Small Wars Journal

West Point’s Defense and Strategic Studies “War Council” Series

Tue, 09/24/2013 - 11:14am

West Point’s Defense and Strategic Studies “War Council” Series

United States Military Academy, Defense and Strategic Studies Division


Syria is in the headlines every day. The Obama Administration has declared the Syrian government in breach of an international norm against the use of chemical weapons, raising the threat of coercive military force to preclude future violation.  At West Point, in class, many instructors find cadets asking pointed questions about possible American intervention. Many of these teachers, in turn, are talking about the issue and wondering if this might turn into the next deployment or combat stripe.

In this context, the Defense and Strategic Studies Program at West Point organized a multi-disciplinary, academic and professional forum on 6 September 2013, to discuss the many perspectives on potential American military intervention in Syria. The panelists each commented on Syria within their area of expertise, and what follows is the set of edited, written remarks from the event (provided by each panelist).  Each view is important, particularly to cadets personally grappling with these real world issues for the first time. 

Some have questioned such a panel for cadets.  One officer/faculty member who exemplifies this attitude said this past April, “we don’t want second lieutenant strategic thinkers [in the United States Army].”  Unfortunately, this is not a new argument on the Hudson River; Superintendent Major General Samuel Koster advanced the idea in 1970, that at West Point, “We’re more interested in the ‘doer’ than the ‘thinker’.”  Fortunately, the leadership in today’s Army thinks differently.  Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno has recently written that, “[Today’s environment] demands leaders with the ability to think broadly and critically, aware of the cultural lenses through which their actions will be viewed and cognizant of the potential strategic ramifications of their decisions.” 

In short, this type of event has merit because, upon graduation and subsequent entrance into the profession of arms, each one of these cadets must be able to relate their tactical actions to American national policy.  We are not after strategists or strategic planners, per se, but officers with strategic understanding.  It is critical that all know the context in which they serve and where they fit within the military instrument of American national power, because as commissioned officers all will directly contribute to the nation’s strategic performance in war. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of West Point, the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Biographical Information

Captain Andrew Betson is a US Army Armor officer assigned to the Defense and Strategic Studies program, Department of Military Instruction at West Point. He served two years in Operation Iraqi Freedom and holds a Bachelor of Science from the United States Military Academy and a Master’s in Diplomacy and International Commerce from the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky.  Captain Betson’s next assignment will be as a student at the Command and General Staff School in Ft. Leavenworth, KS.

Major Matthew Cavanaugh is a FA59 (Army Strategist), currently assigned to teach military strategy in the Defense and Strategic Studies program at West Point. He served two years in Operation Iraqi Freedom and holds a Bachelor of Science from the United States Military Academy and a Master’s in Strategic Studies from Victoria University (New Zealand).  Major Cavanaugh is currently at work on a PhD dissertation on generalship under Professor Colin S. Gray at the University of Reading (United Kingdom).

Ian Fishback is a Major in the U.S. Army and an Instructor in the Department of English and Philosophy at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. A 2001 West Point graduate, he served four combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq as an Infantry and Special Forces officer.  Major Fishback holds an M.A. in Political Science and an M.A. in Philosophy, both from the University of Michigan.   

Major Patrick G. Miller is currently an instructor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at the United States Military Academy.  Major Miller is a graduate of the Defense Language Institute, Presidio of Monterey and served as an Arabic cryptologic analyst at the 82nd Airborne Division.  MAJ Miller attended Officer Candidate School and was commissioned as a Military Intelligence officer in 2003.  He has a Master’s in Middle East Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School (2008) and a Master’s in Geography from the University of Oregon (2013) with a specialization in Human and Cultural Geography.  Major Miller’s previous assignments include 3/2 SBCT, the 502d Military Intelligence Battalion and the 4th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade. 

Major (Promotable) Shane Reeves is an Academy Professor in the Department of Law at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. A 1996 West Point graduate, Major Reeves was commissioned as an Armor officer and served as a platoon leader, fire support officer, and troop executive officer with 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.  After attending law school, Major Reeves transitioned into the Judge Advocate General’s Corps in 2003.  Since becoming a Judge Advocate, Major Reeves has served in a number of legal positions including: as the Chief of Legal Assistance, Ft. Riley, Kansas; Brigade Judge Advocate for 3rd Brigade, 1st Armored Division in Taji, Iraq; Senior Trial Counsel, 1st Infantry Division at Ft. Riley, Kansas; and as a Professor of International and Operational Law at the Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Major Reeves holds a Master of Laws in Military Law from the Judge Advocate General's School, and a Juris Doctorate from the College of William and Mary.  He has authored a number of publications, the most recent titled “The New Griffin of War: Hybrid International Armed Conflicts” published in the Winter 2013 Edition of the Harvard International Review. His additional publications can be viewed on his SSRN Author page located at:   


6 September 2013 - Event Introductory Remarks (Major Matthew Cavanaugh)

Exactly 100 years ago today, TE Lawrence was waiting in Aleppo for his brother to arrive at the train station there.  He did not know what was to come – and neither do we – which is why I think we’ve gathered today.  War in Syria is not new.

The most recent conflict in Syria is now two years old.  President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is fighting a civil war against multiple insurgent groups for control of the country.  100,000 have been killed – equivalent to the college town populations of Boulder, Berkeley, or Cambridge, MA as well as our football capitols in Green Bay, South Bend, or Odessa, TX.  The fighting has also created the worst refugee crisis in the world: the UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced a couple days ago that 2 million have fled Syria, over half of which are children. Syria’s neighbors have received this influx as best they can.  A further 4.25 million Syrians are displaced within the country, which means that roughly 1/3 of Syria’s population has left their pre-conflict place of residence.

