Why would the US bomb Syria?
It began when it was revealed that Syrian government military forces used chemical weapons in Damascus during a military operation on August 21, 2013. According to NGO sources, at least 100 people died in the initial attack, and many more have died since. The attack appears to have exposed between 300 - 1000 people to chemical agents (depending upon source), overwhelming NGO health organizations working in Syria. The UN has not officially confirmed the use of chemical weapons, and Syria has not exactly been cooperative in helping the UN teams assess the situation.
Both President Obama and Secretary Kerry describe the evidence in the hands of the US intelligence services proving the use of chemical weapons as conclusive, but the intelligence with the most credibility that is accessible to the average American came from the Violations Documentation Center in Syria. This outstanding Foreign Policy story tells their story.
Activist Razan Zaitouneh, who runs the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, tells FP that her team sped to the Damascus suburb of Zamalka immediately after a chemical weapons attack was reported there on Aug. 21. The media staff of Zamalka's local coordination committee, which is responsible for filming videos in the area and uploading them to the world, also sped to the scene. According to Zaitouneh, all but one of them paid with their lives.What does the US hope to achieve by bombing Syria?
"The chemical attacks, on the first day of the massacre, claimed the lives of many media activists in Zamalka coordination because they inhaled the chemical toxic gases," Murad Abu Bilal, the sole survivor, told Zaitouneh in an interview uploaded to -- what else -- YouTube. "[T]hey went out to shoot and collect information about the chemical attack, but none of them came back."
The videos quickly removed any doubt for U.S. intelligence analysts that chemical weapons were used in the Aug. 21 attack. They showed children with constricted pupils who were twitching and having trouble breathing -- classic signs of exposure to sarin gas. They also showed the remnants of the rockets reportedly used to deliver the gas, which were largely intact. If they had delivered conventional explosive munitions, more of the rocket would have been destroyed on impact.
The objective, goal, or "ends" of strategy for Syria is where the Obama administration has detoured into a ditch, because apparently the use of military power isn't the way the Obama administration will execute strategy, using military power - as in the action of using of military force - is the "ends" of the strategy itself... at least according to the New York Times.
The goal of the cruise missile strikes the United States is planning to carry out in Syria is to restore the smudged “red line” that President Obama drew a year ago against the use of poison gas.The Obama administration apparently plans on using military power in Syria so they can set a precedent for using military power next time someone uses chemical weapons, with a focus on Iran. I have no problem with any President of the United States using military power to follow through on a threat to use military power when a red line is crossed. The credibility of the President of the United States in foreign policy is the same thing as the credibility of the United States.
If carried out effectively, the strikes may also send a signal to Iran that the White House is prepared to back up its words, no small consideration for an administration that has proclaimed that the use of military force remains an option if the leadership in Iran insists on fielding a nuclear weapon.
With that said, there is no question the reaction so far by the White House to the events in Syria have been mismanaged by national security leadership. It is impossible for me to imagine Tom Donilan, Hillary Clinton, and Leon Panetta allowing this situation to unfold like what we have seen this week with Susan Rice, John Kerry, and Chuck Hagel. It is also impossible for me to believe that Donilan would ever go along with a plan like this.
But the military strategy that the Obama administration is considering is not linked to its larger diplomatic strategy of persuading President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to yield power and join in negotiations that would end the bloody civil war.
Only someone as strategically inept as Susan Rice would think this is a good idea. Democrats have defended Susan Rice when the evidence has been overwhelming she really isn't qualified to be top National Security advisor, and her inexperience outside her foggy bubble is on parade right now. Partisans in the US keep making the same mistakes. They get caught up listening to what their political opponents say and don't pay enough attention to what the career oriented professionals say. The line of non-partisan career national security professionals who have deep respect for Susan Rice for her intellectual capacity of national security affairs is very short, and today may be invisible.
