Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

A strike on Syria? And if so, what sort and with what consequences?

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Update from AIJAC

August 30, 2013
Number 08/13 #06

This update deals with the apparent likelihood that the US will soon lead some form of military strikes against the Syrian regime in the wake of what appears to be a large-scale, confirmed chemical weapon attack at East Ghouta and other Damascus suburbs, and increasing reports that intelligence has confirmed that the Syrian regime was responsible (Good reports on the ugly details of that attack come from the New York Times and Der Speigel, while reports on the intelligence are here, here, here and here.) With US President Obama saying he still hasn't made up his mind what to do, it focuses on the form such an attack might or should take, and the consequences of the various options reportedly being considered.

It begins with a critique of what appears to be regarded as the most likely scenario for a US military strike on Syria, written by noted US strategic analyst Elliot Cohen. Cohen warns that a "futile salvo of cruise missiles" at some regime military targets would actually be worse than refusing to react to the chemical weapons strike at all. He advises a campaign targeting the regime's air force and its infrastructure, but calls for facing some facts - this cannot be surgical and without civilian casualties, it will require Congressional authorisation, and it will not end cleanly and will have unpredictable repercussions throughout the region. For Cohen's advice in full, CLICK HERE. Others offering largely similar views are Washington Institute head Dr. Robert Satloff, David Makovsky (also of the Washington Institute) noted Middle East journalist Michael Totten, and American columnist Jeffrey Goldberg.

Next up is another major strategic thinker, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who offers a more detailed program for military action in Syria. He argues that the US was wrong to set its "red line" for intervention as chemical weapons use, and argues that any military strike should aim to achieve "some strategic meaning" - which is unlikely with a small-scale one-off effort. To this end, he recommends working with allies, striking beyond the chemical weapons infrastructure at regime military targets, setting new, meaningful red lines, offering ongoing but conditional aid to Syrian rebels, and organising a major humanitarian relief effort. For the rest of Cordesman's analysis of how to make a difference in Syria, CLICK HERE. Also informative is a classification of the three broad military options in front of US President Obama from American strategic analyst Max Boot.

Finally, Israeli analyst Jonathan D. Halevi offers his assessment of what the chemical weapon attack says about the course of the Syrian civil war. He says that the attack was likely prompted by threatening, major rebel gains in the Damascus suburb, despite regime successes elsewhere - and that the regime likely knew it would face a backlash but expected Russia and China to stave off major repercussions. He says the attack will harden rebel resolve and increase foreign recruitment for them, possibly lead to mass retribution against the Alawite minority in Syria and deepen the Sunni-Shi'ite rift in the Muslim world, including possibly sparking revenge attacks across the region. For all that Halevi has to say, CLICK HERE. More on the background in Syria to the apparent chemical weapons use and possible implications from academic Yiftah Shapir of Tel Aviv University.

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Syria will require more than cruise missiles

Washington Post, August 25

In 1994, after directing the U.S. Air Force’s official study of the Persian Gulf War, I concluded, “Air power is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.” That observation stands. It explains the Obama administration’s enthusiasm for a massive, drone-led assassination campaign against al-Qaeda terrorists. And it applies with particular force to a prospective, U.S.-led attack on the Syrian government in response to its use of chemical weapons against a civilian population.

President Obama has boxed himself in. He can no longer ignore his own proclamation of a “red line.” The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a breach of proper civil-military relations, has publicly telegraphed his skepticism about any use of force in Syria. But the scale, openness and callousness of the Syrian government’s breaking of an important taboo seems likely to compel this president — so proud of his record as a putative war-ender — to launch the warplanes yet again in the Middle East.

The temptation here is to follow the Clinton administration’s course — a futile salvo of cruise missiles, followed by self-congratulation and an attempt to change the topic. It would not work here. A minority regime fighting for its life, as Bashar al-Assad’s is, can weather a couple of dozen big bangs. More important, no one — friends, enemies or neutrals — would be fooled. As weak as the United States now appears in the region and beyond, we would look weaker yet if we chose to act ineffectively. A bout of therapeutic bombing is an even more feckless course of action than a principled refusal to act altogether.

