that the messy aftermaths in Iraq and Libya have also convinced him (and the rest of the military) that (1) is true too.  Obama is obviously allergic to military intervention, and the military is no doubt fearful of getting involved in  a conflict with a commander in chief who is not committed to seeing things through.  There is no deep political support in the country for intervention.  Viet Nam and Iraq still haunt the US military.  So Dempsey has resorted to the common tactic of a commander who does not want to be ordered into combat: he emphasizes the negative, and the capabilities of the would-be enemy.

But the recent alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in an attack that reportedly killed hundreds-mainly children-has changed the dynamic dramatically.  This attack, if it indeed occurred-and the initial US assessment is that it did-took place on the anniversary of Obama’s drawing of a “red line” involving Syrian CW use.  Obama gave himself an out a year ago, with the “whole bunch” proviso.  Well, an attack that kills hundreds would be hard to write off as a minor employment of WMD.  Obama is hoist on his own petard, and quite honestly, even if he had not staked his-and the country’s-credibility on this issue, the pressure to intervene in the aftermath of a proven mass-casualty CW attack would be intense.  The drawing of the red line only makes it harder for Obama to resist this pressure.

Consequently, the US is apparently assembling a target list, and if Assad’s use of CW is confirmed, some action is highly likely, even in the face of Russian and Chinese opposition.

In my opinion, Dempsey has exaggerated the dangers and costs of a US air campaign against Assad.  Yes, Syrian air defenses are more formidable than Libya’s were, but they are still a Russian-designed system operated by Arabs.  Pretty much every one of those has been shredded, either by the US or Israel, every time they have been attacked since 1973.  (I always remember Moshe Dyan’s answer to the question of how he explained his military success: “Fighting Arabs.”  This is particularly true when it comes to anything involving the operation of technically advanced systems.)

This quite useful presentation provides an overview of how an air campaign would proceed.  It clearly suggests that such a campaign could be successful with very minor risks to US personnel, and at modest cost.

A robust air campaign against Assad would seriously jeopardize his ability to survive.  But then what?

That’s the real problem.  Perhaps if the US had intervened in US and toppled Assad in 2011, a somewhat stable outcome could have been achieved.  Stable by Mideastern standards, anyways.  Maybe like Iraq, circa 2008-2009.  You wouldn’t want to live there, but it could be worse.

That’s no longer an option: it now will be worse than Iraq post-Surge, and likely worse than Iraq pre-Surge.  In the last two years, the Islamist fanatics, many of them foreigners, have come to dominate the opposition.  Assad’s fall would result in a bloody civil war between the factions of the opposition, and the communities that support Assad (notably the Alawites).  The place would become a horror show, a magnet for jihadists, and a sanctuary for terrorists.

The US Army and Marines have no stomach for getting involved in such a fight, the American people have no stomach for it, and it is hard to justify on the basis of our national interest.  Some Europeans, notably the French and British, are currently all hot to intervene, but given their pathetic military capabilities, that’s a case of “let’s you and him fight.”  Moreover, you know that as soon as things get tough, or at the first claim that the US military has committed an atrocity, the Europeans would be self-righteously criticizing us.

So I have little doubt that US airpower could make relatively short work of Assad’s military forces and government, and tip the balance to the opposition (who were on the verge of victory early this year without air support) but the aftermath would be a bloody mess, and we would be led by a CIC who would have no stomach for the fight.  So I can understand Dempsey’s reluctance completely.

I am seriously conflicted about how to proceed.  On the one hand, I cannot abide Assad and his brutality, and the use of chemical weapons on civilians would put him well beyond the pale.  But I foresee a bloody, messy, inconclusive aftermath of his overthrow.  The US military would have a thankless task.  It could be totally confident that the Europeans who support intervention now would desert at the first sign of trouble, and can provide  no meaningful military heft.  The cynical ultra-realists say that the US should just let the two sides kill one another, thereby distracting them from terrorizing us: this is a variant of the Kissingerian “it’s too bad they both can’t lose” attitude to the Iran-Iraq war.  But that is profoundly amoral, because it’s not just jihadis and Syrian government thugs who would be dying: innocent civilians would bear the brunt.

Things would have been ugly in 2011, but things will be infinitely uglier now.  2012 and 2013 are years of the locust.  2014 and beyond will be hell, regardless of what Obama decides to do.  We are where we are, and where we are is not a good place to be.

If I had to choose, I would decide that removing Assad would have some geopolitical benefits, and would not make the humanitarian situation any worse.  Syria is Iran’s major ally, and its bridgehead to Hezbollah.  Assad’s fall would be a strategic blow to Iran, and thus would be a strategic benefit to us.  But this objective is not sufficiently beneficial to justify the commitment of any American ground forces.  So I would limit American involvement to a robust air campaign targeting the Syrian air force, command and control targets, chemical weapons facilities, air defenses, and Hezbollah logistics and support, supplemented by a program to arm the opposition, trying to the extent possible to direct the weapons to the least bad guys.  And I would plan like hell for the myriad contingencies that may follow.

What I definitely would not do is what Obama is apparently considering, namely, a set of limited strikes intended to “send a message.”  Back in the day, I would have said if you want to send a message, use Western Union.  That’s obsolete, but the concept is fully operative.  The message that would be sent is that we lack seriousness and are just doing something because we have to do something so it doesn’t look like we’re doing nothing.  Such actions betray a lack of will and seriousness and actually tend to encourage rather than deter thuggish rulers.  We don’t need Rolling Thunder in the desert.  It would also unleash all of the negative diplomatic consequences that a more aggressive strike would.

