Ruminations, July 25, 2013
–Everything you wanted to know about Syria but were afraid to ask
President Barack Obama has been criticized for this stance on Syria by both those on the left and those on the right. He is in a tough spot. Critics can change sides if their advice goes wrong (as did those who went from supporting the wars in Vietnam and Iraq to opposing them) whereas, no matter what Obama does, he is stuck with his decision. That goes with the job.
U.S. national interest in Syria. First of all, do we have a national interest in Syria? We are a (or better, “The”) world power. We have an interest everywhere. Syria may be the linchpin to the Mideast. Right now, refugees are overwhelming the countries of Jordan and Turkey as well as the resources of those countries. Syria is being aided by Russia, Hezbollah and Iran. They have been aided with North Korean nuclear technology (since destroyed by Israel). Syria has chemical weapons – and some suspect, biologic weapons from Saddam’s former regime. Syrian rebels are, in part, aided by al Qaeda. A destabilized Syria would have an effect on the stability of Iraq.
What is the Syrian government like? Given Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s hostility toward the United States and Israel, charges by Amnesty International and Human Rights watch of imprisonment, torture and killing of political opponents, alleged complicity in the assassination in the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, it should be obvious that the United States would support the Syrian rebels. But is it obvious?
Who are the rebels? Just who are the rebels? The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was formed last November as an umbrella group to consolidate aid and support. The groups under that umbrella are the Muslim Brotherhood, Jabhat al-Nusra (an al Qaeda allied group) and dozens of other secular, ethnic and religious groups.
What are the rebels like? A Syrian rebel appears on the Internet eating the heart of a soldier he has just killed. Not exactly the type of guy who should enjoy whole-hearted (excuse the pun) support. Bad enough, but some of the rebel groups seem to have a special hostility toward Christians. A 15-year-old Christian girl was reportedly raped 15 times by the Jabhat al-Nusra in Qusair. A Catholic monastery was assaulted and a priest beheaded. Christians have been protected by the Assad government which makes them supporters of the government and targets for the rebels.
Arms to the rebels. What are our options in Syria? “Do nothing” seems to be a non-starter. We will do something. So far, Obama has said that we will send arms to vetted rebels (i.e., rebels not associated with al Qaeda or other extremist groups) but, so far, has done nothing. That’s understandable. How can you ensure that the weapons sent will not end up in the wrong hands? Scott Stewart writing in Stratfor, a global intelligence think tank, says that “it is quite doubtful that anyone, whether Syrian intelligence, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service or the CIA really has a complete picture of all the channels used to funnel arms into the conflict.” Along with legal arms trading, there is the black market (illegal) and the gray market (offering the appearance of legality but shifting weapons to non-legal recipients).
Dempsey’s memo. Exploring the military options available, Obama asked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey to prepare a paper on that subject. Here are excerpts of Dempsey’s memo.
• Train, Advise, and Assist the Opposition. The U.S. would provide “…weapons employment to tactical planning … [including] intelligence and logistics. … costs … estimated at $500 million per year initially… Risks include extremists gaining access to additional capabilities, retaliatory crossborder attacks, and insider attacks or inadvertent association with war crimes due to vetting difficulties.”
• Conduct Limited Stand-off Strikes. “… strike targets that enable the regime to conduct military operations, proliferate advanced weapons, and defend itself. … Force requirements would include hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers. … costs would be in the billions. … There is a risk that the regime could withstand limited strikes by dispersing its assets. Retaliatory attacks are also possible, and there is a probability for collateral damage impacting civilians and foreigners inside the country.”
• Establish a No-Fly Zone. “… prevent the regime from using its military aircraft to bomb and resupply. It would extend air superiority over Syria by neutralizing the regime’s advanced, defense integrated air defense system. … We would require hundreds of ground and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refueling and communications. Estimated costs are $500 million initially, averaging as much as a billion dollars per month over the course of a year. … Risks include the loss of U.S. aircraft, which would require us to insert personnel recovery forces. It may also fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires — mortars, artillery, and missiles.”
• Establish Buffer Zones. “… most likely across the borders with Turkey or Jordan. The opposition could use these zones to organize and train. … Lethal force would be required to defend the zones against air, missile, and ground attacks. This would necessitate the establishment of a limited no-fly zone, … Thousands of U.S. ground forces would be needed, even if positioned outside Syria, to support those physically defending the zones. … costs over one billion dollars per month. … Risks are similar to the no-fly zone with the added problem of regime surface fires into the zones, killing more refugees due to their concentration.”
• Control Chemical Weapons. “… destroying portions of Syria’s massive stockpile, interdicting its movement and delivery, or by seizing and securing program components. At a minimum, this option would call for a no-fly zone as well as air and missile strikes involving hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers. Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites. Costs could also average well over one billion dollars per month. The impact would be the control of some, but not all chemical weapons. It would also help prevent their further proliferation into the hands of extremist groups. Our inability to fully control Syria’s storage and delivery systems could allow extremists to gain better access. Risks are similar to the no-fly zone with the added risk of U.S. boots on the ground.”
What to do? In short, there are no good options, and unintended consequences abound. No matter what option Obama chooses, he will be criticized – and some of the criticism may be valid. Any choice puts lives on the line – American as well as others. Although our allies can act independently, they will look to the United States for leadership.
Once Obama selects a strategy, the unintended consequences will begin and other issues – both domestic and foreign — will rise to challenge him. Obama will have to modify his strategy. Will he be up to it?
Quote without comment
19th century Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke writing in his 1871 book Moltke on the Art of War: “… no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.”