“The only way to prevent the use of such weapons is to succeed on the battlefield.” — Senator John McCain, June 14, 2013
Off we go into the morass of the Syrian civil war, as weeks of pondering led President Obama to conclude that yes, there is a chemical weapons "red line," and the Assad regime has crossed it. America will now support the rebels in their struggle to overthrow Assad.
The exact nature of this support is not yet clear. The White House initially made noises about communications and transportation infrastructure, but it was soon learned that the President issued a classified order to the CIA to begin delivering weapons to the insurgents. Some Syria hawks, such as Senator John McCain, want to look at establishing a no-fly zone, but the Russians have reportedly already armed their client Assad with state-of-the-art air defenses.
According to a CNN Report McCain said:
"We have to establish a safe zone, move the Patriot missile batteries close, take out with cruise missiles their air assets and logistics on the ground, and establish that safe zone. Then we can change the equation on the ground, not before.”
Unfortunately, as bad as the Assad regime is, the strongest elements of the insurgency are arguably worse. The strongest rebel group, stuffed with jihadists imported from Iraq, recently swore allegiance to al-Qaeda. They've already been "winning hearts and minds" among the unhappy Syrian people by distributing food and other supplies. There have been reports of Islamist atrocities by the rebels.
After a great deal of confusion concerning the chemical weapons “red line,” whether Syria has crossed it, and whether Barack Obama was serious when he drew it, we learned on Thursday evening that America will be entering the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels. According to Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, we will be providing them with as-yet unspecified “military support.” From CBS News:
“The President has been clear that the use of chemical weapons – or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups – is a red line for the United States,” said Rhodes in a separate written statement.
“The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has,” he continued.
In terms of further response, Rhodes said, “we will make decisions on our own timeline” and that Congress and the international community would be consulted. Mr. Obama is heading to Northern Ireland Sunday for a meeting of the G8 group of nations; Rhodes indicated the president will consult with leaders of those countries.
“Any future action we take will be consistent with our national interest, and must advance our objectives, which include achieving a negotiated political settlement to establish an authority that can provide basic stability and administer state institutions; protecting the rights of all Syrians; securing unconventional and advanced conventional weapons; and countering terrorist activity,” Rhodes said.”
A fine list of priorities, which grows more improbable with each item. The “negotiated political settlement to establish an authority that can provide basic stability and administer state institutions” would mean Syrian dictator Bashar Assad throwing in the towel and slinking off with a few billion dollars in his pocket, which is possible, although these things are more likely to end with the former dictator getting “negotiated” into a noose.
Good riddance to bad rubbish, but unfortunately what replaces him probably won’t be much interested in “protecting the rights of all Syrians,” handing over its weapons, or cracking down on terrorism. Here’s what our new military clients have been up to this week, as reported by USA Today:
“A Syrian rebel group’s pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda’s replacement for Osama bin Laden suggests that the terrorist group’s influence is not waning and that it may take a greater role in the Western-backed fight to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The pledge of allegiance by Syrian Jabhat al Nusra Front chief Abou Mohamad al-Joulani to al-Qaeda leader Sheik Ayman al-Zawahri was coupled with an announcement by the al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq, that it would work with al Nusra as well.
Lebanese Sheik Omar Bakri, a Salafist who says states must be governed by Muslim religious law, says al-Qaeda has assisted al Nusra for some time.
“They provided them early on with technical, military and financial support, especially when it came to setting up networks of foreign Jihadis who were brought into Syria,” Bakri says. “There will certainly be greater coordination between the two groups.”
The Jabhat al Nusra Front (“The Victory Front”) is generally described as being made up of Sunni Islamist Jihadists. Its goal is to overthrow the Assad government and to create a Pan-Islamic state under sharia law and aims to reinstate the Islamic Caliphate. It encourages all Syrians to take part in the war against the Syrian government.
As CNN notes “Jabhat al-Nusra is widely regarded as the most effective fighting force in Syria, and its thousands of fighters are the most disciplined of the forces opposing Assad.” That might be due to the large number of Iraqi jihadists who have been joining its ranks. Something tells me those guys didn’t cross the border to fight for a new authority that would protect the rights of all Syrians and do away with terrorism. Al-Nusra also follows the Hezbollah playbook and win the loyalty of the populace by distributing food and other services, which would seem to give them a substantial lead in the “winning hearts and minds” department.
