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Thinking strategically about Syria

August 27, 2013

Barring some strange turn of events, it’s likely that the United States and key NATO allies will be raining TLAMs (“cruise missiles” to civilians) on Syria by the end of this week. This will be in response to reasonably hard evidence – smart money is on Israeli SIGINT as the main source – that Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical rockets recently in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, killing at least hundreds of innocents.

This was probably not the first time the regime used chemicals in its war against the diverse, largely Sunni coalition that has been fighting to overthrow the regime for the last two years, but it was the first large-scale atrocity in this war that used some version of WMD. President Obama’s “red line,” proffered exactly a year before this latest murderous outrage, seems to have been well and truly crossed.

Thus the White House has little choice but to do something, for the sake of any credibility, though it’s obvious that Obama, who came into office castigating his predecessor’s reckless wars of choice in the Greater Middle East, is a highly reluctant war leader. As well he should be, given the Republic’s recent track record in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where initial successes were ruined by bad strategy that failed to subdue resistance movements that, by historical standards, were anything but robust.

OSF (ie Operation SYRIAN FREEDOM) is what this administration must avoid, and presumably will at nearly any cost. Using TLAMs and limited conventional bombing to damage Syrian’s chemical capabilities, plus the C2 nodes that support WMD, is a reasonable goal, though it’s far from a panacea. Really taking out Syria’s moderately impressive air defenses – a bigger goal – is a tall order, if one that can be done by NATO in a week or more of sustained effort, 24 hours a day. Lives will be lost, and not just Syrian.

The strategy of the Syrian nightmare merits a book in itself, not a mere blog post, but I will share some strategic insights in no particular order, based on my experiences with America’s post-Cold War military adventures.

1. The enemy gets a vote. Always. He will react in ways you cannot accurately predict. Israel is close-by: hint.

2. When your enemy is on “death ground” – as Assad and his Alawi and Christian supporters surely are – they care a lot more about this fight than you do, or ever will.

3. “Surgical strikes” belong in PowerPoints by greedy defense contractors, not the real world of warfare.

4. When all belligerents in a conflict are morally repugnant, you ought to chose sides carefully (better yet: don’t).

5. Proxy wars will last far longer, and turn out far nastier, than seems logical, especially when the stakes seem high for one or more outside players.

6. If you want to seriously effect change you will wind up putting boots on the ground. Period. If you ignore this reality – or worse, guess wrong about how many troops you need – you may create a firestorm (see: Iraq 2003).

7. Putting Western boots on the ground in cultures where we and our values are hated is a bad idea unless you are willing to play by their rules, ie be highly brutal on a grand scale towards even civilians. Better not to do it.

8. Never, ever stop thinking about the value of the object, ie what do we really want here? Negative aims are fine, but not having clear, achievable aims is a good way to lose quick.

9. Certain cultures are not impressed by “surgical strikes.” They use mass brutality and think anything less is weak, even effeminate.

10. US and NATO are very good at ISR and precision strike, we have learned an enormous amount about the tactics of hi-tech killing over the last dozen years of war in CENTCOM. But this is not the same thing as strategic wisdom or political insight. Strategy trumps tactics in the long run, always.

More as it happens … and you can bet a lot more will be happening soon.

23 Comments
  1. Do you have any thoughts on how the different possible compositions of a peacekeeping force might affect the possible outcomes? Would it make a difference if the UN managed to achieve consensus in the SC and the boots on the ground were from the entire world, not US/NATO?

    • A diverse UN force in Somalia didn’t help much. Issue is mission not flags manning. Count me skeptical here.

      • Ok, interesting that you say that. My intuition was that not seeing an intervention as originating in the US might change how the intervention was perceived locally. But suppose you’re right about the mission being the crucial thing, what missions are possible to achieve good outcomes in Syria? You are rightly saying that this is going to be messy no matter what. But I’m not sure from my presumably more idealist perspective on foreign policy that the cost of doing nothing isn’t greater, at least to the international community.

        Related, I have trouble with several of your points above, particularly this one:

        “7. Putting Western boots on the ground in cultures where we and our values are hated is a bad idea unless you are willing to play by their rules, ie be highly brutal on a grand scale towards even civilians. Better not to do it.”

        I think as you say that the mission is the thing here, and the ROE. I don’t think peacekeeping neccessitates brutality towards the civilian population. The devil is very much in the details. There have been some notable examples of well-run peacekeeping operations. Several of the low-impact units in Afghanistan (The Scandinavian contingents are the ones I happen to know the most about) did very well with the locals. So did the SFOR and KFOR deployments in Kosovo. And also, we shouldn’t forget that as much of a disaster as the UNOSOM II deployment in Somalia was in many ways, the operation ended up by some estimates saving 100.000 lives by creating a secure operating environment for humanitarian aid.

        Syria will probably be nothing like any of this. But there’s some precedent for saving a whole lot of lives at some cost. That’s worth taking into consideration, I guess, whatever you think about intervention.

  2. Why did BHO start intervening in this mess in 2011?

    • Larger question: Why didn’t USG, meaning Obama WH, reach some sort of modus vivendi with Moscow on Syria in 2011? You know, diplomacy ….

  3. David G. permalink

    Surely if the only evidence for Assad’s involvement are anonymous Israeli leaks, then it can’t be called “reasonably hard.”

  4. Michael Atkinson permalink

    Well written and no bullcrap. Thanks John. Looking forward to seeing more of your thoughts in the days to come… Michael

  5. Lars permalink

    Thanks John!

  6. Homer Simpson permalink

    Thus the White House has little choice but to do something, for the sake of any credibility,

    The USA has credibility? Last I heard Mu’ammar Quattafii got lynched in the middle of the desert by American backed rebels even when he started to make nice with us and dismantle his WMD programs. General el-Sisi didn’t even bothered to return Obama’s call about the whole coup thing. As you note, there have already been reports back from May about the Syrians using chemical weapons so it’s not as if this is the first time the red line has been crossed. Since Obama/America are justifiably seen as weak and untrustworthy, why not just ignore the problem if it has the potential to turn into a really, really bad thing like Operation Syrian Freedom?

    You do make excellent points about what ought to be done if America is to involve itself. Arab dictators are crazy and violent, but Hafez al-Assad sure knew how to put down the Muslim Brotherhood. Obama’s big advantage if he does attack Syria – whether it’s firing a few cruise missiles or sending in a 500,000 strong invasion force to kill everything in sight – is that the media adores him and they won’t criticize him for doing genuinely atrocious things. Which, would enable him to do what needs to be done.

  7. Reader permalink

    I appreciate your reference to the
    Armenian Genocide, in this Twitter update

    Few have recognized certain parallel dynamics,
    largely because the ideology that powered
    the Armenian Genocide, while still thriving today,
    has not been exposed in a linear study.
    Publishing such a study of the past century
    through that lens, would greatly enhance
    Western Analysts (and the public) understanding.

  8. I’m hoping we simply continue what we are doing – and see what comes hopping out of the Assad pond.

    This is called ” saber rattling” if we do it, of course.

    Actual involvement in that mess is like stick one’s hand into a nest of angry vipers : someone is -sure as hell going to get bitten.

  9. Thus the White House has little choice but to do something, for the sake of any credibility, though it’s obvious that Obama, who came into office castigating his predecessor’s reckless wars of choice in the Greater Middle East, is a highly reluctant war leader. As well he should be, given the Republic’s recent track record in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where initial successes were ruined by bad strategy that failed to subdue resistance movements that, by historical standards, were anything but robust.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Some key insight: Thinking strategically about Syria | akula51 dot net
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