About one year ago, on 20 August 2012, President Obama gave a press conference at the White House and answered a question posed by Chuck Todd of NBC:

“I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation. But the point you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people…We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.”  

[So the administration’s resulting policy is no chemical or biological weapons transfer or use]

Then, after a few unconfirmed, minor reports of chemical weapons use, on 21 August 2013, a few weeks ago, the U.S. intelligence community assessed with “high confidence” that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack (likely a nerve agent) in the Damascus suburbs – killing 1,429, 426 of which were children.  Since then, many have questioned both U.S. and the administration’s credibility.

We have gathered this War Council for both an academic and professional purpose – to discuss the utility of American force in Syria: is it legal? Is it moral?  Can it be effective?  Is it wise?

As many have called going to war as “seeing the elephant” – in Defense and Strategic Studies we extend that metaphor.  Think of the Indian proverb about the blind man touching the elephant. 

There are many perspectives, each necessary but not sufficient on their own. Similarly, we’ve gathered a multi-disciplinary panel of experts, in one place, to help you see the conflict from many angles, in the interest of time, I’ll very briefly introduce them:

  • On legality: Major Shane Reeves of the Department of Law
  • On morality: Major Ian Fishback of the Department of English and Philosophy
  • On effectiveness, geostrategic considerations: Major Patrick Miller, Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering
  • On the extremist groups operating in the conflict: Member of the Combating Terrorism Center
  • On potential military, direct, conventional approaches: Captain Drew Betson, Defense and Strategic Studies
  • And, on the wisdom of an American military intervention: myself, Major Matt Cavanaugh, of Defense and Strategic Studies

Last point, before we begin: this is both an academic and a professional exercise; we are not here to criticize the administration or voice political opinion.  The Council of War tradition is old – and the old rules apply.  Generally, so do Vegas rules: what happens in War Council stays in War Council. This is non-attribution, so no direct quotation without expressed permission.

[NOTE: All authors participating in Small Wars Journal publication have provided consent.]

The views expressed by the panelists are theirs alone – and do not represent in any way those of the U.S. government, Department Defense, the Army or West Point.

Is it legal? (Major Shane Reeves)

Introduction: I appreciate the opportunity to discuss the legal questions revolving around the possible use of military force in Syria. The atrocities associated with the ongoing Syrian Civil War shock the conscience: over 100,000 people dead, millions of refugees and displaced persons, and the annihilation of entire communities. Yet it is the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime on its own people that starkly illustrates just how far the conflict has devolved into brutality and savagery.  This ‘moral obscenity,’ as Secretary of State Kerry called the chemical weapon use, has dramatically intensified the demands for the United States to conduct military actions to both punish the Assad government and stop the violence. So the question that must be answered is: Do we have the legal justification to use military force in Syria? To answer this question both domestic and international law must be addressed.

Domestic Legal Issues: While domestic legal questions seem to have monopolized the discussion among policy makers, this is not as difficult an issue as the international legal questions. Under the Constitution, War Powers are divided between Congress (which has the power to declare war, raise and support the armed forces, etc.) and the Executive (who is the commander-in-chief of the military, has the right to veto congressional declarations of war, etc.). In 1973 Congress passed the War Powers Resolution despite a Presidential veto due to Congressional discomfort over the secret bombing campaign in Cambodia and the long engagements in Korea and Vietnam without a declaration of war.

This federal law was drafted to check the President’s power to commit the U.S. to an armed conflict without Congressional consent. The resolution provides that the President can send U.S. armed forces into conflict only through a declaration of war, statutory authorization, or in self-defense.  There is an implied fourth exception as the resolution requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30 day withdrawal period, without statutory authorization or a declaration of war. Thus, the War Powers Resolution’s ‘structure . . . recognizes and presupposes the existence of unilateral presidential authority to deploy armed forces’ into hostilities or circumstances presenting an imminent risk of hostilities. That structure— requiring a report within 48 hours after the start of hostilities and their termination within 60 days after that—‘makes sense only if the President may introduce troops into hostilities or potential hostilities without prior authorization by the Congress. Caroline D. Krass, Principle Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Memorandum Opinion for the Attorney General, Authority to Use Military Force in Libya 1, 8 (Apr. 2011)(citing Haiti Deployment, 18 Op. O.L.C. at 175; see also Proposed Bosnia Deployment, 19 Op. O.L.C. at 334.).

Many may ask: Then why did the President decide to go to Congress for express authorization? Perhaps it is for political reasons or perhaps he is seeking statutory authorization in order to give himself a greater mandate for using force in Syria; any answer is simply conjecture. However, it is clear that the President would not have violated the War Powers Resolution by using force in Syria without first going to Congress, assuming the military action terminated within 60 days.  

International legal issues: As noted earlier, the much more difficult questions concern the international legal justification for using force in Syria. The traditional view of international law is careful to not conflate moral authority with legality, making the legal justification for the use of force in Syria highly questionable.  The United Nations Charter, which regulates the use of force by all nations, was drafted following the devastation of World War II as a response to the naked aggression of the Axis powers.  Devoted to the belief that no nation should unilaterally use military force for an individual purpose, the Charter expressly states in Article 2, paragraph 4 that ‘all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.’  This broad prohibition on the use of military force is an absolute rule with only two exceptions: if the U.N. Security Council authorizes military action or if a state is acting under their inherent right of individual or collective self-defense. As the United States does not have a U.N. Security Council Resolution authorizing action in Syria and is clearly not acting under either form of self-defense, in my opinion the use of military force is legally prohibited by existing international law.