Earlier this week, a teenage boy working at a cafe refused to bring one of the customers more coffee, quipping “Even if Mohammed comes back to life, I won’t.” (Bizarrely, the Washington Post’s account of the incident inserts the word [Prophet] in front of Mohammed’s name, as if readers wouldn’t understand who the lad was talking about. The boy’s comment was overheard by a passing group of rebel fighters, who grabbed him, whipped him, gathered a crowd – including his parents — to hear him accused of blasphemy, and then made an example of him by putting bullets in his mouth and neck. Just think what these guys will be able to do with American weapons!
Supposedly we’ll be providing military support to only the nice rebels. How we’re going to do that without putting boots on the ground is anyone’s guess.
Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have long advocated a U.S. military role in the Syrian revolt, were pleased with President Obama’s announcement. ”We appreciate the President’s finding that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on several occasions,” they said in a statement. ”We also agree with the President that this fact must affect U.S. policy toward Syria. The President’s red line has been crossed. U.S. credibility is on the line. Now is not the time to merely take the next incremental step. Now is the time for more decisive actions.”
“A decision to provide lethal assistance, especially ammunition and heavy weapons, to opposition forces in Syria is long overdue, and we hope the President will take this urgently needed step,” the Senators added, although White House adviser Rhodes talked more along the lines of communications and transportation equipment, saying no decision had yet been reached about establishing a no-fly zone. Not by the White House, anyway. The Russians have made a decision about a no-fly zone, and they evidently don’t like the idea one bit, because they’ve been shipping advanced anti-aircraft missiles to their good friend Bashar Assad.
I’ve seen much speculation about how this announcement ties into Bill Clinton essentially taunting Obama as a “wuss” for staying out of Syria during an appearance with John McCain. Did Clinton’s remarks push Obama over the edge, given the former President’s great influence over Democrats? Or was Clinton dispatched to that appearance by Obama to give him cover for an intervention he already wanted to make? (If the latter is true, it would seem weird that Clinton’s remarks as delivered seemed so belittling toward the current President but then again, there is bad blood between Clinton and Obama, and Bill Clinton has a long history of working little improvised jabs into statements he makes in support of Obama.)
Bloomberg News confirms suspicions that we’re going to send a lot more than communications and transportation infrastructure to the rebels: “President Barack Obama is authorizing lethal military aid to rebel groups under a classified order instructing the Central Intelligence Agency to arrange delivery of the weapons, according to a U.S. official familiar with the decision who asked not to be identified discussing the move.”
Washington's Syria debate rages within the boundaries of a broader debate about America's appropriate role in the Middle East and the world. The Obama administration clearly and correctly places a high premium on not being dragged into another Iraq-style quagmire. Many in Washington view this refusal to intervene in Syria, like the withdrawal from Iraq, as an abdication of leadership. But even most hawks recognize that the United States can't afford, and the public doesn't want, another Iraq or Afghanistan — that's why few openly recommend a full-scale U.S. intervention.
The endless arguments about Syria too often focus on the tactics — arming the rebels, diplomacy, no-fly zones. But as Micah Zenko recently noted in Foreign Policy Magazine, “these more limited options involve Washington more directly in the war without any realistic prospect of ending it.” Cratering runways might work for a few hours, but then Bashar al-Assad will repair them. No-fly zones might limit the destruction of Assad's air force, but the Syrian military has other resources at its disposal. Arming the rebels will slightly tilt the battlefield but will not likely break the strategic stalemate or give Washington significant influence within the Syrian opposition. The first step on the slippery slope is always easy, but it's much harder to actually resolve a conflict or to find a way out of a quagmire.
These painfully familiar arguments about U.S. options miss the point, though. They conceal a prior question: What does it mean for U.S. policy to "work" in Syria? Should Syria be viewed as a front in a broad regional cold war against Iran and its allies or as a humanitarian catastrophe that must be resolved? That question crosses partisan lines and gets to fundamental questions about how to understand the rapidly changing Middle East.
The distinction matters directly and profoundly for the debate over specific policies. Steps that effectively bleed Iran and its allies might well prolong and intensify Syria's bloodshed, while policies that alleviate human suffering and produce a more stable postwar Syria may well require dealing with Assad's backers. Imagine that Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a diplomatic breakthrough that ended the fighting and secured a political transition but included an Iranian role — from the latter perspective this would be a stunning success, but from the former it would be an epic disaster.