When the UK Parliament voted down Prime Minister Cameron's military participation in Syria on Thursday, that was a blatant sign of war fatigue by civilians in the UK (which also exists in the US). The last time the UK Parliament voted down a Prime Minister on matters of war and peace in the UK was regarding the Crimean War in 1855, meaning the events of Thursday was a once in a lifetime event as a political failure. Lord Aberdeen resigned the next day! Before 1855 the previous time was in 1782, when Parliament voted against further war against America. Lord North, Prime Minister at the time, resigned 3 weeks later!
I believe Susan Rice is partly accountable. She put Prime Minister Cameron in an impossible position and never saw his opposition coming. She is responsible for managing the national security political processes in defense of US National Interests, but her first move was to put the act of taking military action in Syria ahead of the facts that make a case for military action in Syria. Process is one of her primary responsibilities for the administration, and she is doing a terrible job. The first casualty of our National Security Policy to address Syria using chemical weapons on civilians was America's closest ally.
How will the US strike Syria?
The United States intends to use a limited set of military resources to conduct a limited military operation against a limited set of targets, so expectations for successful action should be for a limited achievement of objectives. That's the real problem here, the plan has a very low ceiling for success, but if you think about it, the floor for failure makes limited military action as suggested to date incredibly risky.
Four or five destroyers of the United States Navy are projecting power offshore of Syria, a role historically associated with battleships. Should a military operation be executed, it is unlikely the majority of the cruise missiles will come from those surface ships. The real "battleship" per se off the coast of Syria is the Ohio class SSGN that has probably been operating for months off the Syrian coast. While the destroyers probably will shoot off Tomahawk cruise missiles if a strike is ordered, the majority of cruise missiles will come from submarines.
These destroyers and submarines constitute the 6th Fleet, which is a shadow of what was once the most important fleet for the United States Navy in the cold war. From the 1950s through the 1980s, the US Navy operated at least two, and often three aircraft carrier strike groups in the Mediterranean Sea at all times. Credit should be given to Admiral Stavridis, Secretary Panetta, and Admiral Greenert for moving to base destroyers in Rota, Spain by 2015, because those folks worked very hard and had the strategic foresight to recognize the need for a sustained US naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea.
The United States will likely still be able to use the UK air base in Cyprus, and presumably air bases in Turkey. This should be enough for basing Air Force capabilities in support of a limited military strike.
The coalition to date consists primarily of the United States, France, Canada, Australia, Greece, and Turkey. The smaller the coalition, the more resources the US will have to bring to the table, and that truly is a problem. Count me among those who does not see sequestration as a deep budget cut. As a budget number, I do not see the size of the cut to defense as the problem, but what I do see is the sequestration process Congress has put in place as a very broad cut across defense, making the process enforcing what is otherwise a historically modest budget cut one of the least well thought out plans executed in Congressional history (which is really saying something). Because the budget cut, by law as designed through sequestration, must in fact be spread out broadly across the defense budget, it impacts virtually everything.
The effects of the broad sequestration cut across the whole of defense in the context of Syria means the United States has virtually no ready reserve should things not go according to plan. The CNO has a plan that I do not agree with, it basically commits all resources in the Navy to the next deployment while the US Navy continues to sustain a robust operating tempo. What that means is the Navy is sending as many ships as they can on deployment, and those ships have the resources to be ready. The ships working up for the next deployment are also resourced well. However, everything at home not scheduled for the next deployment, which is about half the fleet, is hollowed out. Those ships are far from being a ready reserve, and would take a great deal of money to get ready quickly. If those ships are needed, savings from sequestration aren't going to be savings at all, because it's going to be expensive to fix the slow rot taking place across the fleet under the current high tempo and reduced maintenance model.
So what is the plan for Syria?
We know the objective of military force is not regime change nor is it to establish a no-fly zone. The military action is intentionally limited, so whether it includes manned or unmanned aircraft in addition to cruise missiles is irreverent because air power alone cannot achieve most strategic objectives that would otherwise be worth achieving in Syria - like destroying all the chemical weapons in Syria.