However, some find this traditional view on state intervention flawed particularly when faced with a humanitarian crisis.  Arguing that a moral responsibility exists to protect victims of war crimes, genocide, or other crimes against humanity, many advocate for a separate use of force doctrine, often titled “Responsibility to Protect,” or “R2P,” which recognizes the moral imperative to act regardless of a technical reading of the law.  R2P was first put into practice in the 1999 NATO bombing campaign of Kosovo which was conducted outside of the U.N. traditional use of force framework and defended as a humanitarian intervention.  In 2004 the United Nations further validated the doctrine in a Report of the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change, titled “A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, 1 December 2004.”  The Report expressly noted that the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs is not a defense for those states accused of committing atrocities.

Despite the obvious appeal of invoking the R2P doctrine in Syria, relying on moral authority to authorize the use of force opens a pandora’s box of troubling international legal questions.  For example, what triggers this extra-legal use of force? What makes Syria’s circumstances different than the slaughter in Darfur or the enslavement, torture, and starvation of the millions in North Korea? When does the responsibility to protect end? Who is responsible for governing if there is regime change? What is to keep another powerful state, for example Russia or China, from invading a nation under the auspices of stopping a humanitarian crisis? Is R2P not simply a return to the colonialism and international Darwinism that led to the wars of annihilation in the 20th Century? These troubling questions and the subjectivity of their answers are the very reason that traditionalists continue to maintain the belief that the bifurcation between morality and law is extraordinarily important when determining the use of military force.

Conclusion: As this debate continues it will be more interesting to see how the international legal justifications are framed versus the ongoing domestic legal debate. Again, I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this topic today. Thank you.

Is it moral? (Major Ian Fishback)

Introduction:  The ethical aspects of a potential US military intervention into Syria are myriad and could easily fill an entire book.  Since time is short, I will focus on the current justification offered by the US – namely, the claim that the Syrian regime should be punished for using chemical weapons because chemical weapons are morally forbidden in war.  On the face of it, this claim seems plausible.  It is certainly generally accepted that chemical weapons are morally impermissible.  In the parlance of the just war tradition, chemical weapons are mala in se, or “evil in themselves.”  This raises the question of why chemical weapons are mala in se, though.  The answer is not as obvious as it might seem.  Gassing a person to death is certainly awful, but so is ripping a person’s limbs off and letting him bleed to death.  Why is the former mala in se, but the latter is not?

Mala in Se and Necessity:  Many weapons are considered mala in se because they inflict unnecessary suffering on their victims.  According to the principle of necessity, it is morally prohibited to inflict harms to achieve good ends if it is reasonable to believe that lesser harms could achieve those same ends.  Killing someone is unnecessary if knocking someone unconscious will suffice to accomplish the military objective.  For example, dum-dum bullets were outlawed because they inflict gratuitous suffering.  These munitions are designed to expand after entering the human body so that they leave more grievous wounds than other munitions.  There was near consensus that normal munitions adequately incapacitate enemy soldiers without inflicting as much harm as dum-dum bullets, therefore dum-dum bullets were outlawed as mala in se by the Hague Conventions.  It is unclear, however, that chemical weapons inherently violate necessity since they can achieve significant military advantages that other weapons cannot.  Furthermore, the harm caused by chemical weapons does not seem to be excessive compared to fire or slashing metal.  One is certainly free to ask: why is killing someone with gas worse than tearing someone’s face or limbs off?

Mala in Se and Discrimination:  Other weapons are considered mala in se because they are inherently indiscriminate.  According to the principle of discrimination, it is morally prohibited to intentionally target civilians as a means to a wartime end.  Nuclear weapons, for example, are often considered to be mala in se for this reason.  Nuclear weapons are usually oriented on population centers for terroristic purposes.  This is arguably the way that the United States employed nuclear weapons against the Japanese in WWII.  The US intentionally killed Japanese civilians in order to break the will of the Japanese, and, perhaps, as a warning to the Russians.  However, weapons that target military objectives and cause proportionate civilian “collateral damage” as an unavoidable side-effect are morally permissible.  For example, missiles, bombs, and even artillery are permissible so long as they are not used to intentionally kill civilians, and the number of civilians killed is not excessive in relation to the military value of the intended target.  It might be morally forbidden to drop a bomb in a city to kill a terrorist, but this is because the foreseeable civilian death is excessive.  It is morally permitted to drop a bomb on a terrorist in the open, away from civilians.  Why isn’t it permissible to drop gas out in the open, as it was used during trench warfare in WWI?

Mala in Se and Human Psychology:  According to the analysis up to this point, there does not seem to be anything especially immoral about chemical weapons vis-à-vis other types of weaponry.  Intentional terroristic killing of children is wrong, but it is wrong whether it is done with gas or with bullets.  The argument that seems to be advanced in the current debate is that killing with gas is especially wrong.  Why is this the case?  One answer is that the prohibition against chemical weapons is a mere convention, based on reciprocity.  In that case, the US may have a good reason to enforce the ban on chemical weapons, but the ban itself is rather arbitrary.  Another answer is that there is an aspect of human psychology that finds chemical weapons more unsettling than edged weapons, fire, and blunt force.  This seems plausible given the popular reaction to chemical weapons, but it might also be a cultural aversion that occurred after WWI.  After all, the veterans of the trenches remembered the horrors of that war and vowed, “never again.”  Their resolution to end all wars seems hopelessly naïve in retrospect, but the movement against this particular type of weaponry seems much more successful.  Whether that provides sufficient justification for treating chemical weapons as mala in se is an open question.