Many of the advocates of aggressive intervention define the Syrian conflict primarily as a front in the cold war against Iran. From this perspective, Hezbollah's entry into the fray and the fall of Qusayr are not necessarily a bad thing — Washington now has an opportunity to strike directly at one of Iran's most valuable assets in the Middle East. The enemy's queen, to use a chess metaphor, has now moved out from behind its wall of pawns and is open to attack. Fear of a rebel defeat — and of a victory for Hezbollah and Iran — should squeeze more cash and military support out of the Arab Gulf, Europe, and the United States.
If Washington endorses the goal of bleeding Iran and its allies through proxy warfare, a whole range of more interventionist policies logically follow. The model here would presumably be the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan -- a long-term insurgency coordinated through neighboring countries, fueled by Gulf money, and popularized by Islamist and sectarian propaganda.
"Success" in this strategy would be defined by the damage inflicted on Iran and its allies — and not by reducing the civilian body count, producing a more stable and peaceful Syria, or marginalizing the more extreme jihadists. Ending the war would not be a particular priority, unless it involved Assad's total military defeat. The increased violence, refugee flows, and regionalization of conflict would likely increase the pressure on neighboring states such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq. It would also likely increase sectarianism, as harping on Sunni-Shiite divisions is a key part of the Arab Gulf's political effort to mobilize support for the Syrian opposition (and to intimidate local Shiite populations, naturally). And the war zone would continue to be fertile ground for al Qaeda's jihad, no matter how many arms were sent to its "moderate" rivals in the opposition.
The debate about open U.S. military intervention in Syria should therefore be built around a frank discussion of the goals, not only the means. At the moment, advocates of arming the rebels switch between making the case that it would strike a blow against the Iranians, and that it would improve the prospects for a negotiated solution. The fundamental tension between those who argue that the rebels need more arms so that Assad will be forced to come to the table, and those who argue that this is a path leading to the complete defeat of the Syrian regime should be resolved now -- not after Washington gets involved.
Last week, the Daily Beast published an "exclusive" news story supported by comments from two anonymous administration officials: "Obama Asks Pentagon for Syria No-Fly Zone Plan." The newsworthiness and hype surrounding such reporting was puzzling given that the military's operational plans for a no-fly zone (NFZ) in Syria were completed many months ago and have been refined as new information has become available. Of course, versions of these plans have also been briefed in detail to the White House on multiple occasions. Soon after the Daily Beast story ran, Pentagon spokesperson Dave Lapan felt compelled to declare: "There is no new planning effort underway." This failed effort to plant a story about White House interest in NFZ options for Syria is perhaps the most perfunctory effort ever to coerce a foreign leader — in this case, Bashar al-Assad, before the forthcoming diplomatic discussions in Geneva.
The Obama administration's leaks should not be surprising — they are representative of the theatrical and half-hearted nature of America's debate over military intervention in Syria. On March 27, 2011, just one week after a U.S.-led coalition began selectively enforcing an NFZ over Libya, then-Senator Joseph Lieberman endorsed a similar measure for Syria, in case Assad "turns his weapons on his people and begins to slaughter them, as Qaddafi did." Over the subsequent 27 months, every plausible military tactic and mission has been exhaustively analyzed and deliberated by policymakers, active-duty and retired military officials, pundits, journalists, and others.
Civilian officials have requested a range of military options, the Pentagon's planning process has responded, congressional committees have held multiple hearings, the media has covered the unfolding fighting in and around Syria, and interested commentators have offered their opinions.
Seven months ago, State Department spokesperson Vitoria Nuland told reporters: "On the no-fly zone itself, you know that we've been saying for quite a while we continue to study whether that makes sense, how it might work." As those "studies" have continued, the American people have been polled repeatedly to gauge their opinion — the latest two polls demonstrate that less than a quarter of Americans think the U.S. military should intervene in Syria.
At this point, it is safe to say that — short of definitive evidence of large-scale regime-directed chemical weapons use, or threats to Turkey, a U.S. treaty ally — it is highly unlikely that the United States will intervene militarily in Syria's civil war. There are many reasons for this, including an American populace exhausted with nearly a dozen years of continuous warfare, senior military officials deeply opposed to an open-ended mission while still fighting in Afghanistan and confronting the threat of Islamic militants regrouping in southwest Libya, and a president who adheres to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates's semi-serious dictum: "Every administration gets one preemptive war against a Muslim country."