A serious bombing campaign would have substantial targets — most plausibly the Syrian air force, the service once headed by Assad’s father, which gives the regime much of its edge over the rebels, as well as the air defense system and the country’s airports, through which aid arrives from Iran. But should the Obama administration choose any kind of bombing campaign, it needs to face some hard facts.

For one thing, and despite the hopes of some proponents of an air campaign, this would not be surgical. No serious application of air power ever is, despite administration officials’ claims about the drone campaign, which, as we now know, has killed plenty of civilians. A serious bombing campaign means civilian casualties, at our hands. And it may mean U.S. and allied casualties too, because the idea of a serious military effort without risk is fatuous.

The administration would need congressional authorization. Despite his professed commitment to transparency and constitutional niceties, Obama has proved himself reluctant to secure congressional authorization for the use of force, most notably with Libya in 2011. Even if an authorization is conferred retroactively, it needs to be done here because this would be a large use of force; indeed, an act of war.

And it probably would not end cleanly. When the president proclaimed the impending conclusion of the war with al-Qaeda, he disregarded the cardinal fact of strategy: It is (at least) a two-sided game. The other side, not we, gets to decide when it ends. And in this case neither the Syrian government nor its Iranian patrons, nor its Hezbollah, Russian and Chinese allies, may choose to shrug off a bombing campaign. Chess players who think one move ahead usually lose; so do presidents who think they can launch a day or two of strikes and then walk away with a win. The repercussions may be felt in neighboring countries; they may even be felt in the United States, and there is no excuse for ignoring that fact.

Despite all these facts, not to act would be, at this point and by the administration’s own standards, intolerable.

The slaughter in Syria, tolerated for so long, now approaches the same order of magnitude (with the number of dead totaling six figures at least) as Rwanda, but in a strategically more important place. Already it is late, perhaps too late, to prevent Syria from becoming the new Afghanistan or Yemen, home to rabidly anti-Western jihadis. A critical firebreak, the use of chemical weapons on a large scale, has been breached.

No less important, U.S. prestige is on the line. Why should anyone, anywhere, take Obama’s threats (or for that matter, his promises) seriously if he does nothing here? Not to act is to decide, and to decide for an even worse outcome than the one that awaits us.

“War is an option of difficulties,” a British general once remarked. The question before the president is whether he will make matters worse by convincing himself that he has found a minimal solution to a fiendish problem. He will convince no one else.

Eliot A. Cohen teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He directed the U.S. Air Force’s Gulf War Air Power Survey from 1991 to 1993

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How to Wage War Against Assad

By Anthony Cordesman

Real Clear Politics,

The U.S. has hard choices to make in Syria. Even if the U.S. does intervene militarily, the time window for its best option has already passed. President Obama may have had reason to be cautious and play King Log to President Bush's King Stork, but the U.S. did not intervene when the rebels were strongest, the Assad regime most fragile, and limited U.S. support to the then dominant moderate rebel factions might well have pushed Assad out of power without dividing Syria along sectarian and ethnic lines.

Every option today comes up against the reality that Assad is now far stronger, the country is increasingly being split into Assad and rebel controlled sections, the rebels are fractured and rebel forces have strong Sunni Islamist extremist elements, and the nation is increasingly polarizing into an Alawite and more secular Sunni and minority bloc, a Sunni Arab bloc, and a Syrian Kurdish bloc. In practice, this means there is no way the U.S. can quickly use any amount of force to destroy the Assad regime with any confidence that Syria will not come under Sunni Islamist extremist control, or divide into Alawite, Sunni, and Kurdish blocs in ways that prove to be even more violent and lasting than such sectarian and ethnic divisions have in Iraq.