Effectiveness: Geostrategic Considerations (Major Patrick Miller)

Syria’s complex physical, cultural and military geography complicate the already labyrinthine political and strategic considerations facing regional and global actors.  When considering the implications of intervention, it is crucial for military scholars and leaders to understand the spatial significance of operating environments, or have a coup d’oeil (an eye for the ground).[1]  A brief analysis through a geographic lens will unpack the present geopolitical conundrum and reveal the essence of what is happening where—and why.     

Syria’s size and location pose several potential obstacles to U.S. military intervention.  Measuring more than 70,000 square miles, roughly the equivalent of South Dakota, Syria’s size is significant and the terrain within the country varied, ranging from coastal mountains and sweeping steppes to desert plains and rolling hills on the banks of the Euphrates River.  Any “boots on the ground” military presence should take into consideration Syria’s diverse landscape.

The haphazardly drawn borders of Syria, a vestige of colonial rule, feature land borders with several adjacent countries—all of whom have directly felt the effects of Syria’s bloody and persistent conflict.  Despite the fact that many of these neighboring countries have cooperative ties with the U.S., land access to Syria is not guaranteed.  Instead, we could be faced with actions similar to Turkey’s refusal to allow 4th Infantry Division overland transit during the opening stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Yet, these same borders remain open to foreign fighters, the unfettered flow of weapons and arms, and the mass exodus of displaced person and refugees.    

The physical geography of Syria, combined with sectarian and ethnic power struggles, renders the nation vulnerable to a potential fracturing of the state.  The various regions of Syria each have their own source of economic power. The current power holders, Assad and the Alawites, will fight to retain their center of gravity in Damascus and the coastal regions.  Retention of these regions will assure the regime access to key port cities and pipelines as well as control of the cultural and symbolic center of power in historical Greater Syria.  The opposition groups could capture the central region, which contains the agricultural belt and is part of the Fertile Crescent, and northeastern region, where the bulk of the nation’s oil fields are found.  The Tabqa Dam in the Fertile Crescent region of central Syria provides significant irrigation to Syria’s agricultural economy as well as a source of drinking water and hydroelectric power.   This dam is second in size in the region only to Egypt’s Aswan Dam, and is located in the vicinity of Medina al-Thawrah “City of Revolution.”  While the Dam is an obvious strategic focus, in reality any disruption of the Euphrates could have catastrophic effects on riparian communities and could cause conflict in Syria or Iraq.Finally, the sizable Kurdish population located in northeastern Syria could potentially breakaway and take control of the Suwaydiya oil fields.  Unilateral control of any of these zones will cause further destabilization as each side battles over the disparity of access to resources.

From a military geography perspective, intervention is enabled by Syria’s maritime location.  The U.S. is not limited to the air or land operations associated with landlocked areas of operations (AO’s), but has the ability to position substantial military power off Syria’s Mediterranean coast.  A naval presence with standoff distance from Syria’s surface-to-surface or air-to-surface capabilities provides U.S. forces a decisive advantage.  Moreover, due to a decade plus of conflict within the CENTCOM area of responsibility (AOR), the U.S. has geostrategic experience within the region and understands its limits and advantages.  Although hesitant to voice support for U.S. intervention, regional allies have tacitly indicated their hope for a Western-backed operation.  However, Syria’s geography is a deterrent to military intervention because the Assad regime could retaliate against these same allies—Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and the Gulf states.

The enduring conflict in Syria, most recently exacerbated by the ruthless sarin nerve agent attack on the populace, is an unfortunate confluence of the country’s human and environmental geographic characteristics.  The numerous shared borders not only create artificial divisions across populations, but are sieves through which fighters and arms flow while desperate refugees flee the horrors of sectarian and ethnic violence.  At the same time, the varied physical landscape provides warring parties relative safe havens and centers of gravity, as well as distinct operational environments.  Thus, U.S. led intervention utilizing any of the national instruments of power, be they diplomatic or military, should consider the geographic nuances of the Syria and the surrounding region.  This conflict extends beyond the rhetoric of supporting Al-Qaeda against Assad or even another round of the “Great Game” between Russia and the U.S. in the Middle East.          

Effectiveness: Terrorism/Militant Landscape Considerations (Combating Terrorism Center, West Point)

When we examine Syria's militant landscape, we face numerous challenges to identify the exact number of fighting groups there, their names, their ideology, and their ultimate goals. However, It is safe to say that the majority of them can fall under one of the following categories: nationalist, Islamist and jihadist.

Shortly after the eruption of the Syrian revolution in 2011, a group of defected Syrian army officers formed an armed group to defend the civilian demonstrators and called themselves the Free Syrian Army. The FSA adopts a nationalist and secularist ideology in their statements and call for a civil state that admits democratic processes and recognizes international law. However, some groups acting in the FSA’s name adopt Islamist views that may or may not be reconcilable with a secular ideology.

A year into the Syrian revolution, other groups espousing a religious ideology began to emerge.

