Even a casual look at the news over the last few days reveals that the United States is about to undertake a military action against the Syrian regime in response to the Syrian’s near certain use of chemical weapons against its own population.
The opinion pieces and talking heads on TV, many of whom are former military officers or Defense Department civilian leaders, are full of cautions about embarking upon a military action without fulling understanding what the results might be. They are right to be cautious. Unfortunately, the United States is in a no-win situation. We cannot draw a clear “red line” that we would respond harshly should Bashar Al-Assad or his regime order the use of chemical weapons, or as they are commonly called, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and not do so. In order to credibly issue other such warnings in the future we must take action now. Deterrence is totally dependent on the credibility of a nation’s stated reaction to the act to be deterred. Every so often, nations need to act in order to show that their threatened response has credibility — that they actually can and will do what they say. On the other hand, there is no desire for a long-term United States military involvement there, yet the situation is going to become a significant long-term problem for the United States should we act.
I am guessing that the Obama Administration drew the red line over Syrian use of WMD to show that they were concerned with developments in that country and that we would not ignore what happens there. By taking a moral stand we could demonstrate that we actually cared what happens there. I do not think that the Obama Administration believed that Bashar would actually use them. After all, large-scale use of chemical weapons has not been done since the end of World War I. When nearly the entire world agrees that such use is beyond the realm of warfare, we need to take action. The question then becomes, what kind of action and how does it end?
The two most similar situations from the not too distant past are Operation Desert Fox against Iraq in December 1998 and the NATO involvement in Kosovo which began in March 1999. Both are instructive for what did and did not happen. In 1998, the United States and the United Kingdom began four days of Tomahawk missile strikes and bombing attacks from naval and air forces. The action was in response to Saddam’s refusal to comply with United Nations resolutions concerning WMD in Iraq. The Kosovo action was also a combination of NATO missile and air attacks to stop atrocities being carried out by Yugoslav troops against Kosovo civilians and fighters. After over three months of the air operation, the Yugoslavs agreed to withdraw and to allow NATO troops under United Nations auspices to enter the country as peacekeepers.
There are elements in both operations that reflect the current situation. In Iraq we thought we were dealing with WMD. In Kosovo we were dealing with mass killings and atrocities against civilians. Both exist in the current Syrian situation, but the context is totally different.
Operation Desert Fox was never intended to be an extended operation. The stated intent was to degrade Iraq’s ability to produce and use WMD. The United States never set out to totally eliminate any and all stockpiles or production facilities.
The air operation in Kosovo was intended to be of a similar nature — a short duration operation to convince Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw. He and his cohorts turned out to be much tougher than expected as it took him over three months to get the message. Most analysts feel that the air operation would have continued indefinitely if the threat of placing NATO forces on the ground in Kosovo had not been made. British Prime Minister Tony Blair was at the forefront of publicly pushing for a ground operation and Milosevic finally caught on that he could not last forever.
In Syria we have a totally different situation. In 1998 Saddam was not using WMD against his own population like Bashar is now doing. In Kosovo Milosevic was in essence leading an external force into Kosovo and it was possible to withdraw to allow for peacekeepers to enter. There are no external forces to withdraw from Syria — they are caught in a civil war. No credible leader is pushing for putting troops into that country. So what happens now in Syria?
Every military planner knows that no military action should go forward without a clear understanding of the mission. A mission statement must clearly answer the “who, what, where and when” questions of the action. However, most importantly, it also answers the “why” and provides the desired end state. We are going to go in and blow things up and kill people — so why do that and what should it look like when we are finished? The crafting of the mission is crucial to success but not easily accomplished. Everything else stems from this including the analysis of alternative courses of action. It’s impossible to know what to do if you don’t know why you are doing it. We should expect the President to articulate this for the nation just prior to or coincident with the beginning of hostilities. There are signs this may happen soon.
When choosing a course of action one must ask several questions relating to the mission. Is it suitable (does it accomplish the goal)? Is it feasible (are the resources available sufficient)? Is it acceptable (is the level of risk involved worth the payoff)? Is it consistent (is it in keeping with our core values and objectives)? We need to know that all aspects of the situation have been thoroughly reviewed.
Finally, planners must have alternative courses of action ready to go — a “Plan B” if you will. Nothing is certain in life and it is even less certain in warfare. Planners can project what will happen but cannot be certain that the opponent will react as expected. They must have alternatives ready to go and have thoroughly thought through the “next step” or the mission will not be accomplished.
So what will do in Syria? Perhaps a more important question is what should we do in Syria? My honest answer is “I don’t know.” Unfortunately, that is not an acceptable answer.
My guess is that the mission will be similar to Operation Desert Fox in 1998 against Iraq. The goal will be to degrade the ability of the Syrian forces to use chemical weapons again in the future. They will not be able to prevent future use, they will only be able to make it harder for them to do so and also to make it “personal.” We will not threaten to put troops into Syria as was done in Kosovo because that is a step too far for both the will of the nation and our national interests. Therefore the plan will not be for a long-term campaign, but rather a limited action with limited objectives. In other words, to send a message that certain actions in Syria are unacceptable (and perhaps just as importantly, send a message to other bad actors in the world that we will act as promised if they cross the line). Whether or not Bashar gets the message is a different question and we may let loose the dogs of war without really knowing what will happen in the end. An unsettling situation to say the least.
Here is the rough outline of what I think will happen. There will be a limited air operation involving Tomahawk missiles and aircraft from the United States, United Kingdom and some other token NATO involvement including some Turkish and French forces. All of the media attention is on the ships and submarines in the Mediterranean but there will be larger air forces launched from Cyprus and Incirlik Turkey among other places. I would expect token involvement from Arab states — probably a few aircraft from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The planners will expect the operation to last 3-5 days and then they will re-group to assess whether their goals were met. The operation will begin at night, perhaps as early as this Friday night — a weekend night in the Arab world — in the hopes of tactical surprise and also limiting civilian casualties. The exact timing may depend on whether or not the United Nations observers currently in country are gone. They will not hit the chemical weapons storage sites. They will try to take out the means of delivering those weapons such as launchers and command and control sites. They will not target Bashar or his family but it is likely that they will target key military commanders that oversaw the use of the weapons. I am sure that we have fairly good intelligence as to who those people are at the senior tactical levels of command and we will send a “this one’s for you” type message that things will get very bad for any other military leaders that decide to use such weapons.
Just as in the previously discussed operations, Russia will voice its objections in the strongest possible terms, perhaps even threatening some kind of retaliation. Just as in those previous operations, in the end they will be unable to influence the events or prevent them from happening.
There are some serious unknowns to me that I hope the planners and decision makers have a handle on. Foremost among those is whether or not Bashar thinks that his end is near and that he has nothing to lose — thus ordering ever more extensive use of the chemical weapons. This is where the success of the initial strikes will be critical in eliminating the means to deliver those weapons and whether the message gets through to subordinate commanders that their own health and well-being is in jeopardy from us if they follow those orders. Word of further defections by senior leaders in the regime will be a good measure of effectiveness as to whether the “message” hit home.
In the end, the United States and western powers must do something or our future credibility in such matters is seriously undermined. A quick, short duration attack focused on disrupting the Syrian military’s use of WMD in the future seems to be the best short-term approach. Only after that will we know what the future holds for Syria.