Still more questions about the proposed US military intervention in Syria

Immediately after President Barack Obama’s announcement on Saturday that he would seek Congressional authorization for the use of force in a military intervention in Syria, the administration launched a full-press effort to lobby lawmakers on the issue. According to The New York Times, about 80 lawmakers attended a classified briefing on Sunday, but some members of both political parties emerged from the briefing unconvinced that the draft resolution was ready for approval.

The resolution blames the Assad regime for the chemical attack in Damascus on Aug. 21 that killed at least 1,000 people, and says the objective for the US’ use of force “should be to deter, disrupt, and degrade the potential for future uses of, chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.”

Several days ago, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stated that US military forces are ready to execute a command to strike at Syria. On Saturday, President Obama said that General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has indicated to him that the US capacity to execute a military intervention in Syria “is not time-sensitive” and that “[i]t will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now.”

The US is also being pressured by allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and South Korea, among others, to move forward with the planned military intervention. Their reasons include concerns that a US failure to enforce a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria now may signal weakness to Iran and North Korea, encouraging them further.

With the momentum building for the proposed US intervention, despite setbacks including the UK Parliament’s vote against intervention, and a failure by the Arab League to clearly endorse such action, it is time to ask some hard questions:

1. The administration is convinced that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons, and President Obama said military force is necessary. But the administration has not articulated a policy towards Syria. What outcome does the administration hope to obtain by conducting strikes?

2. Despite claims to the contrary, does the administration seek to overthrow the Assad regime? Does it seek to deny the regime the ability to launch future chemical attacks? Or does it wish to punish the regime, and launch attacks as part of a deterrent?

If the US seeks to overthrow the government, or if as a result of the strikes the rebel forces are able to sufficiently capitalize on the intervention to succeed in overthrowing the regime, who moves in to govern Syria? Some policy analysts believe the Free Syrian Army and the overarching Syrian Opposition Council are effective partners. But as we have documented numerous times at LWJ, the FSA and SOC often collude with al Qaeda’s affiliates and other Islamist groups [see LWJ report, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant leads charge to take Syrian airport.]

3. How would overthrowing the government effectively secure Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons? Is the US willing to send tens of thousands of troops into Syria to secure those stockpiles, which are thought to be stored in numerous locations? Keep in mind that a recent declassified intelligence assessment said that the US has lost track of said weapons. And back in early May, the Daily Beast reported that “the Syrian military has transferred more and more of its stock of sarin and mustard gas from storage sites to trucks where they are being moved around the country,” and as a result “the U.S. military and intelligence community are quietly acknowledging that the United States does not know where many of those weapons are located.”

The US will have few, if any, partners to occupy Syria; Britain isn’t even willing to conduct airstrikes. And what happens when al Qaeda and other Islamist groups begin attacking US forces?

4. If the US seeks to deny the Assad regime the ability to launch future chemical strikes, but is unwilling to overthrow the regime, occupy the country, and physically secure the weapons, just how would an air campaign achieve this? The attacks in Damascus were launched with mortars and rockets. Does the administration believe it can take out every small platform in Syria?

5. If the US intervention seeks to punish the regime in the hope that a “body blow” will deter it from launching another attack, what happens if the Assad regime is undeterred? What if the regime actually views the US’s airstrikes and unwillingness to commit ground forces as a sign of weakness?

6. What is the US plan for the not-so-implausible scenario that rebel forces, and in particular those associated with al Qaeda, have already procured and possibly used chemical weapons in Syria?

7. What is the US plan for the likelihood that a strike on Syria, which is already the site of a proxy war, ignites a regional war, as the various parties seek to retaliate?

8. If the US intends to attack the Assad regime, is it not important that the US have a clear case for intervention? Despite claims by American, French, and British officials that the evidence is clear and compelling for their accusation that the Assad regime is to blame for the Aug. 21 chemical attack, intelligence reports released by the governments of the US, the UK, and France have all relied essentially on circumstantial evidence.

A more general sense of imminent danger regarding the custody and alleged use of Syria’s extensive chemical weapons might well justify some kind of intervention, but it would have to be approached and presented differently.

Decisionmakers contemplating a military strike on Syria in the wake of the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons must keep at least two basic considerations in mind:

If the US wants to ensure that the regime cannot use its chemical weapons, the regime must be removed.

And if the US is seeking also to ensure that the weapons do not fall into the wrong hands, the US and allies must take possession of those weapons, and that would require a significant number of boots on the ground.