They united under the umbrella group called “the Syrian Islamic Front” (SIF), strongly dominated by its largest faction, Ahrar al-Sham. The SIF is considered the second largest group.

Its ideology is not always consistent. Some of its statements project an Islamist ideology, hinting they are open to the formation of political parties, while other statements suggest that it is anti-democratic and seeks to establish an Islamic state that does not recognize international law. The SIF, however, is cautious to differentiate itself from jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.

In late 2011 or early 2012, a jihadist group was formed calling itself Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). Its fighters, many of them Syrians, came from Iraq where they had been fighting alongside the Islamic State of Iraq, better known as al-Qa`ida in Iraq and led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Baghdadi supported the new group financially, and authorized its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani to carry out his own policy and plans in Syria.  JN’s strategic goals have been to:

  • Topple the al-Assad regime.
  • Establish an Islamic state/caliphate, and implement Islamic law (shari`a).

The same tactics used by AQI in Iraq have been carried out in Syria, including IEDs, VIEDs and suicide operations.

The group's operations were consistent with its media statements:

  • Targeting al-Assad regime forces and other pro-Assad non-State groups, and avoiding civilian casualties. After the regime’s recent chemical attack, however, JN has started targeting villages of Alawites.
  • The group's statements did not project a global jihadi agenda. They made no references  to expanding jihad beyond Syria, and avoided anti-Western  rhetoric in their messaging compared to jihadist groups.

In April 2013, the leader of ISI/AQI declared publicly that JN was part of his group and assigned by him to fight in Syria under a different name.

This name, according to al-Baghdadi, should no longer be used. Instead, he declared that both ISI and JN were to merge under one name, the Islamic State in the Iraq and the Levant.

The leader of JN acknowledged, indirectly, that they were part of ISI, but he did not accept the merger of two groups. Rather, he pledged his loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Thus, there are two jihadist groups in Syria; both carry the same ideology and goals, yet each one is led by different leadership.

As to the differences between all three categories listed above:

In the event that al-Assad's regime were to fall, groups fighting under FSA are likely to engage in the political process (e.g., form political parties and contest elections). The SIF may do the same, but as noted above, their ideological statements are inconsistent. Like other jihadi groups that reject the world order of nation-states, JN and ISIL would not engage in the political process. Thus in a post-Assad world, are we going to see conflicts between various factions?

Probably yes.

Will the JN and ISIL merge and act as one group again?

If they do, do we expect them to take lead or to become mainstream? Most likely no, but it is difficult to predict whether they’ll survive in a post-Assad world. If they do survive, against whom would they direct their weapons? Will their operations be local or will they go global? The answers to these questions will not only determine the future trajectory of these groups, but the future prospects for a state in turmoil.    

Effectiveness: Conventional Approach Options (Captain Andrew Betson)

My portion is to address the potential effectiveness of an intervention using as a base, the options laid out by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a letter to Senator Carl Levin in July 2013.  I will first address some of the assets readily available in the region, then consider in more detail a couple of the options in the Chairman’s letter, and perhaps touch on some of the potential accidents possible in such ambiguous situations.  This portion will be inherently limited as it is based on open source reporting, and because my focus will be on US capabilities.

The United States’ unrivaled ability to command the sea and air, and our power projection and sustainment capabilities allow the Chairman to offer the options that are on the table for potential strikes.  Open source reporting (Institute for the Study of War) has it that at least four Arleigh Burke Class Destroyers are in the Med prepared to take part in any strike.  Considering the likelihood of two more submarines in support, that means 200 (plus or minus) Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles are ready to be launched from the destroyers’ vertical launch systems, or from the torpedo bays of the subs.  They can achieve this while maintaining their own air defense systems, and can be replenished locally.  In addition, the USS Nimitz Aircraft Carrier with its escorts are only days away, having temporarily stopped off in the Red Sea on their way home from deployment.  On a personal note for the cadets: in my first deployment, I lived in what we affectionately called the “Tomahawk Palace.”  Named such because we hit the building with 13 Tomahawk missiles before the Iraq invasion.  While powerful and accurate, we cannot forget true effects are always limited.  

In terms of Airpower, our Global Reach capabilities provide the President significant flexibility.  The myriad of aircraft types necessary to conduct major air operations can be moved with some ease to the US Airbase in Turkey, or to a Royal Air Force Base in Cyprus.  If the President desired, our strategic air assets could also assist given the Air Force’s In Flight Refueling acumen.  Sharp, limited raids are possible given Syria’s Integrated Air Defense System, as evidenced by Israel’s September 2007 Operation ORCHARD raid against an alleged nuclear facility, and their more recent January 2013 raid on a convoy alleged be carrying weapons to Lebanon.

The Chairman’s options, listed on the slide, and the apparent goals of intervention, however, lend toward more significant assets being brought to bear.  Given that, I want to consider the effectiveness of our Sea and Air Power if our focus is on the President’s stated goal in the Syria crisis, which is the end of the Assad Regime, and if our focus is on what the rhetoric seems to be regarding this potential strike, which would be a signal to Assad and others about the use of chemical weapons.