The U.S. is also now faced with having chosen the wrong red line. No one has accurate estimates, but the key challenge in Syria is scarcely to end the use of chemical weapons. The real challenge is some 120,000 dead, another 200,000-plus wounded, and as many as 20% of its 22.5 million people have been displaced inside the country or are living outside it as refugees.The nation has lost some three years of economic development, become a country of polarized factions, and seen many - if not most - of its children lose much of their schooling and learn to live in fear and anger in a country where more than a third of the population is 14 years of age or younger.

Chemical weapons alone are not a reason to use force. Even the most successful cruise missile strikes would not destroy Syria's holdings. There is no credible chance the U.S. can locate or destroy Syria's entire holding without a massive air campaign and some kind of presence on the ground. Even if the Assad regime has not done the obvious, and used the last few months to covertly disperse a large portion of its weapons, cruise missiles simply don't have that kind of destructive power.

Even if the U.S. can somehow stop all future use of chemical weapons, the military impact will be marginal at best. Moreover, anyone who has actually seen wounds from conventional artillery -- or badly treated body wounds from small arms -- realizes that chemical weapons do not cause more horrible wounds. If anything, an agent like Sarin tends to either kill quickly or result in relative recovery. The case for intervening cannot be based on chemical weapons. It has to be based on two factors: Whether it serves American strategic interest and whether it meets the broader humanitarian needs of the Syrian people

Americans also need to remember that the U.S. has chosen bad options in Syria before, and the sheer pointlessness of largely symbolic U.S. strikes.The pointless use of battleships to shell Druze and Syrian forces in Syria in 1983 led to the Marine Corps barracks bombing and a similar attack on French forces on October 23, 1983.U.S. mistakes and debates within the Pentagon then led the U.S. to suddenly halt its part of what might have been a meaningful, large-scale U.S.-French strike plan, have the U.S. halt its strikes without telling its French ally, and result in a totally ineffective French bombing of Syrian targets on November 16, 1983. On December 4, 1983, the U.S. finally did launch 28 airstrikes because of Syrian air defense attacks on U.S. F-14s flying reconnaissance missions. The end result, however, was a pointless attack on Syrian air defense targets, the loss of two U.S. aircraft, one pilot dead, and another held prisoner until he was rescued by the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

If the U.S. is to intervene in Syria, its options must have some strategic meaning and a chance of producing lasting success. They must have a reasonable chance of bringing stability to Syria, of limiting the growth of Iranian and Hezbollah influence, of halting the spillover of the Syrian struggle into nearby states, and helping to deal with the broader humanitarian crisis.

In practice, this requires the following actions:

Tie U.S. action to allied support: Work with Britain, France, Turkey, and key Arab states like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to show that the U.S. is acting with broad international support before the U.S. takes any military action on its own.

Focus on targets that go well beyond chemical weapons sites, and that hit at key political and military targets: Strike at targets like Assad's palace in Damascus, the headquarters of Syrian intelligence and the secret police, Syrian and Al Quds bases and training centers for the Assad militias, and the mix of air bases and ground support facilities that do most to support Syrian military operations. These are targets U.S. cruise missiles can hit, although the U.S. might consider at least limited air strikes to show it can and will escalate if Assad does not show restraint.

Set redlines that matter for the future and seek to deter Assad with plans for a limited No Fly, No Move Zone: Warn Syria that U.S. will enforce a no fly/no move zone if Assad forces carry out more missile, air, chemical weapons, or ground artillery strikes on rebel-held areas. Make it clear to Assad that there are clear limits to the targets he can strike in the future, and the U.S. is planning a broader effort with its allies that could lead to a no fly-no move zone to protect rebel held areas. Give this option real teeth by openly working with key allies on contingency plans. Make it clear to the world that the U.S. is taking the lead, and that the U.S. will act if Assad continues his attacks and ground offensives, and the U.S. has suitable allied support.