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23 Comments

  • This is clearly a no win situation. If we react effectively (and there is little will to do so) then we will distabilize another significant regional power without any means of controlling the outcome. If we react ineffectively we will be seen as weak and ineffective, encouraging adventurism and instability in other regions of the world. If we don’t react at all we will be directly challenged by other regional powers forcing us at some point to get involved in another un-winnable ground war.
    Drawing a line in the sand is usually a bad idea, particularly if you lack the will and/or ability to react.

  • . says:

    If the United States attacks Assad’s forces, doesn’t that actually enhance al Qaeda?

  • L Ledeboer says:

    All the points raised in the article are relevant. And they make a convincing argument. But, if Assad is proved to have used CWs to slaughter his people, a response from the world community is morally justified. Same can be said if rebels were responsible. At what point does a reaction happen? If 30K are gassed is that the tipping point.

  • Stephanie says:

    Does anyone have any idea why Obama is so desperate to attack Syria? I don’t understand. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons, too, and Obama was against the Iraq war. Why is this so important to him?

  • Infidel4LIFE says:

    Those pictures of shaking, burned children are seared into one’s mind, but still the question is, does it pose a direct threat to US interests? I think no. Yes, watching that ripped my heart, but we been down this road before. IF we are to strike, it should not be a pin prick but a sledgehammer. I say again, the only language understood in SW Asia, ME, comes from the barrel of a gun.

  • Scott J says:

    Excellent article and questions, Bill.
    I am convinced that if we continue down this road we’re on, we will end up launching a full-blown invasion. Not this year, not even sure when. But if this regime falls there will be no way, I repeat, NO WAY to stop Al Qaeda from taking control of Syria’s WMDs except for an American invasion. And mark my words, our president, our leaders, and our media will all tell us so, as they clamor in favor of the invasion.
    Arming the rebels, launching missiles …. Is this in our interest? Can any good come of this?
    It is almost the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. And here we are, helping Al Qaeda overthrow a government and helping them arm themselves with literally tons of WMDs.
    I simply cannot put into words my anger at our leaders in Washington. It is simply beyond my ability using civil discourse.
    We must make our voices heard in Washington, if that’s possible.
    Keep up the excellent work, Bill.

  • Matt says:

    Why we would believe the rebel forces would not gas their own to gain support for their cause is beyond me. We are talking about al Qaeda and other groups that are known terrorists, these are not upstanding citizens, they will kill anyone to further their cause.

  • donowen says:

    While I am not in Mr. Obama’s camp on his social agenda, he has continued a modest drone program-there is hope in the gentlman. If properly done, a first raid with a lot of fanfare and at least some coordination with certain rebel groups, and a second unannounced very aggressive raid targeting the Assad equipment returned to the battle field and critical Qaeda forces-our interests can be met.

  • Don says:

    Great article and good point made by reader Scott J too. The polls show that most Americans want nothing to do with Syria and for good reason. Keep your eyes on the real enemy, Al Qaeda! If our politicians ignore the clear will of the people, nothing could be more maddening!

  • M.H says:

    As this conflict is proving to be one of the most devastating and complex in this region, we should be aware of the nature of this civil war which is a religious war between Sunnis and Shiites.
    Iran is not going to give up easily on Syria, because with Iraq and Lebanon, Syria is an important sphere of influence to the Iranians.
    And Surrounded by Iranian presence in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the Arab Sunnis will not have a choice except to face the Iranian presence in the region.
    The Arab league should be able and ready to be more involved in a long term conflict with the Iranians including a ground intervention in Syria.
    If the US must conduct a military intervention it must be a limited one with a NATO support.
    With 2 millions refugees flooding the region, increasing the humanitarian assistance is a good action to support the US involvement in this troubled region.
    Still the Iranian nuclear program in the hand of a fanatic religious leadership is more dangerous than the Syrian civil war.

