Friday, August 30, 2013

The Syrian Solution

From The Center For American Progress
Obama is about to (possibly unilaterally) air-strike Syria for their (alleged) use of chemical weapons. You can read a lot about this on the web. Here are a few links:

Answer: THIS
The Current Plan
The current plan (leaked / released) is as follows: 3 days of missile strikes (possibly including a bomber or two) designed to "punish" rather than to, say, kill Assad. Targets could be aircraft, air-defense systems, and chemical weapons depots (or, at least, likely ones). 

According to a defector the Syrian army has integrated itself into civilian locations with the hopes of avoiding strike damage or even having collateral damage kill Assad opponents.The conventional wisdom is that a limited strike (such as the one planned) won't have a lasting effect on Syria. What can we do? What should we do? What are our options?

Do Nothing
Slate's piece by Matt Yglesias says we should do nothing--work through the UN and get blocked by China and Russia. Accept that as a fact of life. After all, we didn't go after Bahrain, did we? And we didn't cut aid to Egypt, right? There's also the known problem that various forces in the Syrian opposition are sworn to Al Qaeda. Dennis Kucinich said attacking Assad would make us "Al Qaeda's air force."

Yglesias' analysis that doing nothing will get a lot of civilians killed--but bombing Assad may also get a lot of civilians killed and may not solve the problem is on the money. His (above) excuses? Rhetoric I doubt even he believes. Yes, it's true that Bahrain is an American ally which probably helped us "look the other way"--but come on. Bahrain's death total is estimated at 122 people. On the other hand ...
[T]he Syrian government really overreacted when peaceful protests started in mid-2011, slaughtering civilians unapologetically, which was a big part of how things escalated as quickly as they did. Assad learned this from his father. In 1982, Assad’s father and then-dictator Hafez al-Assad responded to a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising in the city of Hama by leveling entire neighborhoods. He killed thousands of civilians, many of whom had nothing to do with the uprising. But it worked, and it looks like the younger Assad tried to reproduce it. His failure made the descent into chaos much worse.
Yglesias linked to Wikipedia for his death count (122). Here's the Wikipedia link for Syria: between 82,370 and 106,425 people. That's about the same, right? He also invokes Egypt and our continued aid. It's true: there was a coup which we didn't call a coup because it would have prevented us from giving them aid.

It's almost as if a secular, Israeli / west-friendly, comparatively moderate force had ousted a theocratic regime that was actively trying to dismantle the democratic infrastructure that had elected them! I mean, that's exactly like Syria. There's no difference I can see anyway: they're both in that big hazy circle marked Middle East.

While the Al Qaeda thing is true, Yaargghh's statement that we would be Al Qaeda's air-force is about as muscular as what he backed it up with--the rest of his quote--that striking Syria could start World War III. Maybe he's been reading the Left Behind books--or taking Iran's bluster about Israel being drawn into the fight seriously (but he doesn't take it seriously when Amadenijad says Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth ... that's just political bluster y'all)--but either way? Escalation caused by a strike alone isn't likely.

And the fact that Assad isn't liked by Al Qaeda? I promise it's not because they find him overly brutal and repressive. It's because he's secular. Yes, there are jihadis aligned against him--that's one reason we aren't handing out shoulder launched anti-aircraft missiles--but the fact that there are bad guys in the fight is hardly a reason to ignore the fact that Assad is using nerve gas.

Analysis: Doing nothing may have something going for it but Matt doesn't make the case.

Kill Assad
On the other end of the spectrum is the possibility that we could target Assad directly. This would cross some lines that should rightly make all of us uncomfortable: direct, intentional assassination is an "escalation" that the whole world won't ignore (and shouldn't). I suspect that as tasty as that possibility is, making it personal is a bridge too far. Yes: it would make people scared of us--but it would be similar to ... I don't know ... inviting "allies" into your castle, sharing bread and salt with them, and then, during a wedding, having your minstrels get all cross-bowy--and killing their Dire Wolf.

Okay, it wouldn't be a betrayal--but it would be the kind of thing that gets remembered and it's the kind of thing that could come back to haunt you. It's also harder than it sounds. I'm sure Assad is employing the best practices of hiding out underground or in other places that are hard to track.

Analysis: I will stop short of advocating this. If Assad is killed in the strike it "should look like an accident."

Destroy Their Air Force
I haven't seen much about this--but what if we destroyed all their airplanes? They use air power to good effect. Could we do that? It would be expensive. A few missiles here and there cost "a lot" but aren't bank-busting. Hitting almost every plane would take time. They have a few hundred aircraft of various types. I'm certain they would disperse them.

The problem with this, aside from the cost, is that it would require lots of manned flights. I don't think you can fire ship-born GPS guided rockets at individual aircraft. It would be longer, riskier, and harder.

Analysis: I like the idea of "taking something valuable away" from Assad. I'm not sure the sustained manned-aircraft air-war is something we have an appetite for though.

Something Weird
We have weapons that can destroy power-plants. We might be able to knock out electronics permanently over Damascus. What if we crippled Assad's communications capabilities? We may have options that are not commonly understood or publicized. Might we use these?

Analysis: If we had anything clever on the table, I suspect we'd have leaked it. Alas.

I am in favor of taking action against Assad--his wholesale slaughter of civilians puts him in my ideological cross-hairs. As his actions on the world stage now align much of the globe's cross-hairs with mine, America is (to one degree or another) now allowed to pull the trigger. My best case scenario would be to have us attack targets which, as I said, "accidentally" wind up killing him (or just accidentally wind up killing him).

This seems very unlikely.

Without that, the best I can hope for is a strike that is decisive enough and powerful enough that Assad does not want to escalate against us. People are watching--possibly even people with chemical weapons and the consideration that they might use them someday. I'd like to see that put to bed.


  1. A couple of thoughts / questions: 1. In consideration of our stated intentions (surgical, limited strike, no boots on the ground, no purposed regime change), and military reality (we have waited long enough for them to scatter chemical weapon / military personnel assets, have no desire to engage deep enough to seriously impair their general capabilities) is victory defined as launching missiles? 2. The most obvious acute benefactors of the strike aren't Syrians (since we must know, by now, this is a strike of credibility, not impact), they are neighboring countries. Why hasn't anyone besides one MP asked them to act?

    1. In response to the first question: victory looks like regime change. Even if it's to another one of these post-spring theocracies. The trouble here is that the Obama admin thought Assad was on his last legs and would be gone soon.

      He held on. Tightly. Now, for us to "get what we want" he has to go--the hope is that we can make a "you live in exile" deal but that isn't quite playing out the way we'd hope. Cruise missiles may help speed that along though depending on what exactly we hit.

      I don't know--but the victory condition is Assad leaves and I don't see this bombing interlude playing much of a role in that.