Act to provide lasting support for the rebels. Finally make good on U.S. announcements about helping moderate rebel factions. Openly back and arm moderate rebel factions with advanced light guided air defense weapons like MANPADS, SHORADS, anti-tank guided weapons, mortars, and artillery. Provide such weapons directly from the U.S. and/or allow friendly Arab states like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to release such weapons in coordination with the U.S. and only to the more moderate rebel elements.

But, make U.S. support conditional. Test rebel capability, the impact of actively supporting moderate rebel elements, and show Assad the U.S. not only has a tongue but has teeth. Hold the rebel forces that get such support accountable by demanding videotapes and other evidence the weapons are being properly used -- as the supporters of extremist elements are already doing with Islamist factions. Forward deploy a limited CIA and Special Forces presence. Act on the reality that such "sensitive" weapons are already out of tight control, on the market, and in rebels hand in limited numbers.

Organize an international humanitarian effort. Do not seek to solve the humanitarian or refugee problem alone, but do be far more proactive in organizing a broad international effort to support Syrian refugees inside areas in Syria where moderate rebel factions and NGOs can operate, and work with European allies, Arab allies in the Gulf, and with Jordan, Iraq, the KRG, and Turkey to create a collective effort to reduce the suffering. Treat USAID as a key element of a civil-military effort in Syria. Give it the funds and support it needs to be effective.

None of these options should be open ended, or be chosen and acted upon without getting clear, public commitments to joint action from our key allies. The U.S. should not continue to replace U.S. overreaction in Afghanistan and Iraq with inaction in Syria, but it should take account of the concerns raised by General Dempsey in his letters to Congress. The Obama Administration should also act on a key statement in General Dempsey's August 19th letter to Congressman Engels, "We could, if asked to do so, significantly increase our effort to develop a moderate opposition. Do so, in combination with expanded capacity to-building efforts with regional partners and a significant investment in the development of a moderate Syrian opposition, represents the best framework for an effective U.S. strategy in going forward."

Finally, the U.S. should make it clear that it does not reject negotiations that could lead to some form of agreed solution that would protect Syria's Alawites and Kurds, offer Russia a role in Syria and move towards a UN solution, and give Assad a secure way to leave or even lead to some form of ceasefire that temporarily divides Syria without leaving it without a future.

The chances of such negotiations succeeding are now extremely limited, but the U.S. has waited so long that so are the chances of a clear rebel victory based on moderate movements. Moreover, an active, high profile U.S.-led effort towards national conciliation can lay the groundwork for some form of eventual agreed national conciliation even if it cannot end or even pause the fighting in the short-term. Above all, the U.S. needs to focus on collective action, and finding a workable compromise among Syrian factions that has some chance of a long-term solution that offers stability and security to Syrians. There is no point in fighting a war against chemical weapons. There is no point in U.S. military symbolism or massive unilateral military action. There is a point in trying to use force to end the suffering, the fighting, and repression - and serve our national interest while we meet the needs of the Syrian people and our allies

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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The Chemical Attack in Syria: Implications

The regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad has once again made use of chemical weapons in Syria’s bloody civil war, which has cost over 100,000 lives since it began in March 2011.

An aerial bombardment of several communities in the suburbs of Damascus apparently killed over a thousand people. Videos show numerous corpses with no sign of external injury, as well as bodies of people who died of asphyxiation.

The Assad regime has already crossed all moral lines in this war, and is committing genocide against the Sunni Muslim population by indiscriminate bombardment of civilian targets, mass executions, the torturing to death of thousands of detainees and prisoners, and mass acts of rape. 

In the regime’s view the war against the popular insurrection and rebel forces is a zero-sum game; giving up the reins of government would likely entail the genocide of the Alawite minority by the Sunni majority. That majority is now led by radical Islamic organizations that mostly share the aim of establishing an Islamist regime in Syria that would implement Shari’a law.