Establishing a No-Fly Zone, which by the way would be necessary for the last three options, would require a significant effort up front and would be costly to maintain afterwards.  Of course, the extent would depend on the size of the exclusion zone.  A recent RAND report states that even a small zone would include launching hundreds of Tomahawks, and hundreds of aircraft.  They would include fighter aircraft capable of shooting down Syrian challengers, Strike aircraft, planes devoted to suppressing the Syrian air defense system, AWACs for early warning, tankers, and contingency elements.  All of this could cost a half a billion dollars up front, and billion dollars a month to maintain.  The effect on humanitarian concerns would be limited, considering that only an estimated 10% of casualties inflicted by the regime have been by way of airstrikes.  The no-fly zone could influence the regime’s supplies, however, potentially speeding a rebel victory.  Increasing the zone, the intensity, or moving to a Libya-like “no move zone” could certainly increase the speed, but not necessarily affect our influence afterward.

As for the second goal, we simply cannot use sea and air power alone, and would require prohibitive landpower assets, to control Assad’s chemical weapons.  Attempting to use airpower to systematically attack all of his delivery assets would require an unattainable amount of intelligence.  Moreover, as the assets are being destroyed, the regime may find itself in a “use-or-lose” situation in his desperate fight for survival and fire more.  A more likely approach would be an effort to deter any future use by way of a Thomas Schelling-esque promise of future pain.  This could mean a limited, stand-off strike, but must be followed by a fairly constant presence, and likely at least a degradation of the Syrian Air Defense System.

Finally and clearly, each of the Chairman’s approaches involves risk.  Not just a possible downed aircraft, but also of accidents.  They range from collateral damage hurting the very people we are supposedly protecting, to diplomatic accidents that could have larger consequences.  Russia seems bent on increasing the risk our risk.  They are reportedly steaming two naval ships to the eastern Med now, and could supply Assad with S-300 Surface to Air Missiles, which would improve significantly, but not decisively his ADA capability.  Furthermore, establishing exclusion zones, whether in the air or on the ground, presents the possibility for diplomatic SNAFUs. 

In conclusion, I should emphasize that I have discussed Ways and Means…not Ends.    Our sea and air power capabilities can be effective in the speedy collapse of the Assad regime.  We are limited, though, in controlling his chemical weapons.  Perhaps more importantly, these factors do not answer the question of what will happen afterward.  MAJ Cavanaugh will take some of that tough question on.

Is it wise? (Major Matthew Cavanaugh)

My task: What is the utility of American force in Syria – is any sort of intervention wise?  To start, I don’t like the word “wise” – the battlefield punishes intellectual vanity.  You will not hear me reach definitive conclusions.  I don’t specifically know what to do.  But I think we can advance the ball forward a bit; that’s success for me today.

I’ll begin with Clausewitz, who wrote, “the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesmen and commander have to make is to establish the kind of war on which they are embarking...”

This is a civil war between a minority elite and the long-oppressed majority – similar to what we saw in Iraq. People fight to the end because they know that losers in such wars get killed or ethnically cleansed. (Zakaria)

It is also, as Anthony Cordesman has assessed, a “clash within a civilization” – funded and fueled on one side by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, and on the other side by Russia, Iran and affiliated groups. This provides a steroid injection to the conflict.

So the regime’s will is high and has fuel.

And, based on recent reporting, the American public does not possess a matching will to fight.  Compared to recent interventions in Kosovo (51% approval in Gallup polling), Haiti (54%), Grenada (53%) and Libya (47%) – significantly lower support for this intervention (Ranging from a high of 42% NBC, to a low of 29% with Ipsos).

It is clear that the U.S. could not be said to possess a will to fight that matches our potential opponents. But even if our public lacks will, what about the merits of the case not subject to popularity?

The second test comes from Thucydides, who posited three broad reasons for going to war: Fear, Honor (read “Credibility”), and Interest.

Fear: very low to U.S. physical security, including a relatively low threat to allies like Israel.

Honor/Credibility:  Some have said that U.S. credibility is on the line – Assad has called President Obama’s bluff.

But let’s look at the past.  Fareed Zakaria reminds us that “In 1983, just after the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, Ronald Reagan was certain that staying involved militarily was “central to our credibility on a global scale” and “vital to world peace.”  …but a few months later Reagan was “redeploying” the Marines to ships off the Lebanese coast.  That turned out OK in the end.

Today: (Zakaria) Keeping our word, intervening and staying the course has done nothing with respect to deterring the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs.

This is not in direct support of a formal ally; this is a two-word statement at the end of a Presidential press conference. Credibility is not a reason to go to war in this case.

How about interests?  A Colonel Isaiah Wilson recently wrote, “What do we want Syria to look like when the shooting stops…what are we trying to accomplish politically?”

The President’s stated policy is to deny transfer and use of chemical and biological weapons. Let’s look at this policy individually:

Denying use: Speaks to our values - you cannot kill your own people – and you certainly can’t do it with weapons that were banned in 1925.

Important interest to us, but not vital or necessary for the U.S. to succeed in the world.  And we can’t accomplish this unless the President really wants us to get involved intimately with the conflict – and it doesn’t seem that we have the will to support such an engagement.

Second policy goal; Denying transfer:

Speaks to our desire for stability and order in the region -

Ryan Crocker (at Yale, former Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria when Bashar al-Assad took power): “Our focus must be on preventing further spillover beyond [Syria’s] borders.”

Why? Big reason is because Syria has largest chemical weapons stock in entire Middle East; another is this massive refugee crisis.

This part, half of President’s policy, I think, can be achieved (deny transfer) at what may be an acceptable cost – we may be able to get to these ends.

I see Libya as a playbook to follow, even if there are some key differences.  We pursued a limited objective with limited military means while simultaneously pursuing regime change with non-military means.  And, generally, it worked (although several smart people disagree). 

