A week ago I argued against punishing Syria for attacking innocent civilians with Saran gas. My opinion has not changed. To be exact given what has come to light in the last week I am more convinced that such an attack would be a mistake.
The first thing that I would note is that the President’s overriding of his counselors and deciding to seek Congressional approval for striking Syria may provide him some political cover if the Congress says “no.” However, it will make him look even weaker than he already does.
After following the Congressional debate closely and the reports coming out of Russia and Syria it is obvious that confusion is rampant. The Obama administration has contributed to this confusion. Let me highlight several points:
- A Democratic Congressman is arguing that the intelligence briefings were cooked. It appears that the administration position is based upon Israeli electronic intercepts. The administration version is that of high level commanders discussing on when and how to conduct the attack. However, another report is that these commanders were expressing their surprise that the attack occurred.
- A rebel leader, who is a member of an Al Qaeda rebel group, has admitted conducting chemical attacks on civilians.
- A 100 page report to the UN, prepared by the Russians, documents chemical attacks by rebel forces. It is strange that the administration has not made that report available to the Congress—the UN acknowledges having it.
- Secretary Kerry testified that”the Arabs” would pay for the US costs. Are we so broke that now we are mercenaries? What does this say about the end state? What is the desired “Arab” end state?
Therefore who conducted the chemical attack is now in contention and US freedom of action may also be limited.
The next issue is the international politics. Some authors argue that the whole gas attack scenario was a carefully orchestrated effort by the Russians to highlight the decline in American power. The Russians are seeking to obliterate the American “red line” -- not for victory in Syria—since Assad is clearly winning anyway. The point of the frontal confrontation is to publically expose President Obama’s deep ambivalence about the use of force. The Russians seek to show that a weak president will not use force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The Russian policy also seeks to establish itself as a power-broker in the region. Who is listening? The Saudis? The Jordanians? The other oil producing nations in the region?
What is the mission? General Dempsey (the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) when asked couldn’t answer that question. Most supporters of the administration argue that it is to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again. If he has used them, how can a shot over the bow deter him from doing it again? Senator McCain wants to help the Free Syrian Army overthrow Assad; while numerous other Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle are concerned about the infiltration of the rebel forces by Al Qaeda (Secretary Kerry admitted that upwards of 25% of the rebel forces could be pro-Al Qaeda.) Mission confusion is rampant.
What is the end state? Since we are told that only airpower will be used there are several possible end states:
- Destroying the Syrian air force or grounding it through intimidation
is operationally feasible but would have only marginal benefits for
protecting Syrian civilians.
- Neutralizing the Syrian air defense system would be challenging but
manageable; however, it would not be an end in itself. We also cannot forget that it is manned by Russians.
- Defending safe areas in Syria's interior would amount to
intervention on the side of the opposition.
- An air campaign against the Syrian army could do more to ensure that
the regime fell than to determine its replacement.
- Air attack can not effectively destroy the Syrian chemical stockpile.
A recently released study says that it would take 75,000 troops on the ground to secure Syria’s chemical weapons. But that is not the end state, is it? If the plan is to destroy or degrade the Syrian Air Force it could be done, but what would be the Iranian and Russian response? In short we do not know what the end state is. As noted in my previous article the Russians and Iranians have been suggesting belicose responses. Are we seeking escalation to a regional war? One certainly hopes not.
So what do we know? There is no agreed mission or end state. Confusion reigns as the administration seeks to find a way to avoid the world seeing the obvious—President Obama is a weak president who has no foreign policy or strategic vision. Trying to make him look otherwise is not a strategy or an end state for the current situation.
Therefore my previous position on not attacking Syria makes even more sense.