In recent months the Syrian army has made several gains on the battlefield, managing to reconquer the town of Qusayr on the border with Lebanon and the Al- Khalidiya neighborhood of Homs. These gains were made possible by the growing cooperation between Syria and its allies Iran, Iraq, and Hizbullah, which are assisting the Assad regime with money, weapons, and fighters.

As the regular Syrian army’s ranks are thinned by heavy and ongoing losses, it has been replenished by fighters from Hizbullah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, as well as Shiite volunteers from Iraq and, apparently, Pakistan.

The victories in Al-Qusayr and Al-Khalidiya did not, however, alter the balance of power. Redeploying and launching attacks in other areas, the rebel organizations have made impressive gains in the Aleppo area (conquering the Menagh military airport), in the Alawite enclave in the Latakia district (conquering over twenty villages), and in the Damascus suburbs. Rebel ranks were also reinforced in the Homs district, where they succeeded to check the advance of the Syrian army.

The rebels are mainly seeking to thwart what they see as a strategic effort by the regime to set up an Alawite state. This putative entity would be based in the enclave of Latakia-Tartus, in Damascus the capital, and in the Homs district near the Lebanese border.

With the rebels’ advances in the Latakia district and the Damascus suburbs creating a tangible threat to the regime’s survival, it was apparently a sense of distress that prompted the decision to use chemical weapons in the Damascus area on the night of August 20-21. (While the use of such weapons has not yet been officially confirmed, the photographs and videos make it appear highly likely.) Despite what the regime claimed, the aerial attack was not directed at “terrorist dens” but at a civilian population, and its goal was apparently to damage the rebels’ morale and convey a clear message about the regime’s determination to fight for its life at any price.

The Syrian regime well knows that the results of a chemical-weapons attack cannot be covered up. Its decision nevertheless to perpetrate one reflects its assessment that, under current political conditions and with its Russian, Chinese, and Iranian backing (including threats of revenge attacks in the Persian Gulf), the international community is incapable of dislodging it.

The attack, however, has not discouraged the rebel forces but instead intensified their motivation to fight. It probably will also increase the flow of foreign volunteers, some from Western countries, seeking to join the ranks of the rebels.

When the rebels debated in the past whether to exact retribution against the Alawite minority, the decision adopted by the mainstream was to refrain from acts of mass vengeance, despite the regime’s massacres. The hope was to encourage the Alawites to repudiate the Assad regime, thereby facilitating his overthrow. U.S. and international pressure also played a role. This approach, however, may now be reconsidered, especially in light of the rebels’ advances in the Latakia and Damascus areas.

Main Implications

Given the rebel forces’ gains and the ongoing attrition of the Syrian army, the Assad regime is experiencing a sense of existential threat and is no longer foregoing doomsday weapons in its effort to survive.

War crimes and crimes against humanity – indeed, constituting a form of genocide – have been carried out in Syria on a large scale and before the eyes of the world. The lessons of the Second World War have not been learned. Even in the era of modern communications, with daily documentation of the atrocities, genocide can occur under conditions where the international system is paralyzed by interests and rivalries between the powers.

The international impotence in the face of these events weakens deterrence against the use of nonconventional weapons and has implications in the Iranian context as Tehran continues on its determined march toward nuclear weapons.

In the wake of the latest attack, the likelihood of revenge attacks against the Alawite minority has grown – possibly using chemical weapons that may fall into the hands of rebel forces.

The Syrian regime has shown that it has no moral inhibitions about using chemical weapons at a time of strategic distress. It is therefore possible that, in an extreme scenario where there is an immediate danger of its overthrow, it will resort to attacking Israeli civilian targets with chemical weapons.

The Syrian crisis will continue to deepen the Sunni-Shiite rift in the Muslim world. This may well lead to reciprocal revenge attacks in the Middle East and East Asia, and even in Muslim communities in the West.

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