Attacking Syria: Mission (All but) Impossible

Obama must strike Assad hard amid a war he wants no part of, without the U.N. and NATO. There may be no way to do it right.

President Barack Obama listens to French President Francois Hollande during the G-8 summit at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. The final day of the G-8 summit of wealthy nations is ending with discussions on globe-trotting corporate tax dodgers, a lunch with leaders from Africa, and suspense over whether Russia and Western leaders can avoid diplomatic fireworks over their deadlock on Syria's civil war. 
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Aug. 27, 2013, 1:40 p.m.

Chuck Hagel, who’s had some ex­per­i­ence avoid­ing dumb wars, was strik­ingly con­fid­ent about U.S. mil­it­ary plans against Syr­i­an dic­tat­or Bashar al-As­sad in an in­ter­view Tues­day with the BBC. “We are ready to go, like that,” the De­fense sec­ret­ary said.

Ac­tu­ally, that’s not quite true, and Hagel’s tough words fail to con­vey the vast com­plex­it­ies of a mil­it­ary strike against Syr­ia. Mil­it­ary ex­perts and NATO of­fi­cials are also warn­ing against fa­cile com­par­is­ons to the mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion in Kosovo in 1999 or to the cam­paign against Muam­mar el-Qad­dafi’s Libya in 2011. That’s in part be­cause of the great­er soph­ist­ic­a­tion of the Syr­i­an forces, but it’s also be­cause Pres­id­ent Obama must achieve the nearly im­possible. Obama will have to strike the Syr­i­an re­gime hard enough to send a clear pun­it­ive mes­sage, thus avoid­ing cri­ti­cism that the at­tacks were merely cos­met­ic and polit­ic­ally mo­tiv­ated, but not so hard that he tilts the bal­ance in a civil war that he wants no part of.

It’s fairly easy to or­der cruise-mis­sile strikes from the U.S. war­ships that have con­verged on Syr­ia in the Medi­ter­ranean, the plans to which Hagel may have been re­fer­ring. But what those mis­siles will hit and the im­pact they will have are en­tirely dif­fer­ent mat­ters.

Stra­tegic­ally, it may amount to the mil­it­ary equi­val­ent of thread­ing a camel through the eye of a needle.

And Obama’s not go­ing to be get­ting much help, ex­cept from the French and Brit­ish, with a pos­sible gloss of le­git­im­acy from the Ar­ab League, which de­livered a clear state­ment Tues­day that As­sad had used chem­ic­al weapons against his people. A meet­ing of the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil planned for Wed­nes­day is very likely to be met with a veto from Rus­sia, which has be­gun back­ing As­sad more forth­rightly than be­fore. On Tues­day, des­pite ef­forts un­der way to en­gage Mo­scow in dis­cus­sions over the lan­guage of a U.N. res­ol­u­tion that it could ac­cept, Rus­si­an For­eign Min­istry Spokes­man Al­ex­an­der Lukashev­ich said an at­tack would have “cata­stroph­ic con­sequences.”

As for NATO, “there is no form­al plan­ning,” U.S. Army Col. Mar­tin Downie, the NATO spokes­man, told Na­tion­al Journ­al on Tues­day. Syr­ia, he says, will be “one of the agenda items” at a meet­ing of the North At­lantic Coun­cil, NATO’s gov­ern­ing body, also sched­uled for Wed­nes­day. And while NATO is not likely to be in­volved as an or­gan­iz­a­tion, even if it is, coun­tries would have to de­vel­op lists of as­sets they can provide, and “the best case would be a mat­ter of weeks,” not days, Downie says.

The White House says it has made no de­cision yet on what kind of re­sponse it is plan­ning against Syr­ia, but the un­com­prom­ising lan­guage com­ing from seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials in re­cent days — so re­min­is­cent of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hard-line rhet­or­ic be­fore the 2003 Ir­aq in­va­sion — has put Obama’s cred­ib­il­ity on the line. “There is no doubt who is re­spons­ible for this hein­ous use of chem­ic­al weapons in Syr­ia: the Syr­i­an re­gime,” Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden said Tues­day in a speech, fol­low­ing sim­il­ar state­ments on Monday from Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry. Brit­ish Prime Min­is­ter Dav­id Camer­on, who has called a na­tion­al se­cur­ity coun­cil meet­ing for Wed­nes­day and has re­called Par­lia­ment for a de­bate on Thursday, is us­ing sim­il­ar lan­guage, as is French Pres­id­ent Fran­cois Hol­lande.

So mil­it­ary ac­tion of some kind ap­pears all but as­sured. No mat­ter what kind of op­er­a­tion is planned, “this is a ma­jor un­der­tak­ing,” says a U.S. mil­it­ary of­ficer in­volved in pre­vi­ous in­ter­ven­tions. “There isn’t a single mil­it­ary ac­tion that is without con­sequences, and we have to ask ourselves what are we will­ing to live with.” For ex­ample, with all the talk of hit­ting As­sad’s “com­mand and con­trol” op­er­a­tions, the ques­tion arises: What would hap­pen if he lost his com­mand and con­trol? Would that in­crease the chances of a vic­tory by rad­ic­al Is­lam­ists?

There may, in fact, be no good pre­ced­ent for the kind of air at­tack Obama is said to be plan­ning. Syr­i­an air de­fenses are far more for­mid­able than Libya’s. “The Syr­i­an mil­it­ary pos­sesses far dens­er and more in­teg­rated air-de­fense sys­tems than Libya,” says Chris Dougherty of the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and Budget­ary As­sess­ments. As far as plans to strike units re­spons­ible for the chem­ic­al at­tacks, that may be prob­lem­at­ic too. “In all like­li­hood, As­sad has dis­persed at least some of his weapons to loc­al com­mand­ers. Some weapons are likely kept mo­bile to avoid de­tec­tion and tar­get­ing,” says Dougherty.

The NATO in­ter­ven­tion over Kosovo—which also took place without a U.N. res­ol­u­tion, again thanks to Rus­sia’s veto—may of­fer something of a leg­al mod­el un­der in­ter­na­tion­al law, but the ac­tu­al cam­paign was not any­thing Obama wants to emu­late. The Kosovo cam­paign, launched to pro­tect eth­nic Muslims from be­ing slaughtered by Yugoslav lead­er Slobodan Mi­lo­sevic, also meant get­ting in­volved a civil war — between the Koso­vars and Serbs — that Wash­ing­ton wanted no part of. It re­quired 78 days of bomb­ing and left NATO in tenu­ous con­trol of a province that neither Wash­ing­ton nor the West wanted to have in­de­pend­ence, be­cause that might set a grim pre­ced­ent for oth­er self-de­term­in­a­tion move­ments else­where, such as the Kur­ds in Ir­aq. Des­pite rain­ing a high-tech as­sort­ment of laser-guided and satel­lite-nav­ig­ated bombs on Ser­bia and Kosovo, NATO of­fi­cials were as­ton­ished to see many Serb tanks and troops de­part the province after NATO peace­keep­ers went in. And in the end, Mi­lo­sevic re­len­ted only after the Rus­si­ans were in­duced to put pres­sure on him to with­draw.

Wes­ley Clark, the NATO su­preme com­mand­er who dir­ec­ted the cam­paign in Kosovo and was sum­mar­ily dis­missed from his post after the war, may have de­scribed the out­come best in his mem­oirs when he wrote: “Though NATO had suc­ceeded in its first armed con­flict, it didn’t feel like a vic­tory.”

What will the strikes against Syr­ia feel like, once they’re over?

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