However, the most significant explanation of America's unwillingness to attack Syria is that the level of military force that officials and policymakers are willing to employ would not materially change the outcome of the civil war. The threshold of force that would have to be used — as well as the sheer numbers of advanced, lethal weapons that would have to be supplied to the armed opposition — to assure the toppling of Assad, will not be forthcoming. The course and outcome of Syria's civil war is simply not that important of a national interest for the United States to take the lead and catalyze a military coalition or weapons-supplying role.
Even the most prominent and vocal advocate of intervention, Sen. John McCain, has proposed military options that would be wholly insufficient to defeat the Syrian Army, associated paramilitary forces, and foreign fighters. McCain has repeatedly emphasized that no U.S. ground troops should be committed to this effort, declaring in April: "The worst thing the United States could do right now is put boots on the ground in Syria." On Sunday, he also endorsed a NFZ and a "safe zone," but added: "We don't have to risk our pilots. I would not send U.S.-manned aircraft over Syria." McCain said that these zones could be enforced with Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, though Turkish officials have told their American counterparts that they do not support the use of the missiles or their sovereign territory to enforce a NFZ.
Forget the small arms. If the White House really wants to alter the course of the Syrian civil war, it may well need to impose a no-fly zone. The good news is it probably won't be too hard to pull off, given the battered state of Assad's air defenses. The bad news is it could drag the U.S. into a wider war.
Bashar al-Assad's air force that has conducted between 115 and 141 air strikes a month from January through April of this year, largely with old Czechoslovakian-made L-39 Delfin trainer jets and helicopters such as the Soviet-designed Mi-8, Mi-17 and Mi-24.
The weapons may be old, but many analysts believe that they've made a crucial difference as pro-regime troops have seized the momentum in Syria's civil war. Some in the U.S. government are pushing for a total no-fly zone similar to the one imposed on Libya in 2011 in order to take out that air force.
Click here to see an interactive map that shows the location of Assad's main air bases — the prime targets of any American campaign to limit Assad's power to strike from the sky.
On June 14th, Anthony Cordesman of the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies said that anything less than (a pretty darn expensive) no-fly zone that totally grounds Assad's air force would be a "half-pregnant" solution similar to "supplying too few arms of too few lethality," as the U.S. and other nations have been said to be doing secretly for months without giving the rebels enough of an advantage to overthrow Assad.
A full-on no-fly zone would involve the U.S. and any other nations launching a high end assault with everything from B-2 stealth bombers to submarine and ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles aimed at destroying Assad's radars, missile sites and air defense control networks. It'd be similar to what was done at the start of Operation Odyssey Dawn, only bigger due to the fact that Syria has a much better air defense network than Libya did. Once these door-kickers have taken out the most dangerous elements of Syria's air defenses, other strike fighters such as U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16 Vipers — some of which are already in neighboring Jordan along with a 7,000 MEU—, and U.S. Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and F/A-18 Hornets would then be relatively free to hunt down and destroy Assad's aircraft on the ground or in the air.
As Cordesman points out, all of these jets would need to be flown off at least one aircraft carrier. The attack would also involve aircraft based in nearby Turkey, perhaps in Jordan, as well as in other Middle East nations that host American warplanes. The strike jets would have to be supported by aerial refueling tankers, AWACS and possibly JSTARS radar planes, EA-18G Growler and EA-6B Prowler radar jamming jets, reconnaissance drones and other intelligence-gathering jets. This is a huge undertaking that would cost a ton and take a long time to achieve full effect. Remember, the U.S. and NATO patrolled the Libyan skies from March 2011 through October 2011, when Muammar al-Qaddafi. Also there is no indication that any NATO country is willing to ante in to the pot.
However, as Christopher Harmer of the Institute for the Study of War points out, Assad's high-end air defenses are stationary — making them easy targets for rebel ground attack and have likely been seriously degraded by months of fighting.
"The fixed site portion of the Syrian air defenses — the heavy radar, heavy surface to air missiles, etc., belong to the Syrian Air Force, and in my opinion, have suffered significantly in the fighting," said Harmer. "They can't get out of the way of the rebels; more problematic, these old Soviet legacy systems are maintenance and training intensive. My guess is the Syrian Air Force has lost significant capability on its heavy, fixed site IADS due to a lack of maintenance, repair, and training."