In sum, I’ll lay out what I think is the wisest course using Nate Freier of CSIS’s guidelines for strategy:

Specific, minimum essential objectives: Sadly, I don’t think we (or the rest of the world) are prepared to do what is necessary to stop the bloodletting in this civil war – they want it more than we ever will.  But we might be able to contain the worst of this from spreading to the region and world.  We can deny the transfer of any of these weapons from Syria – we can make half the policy happen at a potentially acceptable cost.

Suitable ways to achieve them: Sea strike platforms to punish Assad and tip his chemical weapons cost/benefit analysis. Second, diplomacy leads this effort through and through; military folks must take a back seat in Syria (tough for us to do).  Third, if we want any shot at cordoning off the spread of chemical weapons, we’ll need to enlist the support of the Free Syrian Army.  And the only way to do that is to provide them a credible minimum level of arms; we’ve got to scratch their backs, or others that we like far less will do so in our place.  I know that further fuels the crisis, and goes directly against the humanitarian imperative, but I don’t see an alternative here.

Necessary means for success: Patience and persistent, sustainable minimal investment in resources. 

Concluding Remarks (Major Matthew Cavanaugh)

I’ll conclude with what I began with – I am not wise.  This painting (Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog) –

The “wanderer” is me; it’s the panelists; it’s you – the faceless wanderer could be any of you, and very soon – and the landscape is war.  The nation sets out a policy destination and the way to get there will be uncertain – you will have limited resources (only a walking stick) and you must think on your feet and ask the right questions to find your way forward. This is our struggle if we want to call ourselves members of the profession of arms.  We think about fighting.  This is what we do.

This panel was about raising these questions, not finding specific answers.  And so we owe a great thanks to our panelists today – as they’ve helped us ask the questions that might help guide us through the fog.  Please join me in thanking them for their time [clap].  We’ll let them move onto the podium to receive your questions.

[1] John O’ Brien, “Coup d’Oeil-Military Geography and the Operational Level of War”, (Monograph, School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College) 1991.


About the Author(s)

Defense and Strategic Studies is an interdisciplinary acdemic major at the United States Military Academy. We examine the use of force in pursuit of national security of objectives through the study of theory, history, policy and other related fields. Our faculty develops and teaches a curriculum that is relevant for future Army leaders and recognized for its academic excellence. The nation requires agile, adaptable leaders who can think and act strategically. Our program’s mission is to lay the foundations for the future strategic leaders and thinkers of the 21st century.


Interested Observer

Tue, 10/08/2013 - 7:45pm

The only part of this piece that jumped out at me was the faculty member's comment that: “we don’t want second lieutenant strategic thinkers" in the Army. I hope that comment was extrapolated from a larger discussion. If not, I can't understand why we wouldn't want the young men and women we are training to be our Army’s leaders to understand why they may be asked to fight and what (in its greatest sense) is at stake in the fight.

I appreciate the comments regarding chemical weapons. It is tough for many of us to understand where and why ethical lines are drawn regarding certain weapons.

Overall, I thought the discussion was presented well and I forwarded it to several friends.

A. Jarhead

Thu, 10/10/2013 - 5:22pm

In reply to by major.rod

I don't think the army major ceded our soveriegnty. He is reading the plain language of the UN Charter that another army officer, Harry Truman, endorsed and submitted to the u.s. senate, which ratified it as a treaty, making it the supreme law of the land. That ship sailed and we are on it.

Disclaimer: I was not selected for the 2 week nbc course, but I have left a lot of snot in several gas chambers.


Mon, 10/07/2013 - 4:00pm

In reply to by Move Forward

Great post.

I was also selected to attend that two week NBC Officer's course.

Move Forward

Tue, 10/01/2013 - 9:26pm

In reply to by major.rod

<blockquote>The “wanderer” is me; it’s the panelists; it’s you – the faceless wanderer could be any of you, and very soon – and the landscape is war. The nation sets out a policy destination and the way to get there will be uncertain – you will have limited resources (only a walking stick) and you must think on your feet and ask the right questions to find your way forward. This is our struggle if we want to call ourselves members of the profession of arms. We think about fighting. This is what we do.</blockquote>

Thought most of it was darn good. However, like you fellow wanderer major.rod, I find unique differences concerning chemical weapons. Perhaps, it was because I attended a two week chemical course. Maybe it was because I volunteered for an 80’s study where a group of us were injected with either a placebo, or the equivalent of one or two atropine injections and sent out flying/navigating. It also could be because I trained company members to drive with masks first in a training area, then on narrow streets of Germany, and finally in road marches. The heat of the last event caused one heat casualty even in a mild German spring.

Now picture combatants required to go to war in 100+ degree temperatures with 85 lbs on their backs and full body armor and MOPP gear. Troops may be somewhat safe in some vehicles traveling through contaminated areas however heat remains a factor. If they pass through an urban area before they decontaminate, the vehicle likely will spread contamination to areas where civilians could be affected to include downwind hazards even if not passing directly through towns. Eventually troops will need to escape their chemical gear without killing someone in the process. It is entirely likely that any area they use to decontaminate will become somewhat contaminated perhaps killing the next child or farmer to wander through that area not comprehending our signs.

This lack of discrimination in its targeting and effects, not caring if it kills combatants or civilians is what makes chemical weapons unique. If artillery is purposely used on civilian areas, most would consider it a war crime as would be indiscriminant carpet bombing of urban areas today, let alone the fire-bombing of WWII. Except for the latter, civilians would be able to seek basements, bunkers, or solid walls to withstand some temporary artillery effects…not so when targeted by chemical weapons. Ask Israeli civilians who understand the problem of rocket attacks yet nevertheless correctly understand the special need for gas masks…which frankly are not always enough.

