By Paolo von Schirach
August 29, 2013
WASHINGTON – I recently argued that America is in no mood to get into another war in Syria. We did poorly in Afghanistan and Iraq, while spending fabulous sums of money, (see link to related story). Besides, right now the US Government is essentially broke. Indeed, the Pentagon, caught in the middle of the ill-advised “sequester”, (automatic, across the board spending cuts that target defense more than any other public spending), is trying to adjust to rapidly declining budgets. Probably the worst possible time to engage in a new conflict. And finally US public opinion does not believe that America must act in order to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons against civilians. The American public does not want to hear about the Middle East, Muslim countries or any talk of another war, big or small.
Evident reluctance to do anything
I did say that America, acting with British and French support, would “do something” in order to “punish” Syria. However the action would be limited, symbolic and in the end probably irrelevant. Well, it turns out that perhaps I was too optimistic.
Just a few days later, the political signs out of Washington, London and Paris are quite unclear. Certainly I do not detect any determination to act. French President Francois Hollande talks about the need to find a “political solution” for the Syrian mess, while the British Parliament is divided. President Obama, supposedly in the lead, stated in a TV interview that he has not made up his mind, while adding that whatever action may be undertaken it would be limited and not aimed at regime change in Damascus. After this rather tepid statement by a President who is obviously most reluctant to act, we heard from US intelligence officials that it would be very difficult to obtain unequivocal, conclusive evidence that chemical weapons were actually used and that the Syrian Government ordered such action. In other words, we are not quite sure that a retaliation would be justified.
Assad should not be afraid
Well, after this impressive display of outrage and determination, may be President Assad will decide to take a break and go fishing in the next few days. Chances are that, in the end, nothing will be done. If the US and its junior European Allies can find a face-saving exit, possibly with Russian cooperation in the guise of some kind of UN Security Council Resolution promising some sort of (non military, of course) action against Syria, then Obama would be able to say that we have made our point, that Assad has been punished by the international community for his illegal actions, and that all is well.
Well, if this compromise does not work out, then we are back to the symbolic military action. I am convinced that America has the military assets in place in the Eastern Mediterranean (mostly US Navy war ships armed with long-range missiles) to launch an attack against Syria. They can target military installations, command and control centers, critical infrastructure, and a lot more.
A limited attack is pointless
However, short of a prolonged engagement –I mean a real devastating blow that would destroy or seriously impair Syria’s war making capabilities and the ability of the Damascus Government to function– a limited US attack would change very little.
Let’s remember what Carl von Clausewitz wrote a couple of centuries ago. The only purpose of military action is coercion. You use military means to obtain a political goal: i.e. force your adversary to do what it refuses to do. I do not believe that von Clausewitz would have approved of a limited military action aimed at sending a “signal”. And what if the other side does not get our “signal”, in this case a clear warning that any further use of chemical weapons would have devastating consequences? Then what? We send another “signal”?
War is not about “sending signals”. War is about the complete destruction of the political will of the adversary. Through decisive military action we bend them to our will. Who knows, may be they stopped teaching von Clausewitz at the US military academies.
The West looks weak
In conclusion, there are two possible scenarios here, both of them indicating Western reluctance and timidity. In the first one, there is some kind of UN inspired “action” that gets Washington, London and Paris off the hook. In the second one, there will be a limited attack against Syrian targets. Such a limited attack will not change the course of the Syrian civil war, while it will be used by all anti-Western Islamists as further evidence of America’s evil intentions against Arabs and Muslims.
You can bet that, hours after the US missile attacks, Syrian TV will display the corpses of women and children killed by Americans Tomahawk cruise missiles. In the end, whatever Washington’s intentions, this is the only “signal” that the other side will get. Is this what we want?