By Paolo von Schirach
August 30, 2013
WASHINGTON – The public debate on US military options regarding Syria is extremely superficial, if not silly. We are told by many stunningly uninformed US law makers that any US military engagement in Syria will immediately become another Iraq: a costly, inconclusive war that will result in helping America’s enemies get into power. The way Senator Rand Paul, Republican from Kentucky, sees it, the Syrian anti-Assad rebels are dominated by Islamist factions. Therefore, if America strikes against Assad, we are only helping al Qaeda’s friends. This being the case, it is in the US national interest to stay away from Syria and do nothing.
A real plan?
The only alternative to this “do nothing” policy is to engage in a symbolic, short military action, a “pinprick” attack aimed at showing that America has done “something” to punish Assad for using chemical weapons against civilians, and then go home.
Well, there is at least another plan. Such a plan however could fly only if Americans were united in believing that it is in the US national interest to seriously help the secular opposition against Assad and that their eventual victory would represent a welcome change in the Region. Assuming such a consensus, (and we are not even near that), then there is a plan. As we read in the WSJ, this plan was elaborated by Christopher Harmer, a retired Naval Aviator, and it has been endorsed by retired General Jack Keane, one of the key strategists behind the successful Iraq “surge” in 2007.
America’s national interest
The premise of this approach is that America’s goal is not just to “punish” Assad for one egregious international law violation, (the use of chemical weapons), while leaving the balance of forces in the Syrian theatre essentially unchanged.
No, the premise is that Washington wants to help the Syrian rebels win. In various media appearances General Keane explained that the targets of a focused US military action should be the main Syrian air bases. While there are several, only six of them are home to the bulk of the Syrian air force. Therefore only those six bases have real military value. According to Keane, it would be relatively easy to destroy them. In so doing America would deprive Assad of air power, his main tactical and strategic advantage in the fight against the rebels. Such a decisive action, combined with a serious program to arm the rebels, would tilt the balance of forces in their favor, giving the secular opposition a far better chance to prevail in this long and nasty conflict against Assad.
This strategy is premised on many assumptions. The first one is that America is united in believing that helping the secular Syrian opposition is in America’s national interest. The second one is that the secular opposition is indeed in the lead in Syria, while the Islamists are far less relevant and unlikely to get any significant role in any post-Assad regime in Damascus. The third is that America can and will deal with any direct or indirect consequences of its involvement in the conflict, such as terrorists attacks inspired by Hezbollah and Iran, and possible retaliations against Israel.
We do not have a consensus
This plan has merit. Still, the way I see it, the political climate is not at all favorable for such an undertaking, even though this plan, mainly focused on degrading Assad’s air power advantage, would not include the use of US ground troops or any long-term US military engagement. Most Americans are convinced that there is nothing worthwhile we can do in Syria, while most political leaders are afraid of any type of engagement.
This being the case, unless President Obama has something really surprising in store, I would rule out anything beyond a very limited engagement aimed at showing the world that America will “punish” those who openly break international law by using outlawed chemical weapons.
Be that as it may, at least the Harmer plan, now endorsed by General Keane, is a plan. It starts from a definition of US political interests regarding Syria and it outlines credible military actions that could be undertaken to achieve them.
This is a lot better than saying that nothing can be done, or that we are just going to slap Assad and then go home.