Chemical weapons are the gift that keeps on giving. Persistent chemicals in cool conditions can last for long periods and if not immediately a casualty, a civilian touching or breathing in the wrong area could become a casualty. In addition, when taken to the hospital, the ambulance EMTs may become victims as can the hospital caregivers. If the child goes home first not understanding mild symptoms, mom and dad and brothers and sisters also may become victims. Given a strong wind, the odorless, colorless fumes may travel great distances affecting many civilians particularly in confined areas which makes them an insidious weapon of terror that despite protestations otherwise, does equate to a weapon of mass destruction.

All this said, I cannot comprehend why Assad would possibly give up his chemical weapon arsenal. If he did, he would be just as susceptible to the Libya airpower treatment as Qaddafi was. I cannot believe he would be stupid enough to give up his ace in the hole. Is it simply, as many suspect, a delaying tactic? Does he plan to take UN inspectors or forces hostage or allow insurgents to target them? How will those weapons leave the country without insurgent ambush? It has taken us years to incinerate the overwhelming bulk of our chemical stockpiles in fixed facilities with careful safeguards. Does anyone seriously believe we can do it in Syria or move those weapons safely? Are they all in separate safer binary form or are some already mixed together? Is his plan to transfer Syrian troops now securing stockpiles to other lethal duties killing more civilians using conventional means, keeping a small hidden chemical stockpile just in case?

I have no idea if these are the <strong>right</strong> questions. I just think about fighting like those of you who actually do it. Those of you who fought in Desert Storm probably thought you would be attacked by chemical munitions and dreaded the prospect. The same applied in OIF. The difference is that our ground military could do it if it had to while other UN, GCC, Turk, and Jordanian armies probably would suffer far more casualties. But our ground troops deserve better than another war so soon after multiple year-long deployments. Nevertheless, other nations like the North Koreans and Iran no doubt are observing our reluctance to get involved, correctly surmising that chemical weapons and WMD give them relative immunity to airpower attacks.

The alternative of bombing Syria carefully might work eventually, once air defenses were suppressed. However casualties could result from hazards spread downwind in areas we thought were free of chemical weapons, particularly since Assad keeps moving them. That would make any U.S. bombing campaign weak and limited at best to strictly avoid areas with potential chemical WMD. If the end seemed near, Assad and his Alawite leadership could use chemical weapons directly on Syrian Kurd civilians, or on GCC, Turk, Jordanian, or Israeli civilians. Even if we or the GCC/Turks succeeded in taking the country, the extremist groups that subsequently ruled might find and use hidden stockpiles left behind on Israel and other neighbors or for terror attacks.

That is the dilemma of Syria. We are damned if we don’t and damned if we do. Meanwhile millions of Syrians will remember that we aided the Libyans but left them swaying on the end of a noose because there was no quick kill…just as there is none with chemical weapons unless mercifully highly exposed. Other despots will recall that chemical weapons were the poor countries WMD deterrent and will seek and employ stockpiles of their own to ensure they can thumb their nose at the U.S. and allies with impunity.


Tue, 10/01/2013 - 5:33pm

I'm stunned at the parroting of poorly analyzed positions that have been presented to the American public since the August chemical attack.

Maj Reeves legal analysis is sound if one ascribes to the UN supremacy school of thought. I do not cede US sovereignty to the UN. There is a case to be made that the Pres has the legal authority to take action under his constitutional authority as CIC. I find it incredibly disconcerting when an Army officer only couches our ability to wield American power under UN auspices.

Maj Fishbeck's ethical analysis is incorrect. He equates death from chemical weapons with death from the loss of a limb yet can differentiate the pain caused by a hollow point round to a normal one. I can only suggest some research on how chemical weapons kill. There are fundamental differences and stark differences between the slow, painful death caused by physical seizures that can cause one to break one's own bones and death from explosives or blunt force trauma. Again, it's incredibly disconcerting to hear this clearly faulty analysis coming from an Army officer.

The lack of analysis or faulty analysis of the impact on US credibility, what an Assad or rebel victory would look like, as well as no discussion of Iran was conspicuously absent. We did a better job of looking at post invasion Iraq before we invaded (which was abominable). If this is what passes at the Academy and is being taught to our future officers the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts are much more understandable.

For those interested, my take on Syria.…

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 09/26/2013 - 11:47am

Oh, I remember the following article in Infinity Journal:

Cavanaugh, Matthew, “Strategic Education for All Junior Officers: Building Morale and Enabling Adaptability”, Infinity Journal, Volume 3, Issue No. 2, Spring 2013, pages 23-27.

I thought it made great points.

I've read on other sites (and I've never been in the military so I don't know) that some people can't make the mental transition to the strategic level as they sort of climb the ranks and move from more concrete responsibilities to the amorphous job of thinking through a strategic context.

If you at least introduce a kind of thinking in this realm earlier, might it help when making transitions?

I wanted to add one more thing about the discussion, I don't think when it comes to Syria "will" is the correct word to use for American civilians. I think it's a judgment call, a weighing of pros and cons. Lack of will implies, perhaps inadvertently, that there is a weakness in the people and, maybe, the people can be blamed.

But I'm sure that was not the intent of using will in that way, it seems a traditional way of looking at things, at least to this outsider.