Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The State of Syria

Proud As A Peacock
We are well into the wailing and gnashing of teeth stage of the US's response to sarin gas use in Syria. At this stage of the game there are a few key interesting points. Let's take a look.

Why Use Sarin?
The first question that, to my mind, has not been adequately answered is "Why deploy sarin gas at all?" And certainly, why do it against civilians? CNN suggests that this is "Because you want to get the job done fast." I, however, question that. For one thing, while sarin is a reasonably efficient killer if you are going to bombard the area immediately thereafter, which they did, it is not necessarily more efficient than the bombing itself.

The lethality of gas in WWI is questionable. It was definitely good for hindering communications and operations (having to wear protective gear degrades troop effectiveness) but that seems an unlikely consideration for the Syrian army. What is not questionable, however, is the psychological trauma it creates. One of the reasons Hitler was reluctant to use gas in WWII (on troops, that is) is, allegedly, because he had been gassed himself in WWI and considered it maybe a bridge too far. Whether or not that is true--or even happened at all--it is certain that the use of sarin would create blow-back.

It is possible that Assad's troops used sarin without his permission. It is also possible it was a "false flag" attack which was designed to make it look like Assad used gas in order to provoke us. It could be both: a rogue element of Assad's army decides to unleash gas to get Assad deposed? That would make him both guilty and innocent (kinda).

What Does The Omnivore Think?
I think the even-money is that Assad used chemical agents in order to terrorize the rebels believing that cover from Russia would prevent the US from taking decisive action backed by the UN. It is not the only bet--but I think the other scenarios are all lower probability. Something like a Syrian-rebels-use-gas-on-their-own would be risking everything for not-very-much. Doesn't mean it didn't happen though.

Should We Bomb Syria?
The GOP line is that Obama so badly mismanaged the Syrian development that by now there is no saving it--no matter what we do, the outcome will be bad. This is the same thing they said about Egypt (should we support the friendly dictator? Or back the pro-democracy rebels?). It's the same thing they said about Libya (kinda): Kadaffy's a jerk but OMG Emperor OBAMA attacks without permission!! It was the same with Iran: We should do more for the pro-democracy rebels--Obama is leading from behind--but crap, can't start a war in Iran!!

The unifying theme here is that there are no good answers to these problems and the same move over and over is to simply criticize whatever was done ex post facto. To their credit, a few outlets, like Power Line have held a steady position (back Mubarak, bomb Syria, and good riddance to Kadaffy). Mostly, though, it's just playing politics without any brilliant ideas.

What Does The Omnivore Think?
The Omnivore would be glad to see Assad go and thinks it would not suck if he accidentally ate a cruise missile. On the other hand, we can't exactly just go around assassinating people we don't like--even if they may have used sarin gas. To pull a Kadaffy we really do need the world behind us. We don't have it. Under those conditions, I would vote for a strike that is strong enough to make him not want another (hit something that hurts).

What About Obama Going To Congress?
Obama going to Congress may look weak but it's absolutely the right answer. The speed with which the right switched over from calling him a tyrant to calling him weak was dizzying but it doesn't mean that, at the end of the day, it won't be a historical moment in the presidency. Everyone has complained about executive power-creep: Obama has just rolled some of it back (yes, Kerry says he can still do it--but this is a draw back for would-be American emperors of the future no matter what happens).

In other words: if Obama gets shot down, it'll ultimately have been the right thing to ... erm, not do. If Obama gets the go-ahead, he does so with 'the country' behind him. Despite what this looks like right now, it's actually a win-win for the USA.

What Does The Omnivore Think?
If Obama had done this straight out of the starting gate it'd look brilliant. Now it looks like he's unintentionally doing the right thing. But it's still the right thing.

What About Escalation?
Iran has made noises that it'll hit something if we hit Assad. Assad has said he could hit anything if we attack him. Israel will certainly be on high alert when the Tomahawks fly. The Escalation scenario looks like this:
  1. We blow up all Assad's power plants.
  2. Assad dumps chemical weapons on Israel (okay, this one is NOT likely--but it's worst case)
  3. Israel declares they are going to return fire with their own WMD in 24 hours
  4. Obama has to desperately try to stop Israel from nuking Syria.
  5. Hezbollah, under Aegis from Iran, goes into Israel. Iran's army proper attacks American interest in Iraq and Afghanistan with their own operators simultaneously attacking government institutions in Iraq.
  6. Russia deploys a massive aid package to their allies in the region.
  7. North Korea fires a dud nuke at Tokyo, embarrassing themselves.
This is definitely WW 2.5 at least.

What Does The Omnivore Think?
Could this, or some version happen? Yes--but it's not likely. The reason why is #2: if Assad really does use chemical weapons on Israel he crosses a red line that insures his destruction--not Obama's--Israel's. The use of WMD against one's "own" people is one thing. Against someone else is another--and against an American ally? Uh ... right.

Also: #6--Russia wants to play politics but they do NOT want to be in the middle of a hot shooting war based on WMD. 

Finally, Iran has made noise--but they don't have nukes yet and that means not playing in the WMD game themselves. 

So, okay--what could happen? Well, Assad could hit our bases or something similar and that would "provoke" us. Our escalation might then need a more personal touch (conventional air-power?) and that would slowly ramp things up, wouldn't it? I think anyone who thinks this can't or won't happen is naive. Assad may blink at ordering an air-mail delivery of Israeli nukes but his ilk aren't called "strong men" for nothing--if you hit him he'll hit you back. Count on it. Even if you're the US. His calculus says that Obama is weak enough that he can hit back hard enough to make his point without provoking another attack.

Thanks to the divided nation, he might be right.

How About The Russian Offer?
If Assad hands over his remaining gas supplies he gets off without being bombed. This is a great idea from Putin if it can be verified. That's hard to do--but it's not insane. Apparently Syria has accepted the offer. Will this "save the day?"

If by "saving the day" it means rescuing Obama, no. Having Russia lead the diplomatic solution is like having Mike Tyson negotiate your peace accord (and Tyson is less likely to steal your Super Bowl ring while you are at it). On the other hand, if the UN thinks it can verify the hand-over American can't really then go and attack.

What Does The Omnivore Think?
I want to see if any of those munitions come out of there with Iraqi markings on them myself. Also: this reminds me of the Taliban saying "Just give us proof Osama orchestrated 9/11 and we'll hand him over--what could be more fair guys? Guys? Uh--just give us PROOF--" If Assad has no intention of handing over his weapons he'd still say "yes" to the deal just to muddy the waters and buy time to move his fine china out of the Presidential Palace.

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