WMD and the War in Syria
As of this writing, judging from the tone in the current congressional hearings in regards to attack authority on Syria, it seems that America will soon commence open military operations against Syria. Secretary of State’s speech seems a time-warp: He argues vehemently for military interdiction in Syria, stating the use of chemical weapons by Assad without international retribution means an encouragement to use more WMD in the future. Unfortunately, when you draw the “red line” in the sand, you’re stuck on punching those who cross it. Words matter, especially when they’re uttered at a national level.
Largely forgotten and possibly willfully ignored by a compliant media, is the May 2013 event in which members of the al-Qaeda franchise group, Al Nusra Front, were captured in Turkey with a sarin gas canister.
Let us consider the ramifications of setting the WMD “red line”. The Syrian rebels have been brokering for significant American military support since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Announcing the red line to Assad as a potential deterrent to Syria’s WMD deployment also creates an incentive for the rebellion: Utilize WMD to encourage US intervention. Now the situation in muddled. We know al-Qaeda had sarin gas, which astoundingly does not alarm the media to any great extant. Further confusing analysis, is the machination of several regional countries vying to affect the Syrian outcome. Turkey wants the Assad regime removed. It has already hosted Syrian rebels for training purposes. The red line state also forced the American hand; if nothing is done at this point, the President’s words seem empty.
Turkey has for almost two years called for multilateral intervention into Syria, after failing to convince President Bashar Al-Assad to enact reforms and avoid the escalation of violence in his country. Turkey, which shelters hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and houses the main opposition Syrian National Coalition, has also repeatedly called for the establishment of a no-fly zone, or a safety zone, at the neighbor’s 565-mile border.
The Arab world has often snickered behind American backs, astounded at the US’ willingness to do Arab nations’ dirty work. It happened in the first Gulf War. Saudi military leaders knew Saddam had to be contained, and used Machiavellian psychology on the US to minimize Saudi involvement and maximize US firepower employment.
It is a Clausewitzian dictum that all wars escalate. Present day America’s failure to decisively win its wars is largely the result of its attempt to prevent wars from escalating. Current counterinsurgency doctrine attempts to win without killing. The US government does not understand that oftentimes in war, a monumental amount of force must be applied to get an enemy to quit. Americans, largely divorced from struggle and strife, have forgotten just how much force it takes to make a determined enemy quit. We are guilty of mirror-imaging; superimposing our own agendas and motivations on those of the enemy. The typical American is not sufficiently enraged to engage in warfare and has a difficult time imagining the mentality required to become so enraged. The same American does not understand, that without such a mentality, any war in question would not exist in the first place. Consider the Iran-Iraq war. That war ended after 7 years, and not before almost 1 million people were dead. Current US COIN doctrine would have us killing a handful of “key leaders” with a drone strike, and then rebuilding schools and hospitals in hopes of pacifying militants. It’s never worked in the past. It won’t work in the future. So, assuming the war in Syria will escalate further with more US intervention, we can assume more people will die. Some of those people will be civilians. US military aid is often imagined to force the enemy to suddenly capitulate. This simply isn’t the case. I often use the arm-wrestling analogy. An arm-wrestler does not suddenly give up when he feels his opponent applying force. If he were that mentally weak, it’s doubtful he’d have come to the table at all. Instead, he applies as much force as he has, in hopes of quickly dispatching his opponent. Each arm-wrestler in turn attempts to match, and surpass his opponent’s force. Finally, the force applied by one arm overcomes the other. Throughout, the force escalated, as each person attempts to summon more and more power–if he can find it. Syria’s military has much more force in reserve. It has thus far restrained much of its military ability, because like most insurgencies, the rebels cannot muster much force themselves. Increasing the military power of the rebels guarantees escalation by the Syrian military. In some cases, in other wars, this is a necessary evil. In the case of Syria, we have two enemies of America fighting each other, and there is no concrete American security interest. So the calculation reveals that non-intervention best serves America. And all of this says nothing about the possibility of Russian intervention, leading to regional escalation.
If and when civilians die as a result of US airstrike, (and even if they don’t), America is likely to lose yet another battle, a type of battle in which the US has proven remarkably inept: The information war. The information war is a key component in “war among the people”. Terrorism is only minimally effective without propaganda.
Never could the War on Terror have taken such a positive turn. But leave it to Washington to steal defeat from the jaws of victory. Strategy, not a strong-point of DC’s intelligentsia for the last 50 years, simply eludes most on The Hill. Two of America’s great enemies slugging it out, but John McCain and John Kerry aren’t happy. Instead they split The Prophet’s hairs as to whom’s bad enough and who’s good enough, never realizing that the bad and the good are on the same side: al-Qaeda’s side. The Left interprets Sun Tzu’s winning-without-fighting maxim as diplomacy. The ancients knew this also meant letting your enemies slaughter each other, saving your energies for bad men not so occupied.
What’s the desired end-state? Testimony today indicates it’s to degrade Assad’s ability to use similar attacks in the future. Chemical weapons cannot be bombed with any certainty on controlling the resultant poison plume. If strikes intend to hit chemical depots, this presents a significant risk for civilian casualties. More likely targets are the missile launch systems suspected of delivering VX on the civilians. Of course the military could try to kill Assad himself. Syria’s attack helicopters will be tempting targets while they’re on the ground. If an attack is too weak, it will be meaningless or many even encourage more aggression from Assad. If it is moderately effective, but does not decapitate the regime, it may invite attack from Syria against US targets. Syria is not without significant military capabilities, thanks to huge contracts with Russia. Of primary concern, if the US attacks involve aircraft, is Syria’s s-300 anti-aircraft missiles.
It seems unlikely that a US attack will have any significant effect on the war in Syria. Since success in warfare is largely based on controlling unknowns through good intelligence, and since US strikes are unlikely to impact the outcome of the war one way or another (except that they are likely to bring outrage in one form or another), policy makers must consider the unknowns and not merely focus on punishing Assad. All in all, the intervention in a fight between Syria and a US archenemy seems foolish.