While it is safe to assume target lists would include some of the air defense command and control in Syria, and probably SCUD missile launchers, the real question is whether the target list will also include Al Qaeda forces working with the rebels. Do not be surprised if the US bombs both Syrian military targets and Al Qaeda targets aligned with the rebel insurgency.
The US plan is to successfully strike several targets in Syria. That's it. The plan is successful if the US military strikes targets in Syria without obscene collateral damage. The plan is not successful if there is obscene collateral damage, if there is attrition by US military forces, or if the military strike results in regional escalation resulting in a major attack against Israel. Short of one of those three things happening, the US achieves success in pursuit of the demonstration that the policy is seeking.
Sounds easy, what could go wrong?
What part of the US response to the initial reports of confirmed chemical weapons use feels right so far? Because the US announced intent to conduct military strikes in Syria, it is a safe bet that when US cruise missiles pound the hell out of something important, there will be plenty of human shields ready to die to American weapons. The US has made no secret it desires to keep military activity to a minimum, in fact the US strategic objective of limited military action is more proclaimed to date by Obama administration officials than any actual US strategic objective of military action inside Syria. The arrogance and casual expectation by the Obama administration that assumes Syria will simply roll over in the face of limited US military power disturbs me. No matter which way events unfold, administration people have said way too much and it is very dangerous to military personnel.
So far things don't have the feel of events going well, but the US has yet to reveal any actual evidence the intelligence services supposedly have to convince the American people war is necessary, and we have a lot more intelligence than what has been reported in the news so far. For example, there are widespread reports that the US has taped recordings of high ranking Syrian Army officers discussing the use of chemical weapons. But... there are also reports that US intelligence strongly suspects the movement of Syrian military forces around Damascus implies another large chemical weapon attack on rebel strong positions may be imminent. Nobody expects that to happen, and yet, that may actually happen... so let's be careful with our starting assumptions that predict how this might unfold.
We presume Syria will play the part of a completely rational actor, and by rational actor we presume Syria will do exactly what we want Syria to do to insure our limited military campaign is completely successful for us. The thing is, I've studied Putin since the late 90s, and the way he looks at Russia in the Mediterranean Sea isn't always compatible with what the US interprets as a rational viewpoint.
When Russia deploys a Cruiser and destroyer off Syria, it isn't to make headlines. The Syrians are going to know where our ships in the 6th fleet are. Russia will provide Syria with technical support, and that technical support will include filling gaps in Syrian ISR at sea.
The US forces cannot take attrition in a military attack against Syria without suffering significant strategic consequences, and the reserve options at sea for the US Navy are extremely limited. If US warships in the Med are successfully attacked, there is a zero percent chance the first thing the US Navy is going to do is send an aircraft carrier through the Suez canal, because I assure you the overwhelming explosion in the Middle East of "f u usa" chants following US Navy attrition, particularly in Egypt, is going to make a Suez canal crossing under those conditions impossible.
So any scenario where warships suffer attrition, even with 100% solid evidence the Russians helped empower a Syrian attack achieve that objective, is going to put US policy in free fall with the Obama administration scrambling under a domestic pressure cooker and the US Navy week(s) away from being able to field a reserve capable of fighting due to sequestration cuts. Short of a direct attack by Russia against US military forces (extremely unlikely), Russia is in no danger of being attacked by the US for helping Syria.
So yeah, the number of things that can go wrong, in my opinion, greatly exceed the number of things that can go right. Susan Rice does not give me any confidence at all this will end well for core US national interests. With everything going on surrounding Syria this week, my faith in process and execution is solely with the professionals in the military who are on the front lines. Unless there is a brilliant plan that nobody has leaked, which is unlikely given the number of leaks we are seeing right now, my sense is this will come down to the individuals on the front line to make something useful out of the rotten pile of nonsense they are being handed by the administration.
And I hope no one forgets the policy with strategic "ends" defined as "bombing Syria" is taking place on General Dempsey's watch. Wake me up if that guy ever steps up, because the only thing every new challenge facing the military does is make me miss Admiral Mullen's leadership as the CJCS that much more.