In other words: moderation in war is imbecility (attributed variously to Lord Fisher and Macaulay).  Or in other other words: If you want to take Vienna, take Vienna. Assad is facing an existential moment.  We are not going to change his “calculus”: he isn’t going to back down in a war for survival in the face of attacks that don’t threaten his survival.  We cannot affect his will to survive: we can affect his capability to survive.  The best we can do is affect the “correlation of forces” to use the old Soviet term. By so doing, we can increase the odds that he will topple.

Even if this is done, the aftermath will be very ugly.  But so are all the other alternatives.  This just seems the least ugly of a hideously repulsive lot.  Act or don’t act, we’ll be blamed for whatever ugliness transpires.  Contributing to Assad’s overthrow would at least have some strategic benefits.  So, with reluctance, I guess that’s the way I’d go.

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  1. A very good argument for the use of a nuke, learn ’em a lesson. If no side is good, eliminate them all.

    The Pilot

    Comment by The Pilot — August 24, 2013 @ 7:57 pm

  2. I’m a bit skeptical of this chemical weapons attack. If the Assad regime is going to use chemical weapons, they’re not likely to do so in the capital city where they all live. Some rebel village yes, the capital city? Doesn’t sound very likely.

    Some Europeans, notably the French and British, are currently all hot to intervene…

    Well, the politicians are. I don’t think the public is in the slightest bit interested. We’re pretty tired of war after Iraq and Afghanistan.

    But that is profoundly amoral, because it’s not just jihadis and Syrian government thugs who would be dying: innocent civilians would bear the brunt.

    Yes, but why oh why is is *always* the Americans and Brits who are expected to find their morals and move to protect the civilians? They’ve done their bit, not this time. Let somebody else grab the nettle. If nobody else does, well…that’s kind of harsh on the civilians, but the US cannot be expected to step in every single time, especially when all it does is incur the wrath of the rest of the world.

    Comment by Tim Newman — August 25, 2013 @ 5:52 am

  3. “In other words: moderation in war is imbecility”

    Clausewitz sez different. Clausewitz sez the varying value of political objectives makes the military means vary, from the great two-handed sword, cutting once and for all with all one’s strength, to a mere foil, fit only for feints&thrusts&parries.

    Comment by Paili — August 25, 2013 @ 9:14 am

  4. Actually Tim, if they are non persistent agents used in rebel controlled areas that the government has had immense trouble retaking, then it is quite likely they used them.

    If it was a biological weapon used I’d agree.

    But I see no reason they wouldn’t have used a non persistent agent on their own people. After all, they have used everything else like Willy Peter (white phosphorous), Napalm, cluster bombs, rape, torture etc on their own people.

    Comment by Andrew — August 25, 2013 @ 11:23 am

  5. @Tim. I see your points, and am sympathetic. Hence my ambivalence. To answer you question re why the US and UK are always looked to: High Noon comes to mind.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 25, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

  6. @Paili-My post is consistent with Clausewitz’s dicta. 1. I specifically state that the value of the objective (toppling Assad) is not worth the commitment of US ground forces. I’m an economist, and trade-offs of costs and benefits is in my DNA. Clausewitz is basically saying weigh the trade-offs. 2. My criticism of the “sending a message” is also consistent with Clausewitz. I criticize that because that method cannot achieve any political objective, and might achieve the exact opposite, as was the case with Rolling Thunder in Viet Nam.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 26, 2013 @ 8:54 am

  7. The first thing to do is understand our ability to influence events in Syria is limited. All options are bad. Innocent civilians will keep dying for years regardless of what we do. Syria is what I thought Libya might become – this is the Spanish Civil War of the current era.

    The only real option for the US is to acknowledge that there is more than two sides in Syria. There is Assad and anti-Assad forces of course, but both are coalitions – especially among the anti-Assad forces. We need to identify those forces on both sides most amenable to the US and strengthen them.

    On the Assad side, it’s simply making contact with certain groups and letting them know that while we are against Assad, we are not against the Alawites in general, and the Christians and Druzes who feel forced to cooperate with him for their survival. That’s all that can be done at this point. Anything more has to wait until the dynamics of the war change. If they do, then it’s about talking with them on meeting their security needs if they defect from Assad.

    On the anti-Assad side, it’s figuring out who is an enemy to the US and who is a potential friend. In the potential friend column, it is only the Kurds and the organized secular Arab Sunnis. Both are small in number, but irregardless we need to support them AND ONLY THEM to the hilt with training, weapons, and equipment. To the true jihadists, we should do nothing to help them or hurt them.

    The goal should not be toppling Assad, but strenghtening the friendly “pro-US” (really meaning not hostile to the US) forces for the showdown that happens AFTER Assad and the jihadists wear themselves out. The goal is to prevent both Assad winning and for the jihadists to wipe out the secular Arabs like the Spanish Communists did to the Trotskyites and Anarchists.

    In the meantime, we should offer a compromise to the Russians – no direct US military involvement in Syria in exchange for Russian support for an anti-nuclear strike against Iran.

    When given the choice between two terrible options, you create your own. Define your objective and stick to it.

    Comment by Chris — August 26, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

  8. I can’t imagine how bad the rules of engagement would be for ground operations. Have to get Pelosi, Reid, Sibelius, Holder, Jarrett, etc together with Obama for a brainstorming session to ensure sufficient viewpoints are included in the process

    Comment by pahoben — August 26, 2013 @ 8:08 pm

  9. This may even be an opportunity to start attaching political officers to combat units

    Comment by pahoben — August 26, 2013 @ 8:38 pm

  10. This may even be an opportunity to start attaching political officers to combat units

    I see nothing wrong with attaching politicians to combat units. They can walk out in front.

    Comment by Tim Newman — August 26, 2013 @ 10:17 pm

  11. @Tim
    Most excellent proposal

    Comment by pahoben — August 27, 2013 @ 10:43 am

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