Small Wars Journal

Syria Thoughts

Tue, 09/10/2013 - 11:34am

Syria Thoughts

Kevin Benson

I am pleased the president is asking Congress to vote on potential action against Syria.  I am equally pleased that there is movement on the diplomatic front regarding the disposition of Syria’s cache of chemical weapons.  The threat of the use of force must be a component of the overall strategy supporting a diplomatic move.   It is not simply an airstrike; this use of force must be coordinated through a comprehensive strategy.  Professional officers have an obligation to think through and adjust such a strategy before, during and after execution.

If I were a part of the planning team I would ask what are the assumptions that underpin the policy making and planning.  Clausewitz wrote that war (and the use of force I now add) is an extension of policy through other means. The appropriate strategy must be guided by sound policy. So, what assumptions are being made? I offer there are at least two; 1] striking Syria for using chemical weapons will be seen as a deterrent in other capitals that are opposed to US interests. 2] The political will exists in the west and with our allies and like minded friendly powers to sustain the strikes at the required level of ferocity for a period of time to ensure the message is received.

Our policy and our abiding interest is in prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, and all weapons of mass destruction, by governments engaged in warfare, against their own people or others. Our national interest requires we act in defense of the west and anyone who might be a victim of chemical weapons. When developing a strategy I would ask what the ends that support this policy are. Judging from testimony on 4 September the administration is repeatedly claiming that the objective is to "degrade and deter Assad's CW capabilities." That is their primary justification, with effect on other states a secondary one.  The offer to turn over chemical weapons to the UN will effectively deter the Assad regime from using the weapons, especially if by subterfuge the regime retains some of its weapons for later use.  The penultimate “end” should be a clear message to all nation-states and other actors; a demonstration of ferocious power against the party responsible for the use of chemical weapons, and WMD.

Another end, dark as this might be, is sustaining the stalemate in this war.  Our interests are served, I offer, while Iran and its proxies along with Al Qaeda and its proxies are at each other’s throats.  

As I articulated the ways we will use military power to achieve our policy goals I would ensure to explain how the tactical actions of our ships and planes are linked to attaining the objectives of policy in the event of a strike.

Our means are evident in the assembly of US warships off the coast of Syria. I imagine that we would also use air power in the form of manned bombers such as the B-2. This aircraft can deliver tons of precision munitions from altitudes that negate Syrian air defenses.  I would ask policy makers what are they doing to ensure warships and aircraft of other nations participate in the strike.  During testimony Secretary Kerry said the Pentagon does not want other nations to participate, because it will be such a “limited strike.” 

I would explore the risks we foresee in striking Syria AND the risks attendant in NOT striking Syria. Then I would ask what actions are being taken to mitigate these risks.  Our actual initial strike might (should) be limited to three to five days, executed at some determined and guarded time during the authorized 60 day strike window.  I would attempt to anticipate the range of responses from the Iranians, the Syrians, Hezbollah, and the Russians and so on.  I would ask where Hezbollah might operate in our country, where might this group find a safe haven, and with whom might they be coordinating. Similar questions must be asked about Al Qaeda and associated groups. These questions must be a part of the strategy and associated plans.

I would consider the sequencing of actions from the tactical level (ships and planes) through operational (actions taken throughout the region in support of the strike) to strategic and policy. Will we encourage Saudi Arabia to continue arming the rebels, as reported in Saudi newspapers? Will we encourage the Qataris to do this as well? Will we encourage the French to continue selling arms to these nations with the tacit understanding that the weapons will go to the rebels? How will we engage the Russians and Chinese as they will inevitably stand on the side of the Syrians, as they see this stance is in their best interests? I would ask State Department counterparts how will Secretary Kerry develop and execute diplomatic actions to present the idea that any use of WMD is not in the best interest of any of the permanent members of the Security Council.

Along with sequencing I would ask how the administration/NSC will prioritize these actions for execution. With whom will Secretaries Kerry and Hagel speak, GEN Dempsey, the regional combatant commanders of European, Pacific, and Central Commands speak? The commander of Special Operations Command must speak with his counterparts as well. Who is coordinating the message and what is it? How will the message be tailored for best receipt in various capital cities and governments?  On 4 September GEN Dempsey also made clear that the administration reserves the right to strike, assess damage and effects, and strike again.

I would absolutely ask when the inevitable error occurs and a “school” or “wedding party” is struck how are we going to respond? What is the message we will send to the “Arab Street,” and the streets of Berlin, Paris, London, Beijing and Moscow as well as to our own people? This must be a part of the overall strategy and supporting plans.

Finally, if I could ask but one question, it would concern the theory of victory being proposed for this action. In other words I would ask why the plans team (and administration) thinks this operation will work.  Given the developing potential of a deal to turn over chemical weapons; why we think this will work, takes on even greater import.

The credible threat of force should move the diplomatic effort along and thus makes crafting a sound strategy ever more important to the overall effort.  Use of force should not leave the table.

I hope the actual planners consider these questions.  Our nation cannot afford to become isolationist, in the long run of history this course of action; retreating behind the supposed distance of our oceans, only leads to even more strife.