He also points out that even Syria's most modern air defense weapons - mobile, Russian-made SA-17s and SA-22s -- don't have the reach to shoot down U.S. planes, which fire off long-range missiles like the Joint Stand-off Weapon. Nor can the defenses hope to stop American ships launching Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Furthermore, America's radar jamming EA-18Gs and EA-6Bs "can overwhelm the relatively low power radar of the SA-17 and SA-22; any fixed site (heavy power output) radar that starts to illuminate, we'll just put an (AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missile) into it. Game over for them," said Harmer. SA-17 and SA-22 are capable weapon systems, but our ability to defeat those weapons systems is far greater than the Syrians ability to interdict our air power."
There is one air defense system that could make life much more difficult for U.S. pilots, the Russian-made S-300 surface to air missiles. But the S-300 is not yet in country, despite the fact that Assad has ordered them from Russia. Those orders just got a lot more urgent, now that the U.S. is getting more directly involved in the Syrian civil war.
The bottom line to all of this military hyperbole is that yes we have the weapons systems and trained troops to enforce a total NFZ over Syria and destroy the Syrian air force. We had similar capabilities in Iraq, but after the bombing and missiles had done their work the real fighting began and went of for 7 years. In Afghanistan it’s going on 11 years and Americans are still dying on a daily basis.
No war has ever been won by bombing alone including WWII. We know this fact of history yet we continually want to revert to this argument. Just look at the battle for Monte Casino in Italy. After massive bombings and constant artillery bombardment had reduced the 6th century Benedictine Abby to rubble it still took several attacks by allied troops to take the hill it was located on at a very high cost in lives (55,000 allied and 20,000 German).
On a similar note we bombed Tora Bora into smithereens trying to get bin Laden and it still took us 10 years to do so by using intelligence and special operators. In Libya we supported the rebels with a NFZ and bombings in order to get Gadhafi. They finally did and then they turned on us.
Syria’s blood-soaked tyrant, Bashar al-Assad, is finally right about something. He recently told an Argentine newspaper that he doubts the joint Russian-American peace initiative will stop the bloodshed in his country. Of course it won’t. Syria’s civil war is an existential fight to the death between the Alawite minority that dominates the regime and the revolutionary Sunni Muslim majority that will be smashed if it loses. The peace initiative would merely be a naive waste of time, then, but circumstances might conspire to make it something worse than that: from the proverbial Arab Street’s point of view, by cooperating with Moscow and refusing to back the rebels, Washington appears to support the Assad dictatorship.
They’re wrong, of course. Washington doesn’t support Bashar al-Assad. But it’s not hard to figure why it looks that way from the Arab point of view. The United States has demolished three murderous governments in the greater Middle East and South Asia in the last ten years — the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party state in Iraq, and Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. One of these regime changes took place on President Barack Obama’s watch, so everyone knows he’s just as capable of terminating a despot as was President George W. Bush. They think that since President Obama can quickly get rid of Assad, the fact that he won’t means that the White House likes him right where he is. It doesn’t help that Washington is sponsoring a joint initiative with Vladimir Putin, who really does want Assad to remain in the saddle, and at a time when Russia is gearing up to send advanced Yakhont missiles to Syria.
The reasons Washington isn’t moving aggressively against the Syrian regime are straightforward. Americans are weary of war and especially unwilling to insert themselves into Iraqi and Lebanese-style sectarian blood feuds. And unlike Qaddafi, Assad has powerful friends. If the United States widens the conflict, Iran and Hezbollah might widen it further. They might even drag in the Israelis, igniting the worst conflagration east of the Mediterranean since the Iran-Iraq war. Washington is also concerned that Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, might become over time no less a menace than Assad has been all these years. So the Obama administration is cautious, and for good reason.
The reality is that the Obama administration has done very well to resist the steady drumbeat to intervene in Syria. Can anyone who has observed Assad's tenacity over the last year still believe that his regime would have rapidly crumbled in the face of airstrikes or no-fly zones last year? Had the United States gone that route, Syria today would likely look much like it does now — except with America trapped in a quagmire and Obama under relentless pressure to escalate.
I suspect that Obama knows better than to give in to the pressure to arm the rebels simply to appear to be "doing something." But to sustain that posture, his administration is going to have to look beyond the array of policy options and explain precisely what the United States wants to achieve in Syria.
It's an ugly situation, and its aftermath could be even worse than the terrorist-infested ruins of Libya. Has this Administration given any sign of learning from its mistakes there? Have they come anywhere near admitting that they made any mistakes?