  • blert says:

    Sarin does not burn its victims.
    The videos are showing the impact of thermobaric / fuel air explosive ordnance.
    Duh!
    Fuel air explosives normally use ethylene oxide. It is wildly inflammable — and TOXIC if inhaled.
    The symptoms are IDENTICAL to those of the Syrian civilians.
    What we’re seeing are the results of duds and detonations. The duds spew ethylene oxide vapor all over the landscape. It’s so volatile that it is gone in short order. Before then, it’s a killer, even unburnt.
    The burns occurred via proper detonation.
    Thermobaric bombs were used by the USAF to take out AQ at Tora Bora. They have an almost unique capacity to kill those deeply bunkered in — cave or pillbox.
    It’s a two stage bomb: first, the EO is exploded into a vapor cloud via a slow speed explosive. (gun cotton/ pistol powder); second, the EO is ignited while still a tight aerosol.
    The resulting boom is generated across a wide zone — entirely unlike the pin point detonations seen with nitrated explosives. (TNT, RDX, HEX, etc.) This means that even ‘off center’ warheads drive the blast straight down into the crevices/ tunnels/ ports to reach the targetees.
    The laws of acoustic physics drive the pressure pulse all the way to the bottom — whence to reflect back up the cavity. The effect is to destroy the lungs. It also concusses the brain. Many of the victims are showing such effects.
    The key take away: thermobaric weapons are horrific — but not banned. All of the major military powers have them — and are willing to use them. They are NOT taboo.
    Assad’s boys have been launching thermobaric rockets for months — sourcing them from Iran and, perhaps, Russia.
    (Most of the rockets are too crude for Russian production. Even ex-Soviet era weapons have to be paid for in cash. Iran’s knock-offs come gratis. Who can beat free?)
    Ethylene oxide is astonishingly cheap to make — and is done so worldwide on an industrial scale. It’s the precursor to polycarbonate plastic — such as your stamped CDs.
    One strips off ethylene gas from natural gas. (10% of natural gas is usually ethylene gas at the wellhead.) Then the ethylene is oxidized over a silver catalyst. (1938 German patent) Then, you’re done. It separates out by modest chilling into a liquid. The consequent low density explains the warheads — they tend to be bulbous.
    Such a trait is exactly unlike Sarin. Sarin is so deadly that no-one uses bulbous warheads. A simple clean, basic, rocket profile works best. So, even an idiot can spot thermobaric warheads. They flare out like the top of a missile launching a payload into outer space. (Checkout any video of an Atlas V launch to view the profile.)
    Assad has not used Sarin. Certainly not based upon the videos to date.
    Also missing: the many victims of Sarin that were able to survive. They CAN’T have any burnt skin to be a Sarin victim.
    Sarin destroys the nervous system without causing any obvious injury to the skin.
    Retired (Pentagon) chemical warfare experts don’t buy the claims. Perhaps there is something not revealed to the public that’s the real issue. As it stands, were repeating the folly of the Tonkin resolution and the battleship Maine. Error and emotion.

  • Mr T says:

    Another question. If the chemical weapons end up in the hands of terrorists and they use them, who will you strike to deter the terrorists from using them again?

  • DR says:

    The silence of the UN and Arab world is deafening. Why is the US all of a sudden the moral authority—I thought we were backward Judeo Christians?
    Unless we are going to break up the fight and lump all sides equally, we will do nothing to prevent future children from being killed. (BTW–how many “rebels” were killed in the alleged chemical attack and what were they doing amongst civilians?)The last time we helped AQ, we were rewarded with attacks on our homeland—and all sides in this conflict were dancing in the streets. Otherwise save the missiles as we will need them soon enough.

  • NP says:

    A strike against Assad is not the end of the world. Even Hezbollah has stated that they would not retaliate if the strike was proportional. I personally hope they do strike at us. That would be a green light to deal a devastating blow to Iran’s prized fighter.
    In the bigger picture there is the inevitable Israeli strike on Iran, the unravelling of Iraq, the rise and spread of AQI, the rise of radical Islam as a result of the Arab Spring, and the reestablishment of the Egyptian military rule.
    The United States made an epic strategic mistake when we withdrew all of our ground forces from Iraq before that country was prepared to stand on it’s own. Now we have AQI firmly establishing itself in Syria while funneling radical Islamists, money and weapons into that country. They are now fighting a war against Assad and waging a bloody campaign inside Iraq. Is this the same organization that was nearly wiped out at the end of the Iraq war?
    My point being that the civil war in Syria is almost a non issue. The entire region is racing toward all out warfare and that constitutes an imminent threat to Western interests around the globe, particularly in Europe. We appear to be lacking sufficient HUMINT sources around the region which is mind boggling considering we spent 7 years building networks in Iraq and surrounding areas.
    Israel has drawn its own red line in the sand and you can bet they won’t flinch when it’s the right time. There is nothing wrong with taking out a few of the players in a preemptive strike.

  • DonM says:

    What is not said enough is the existing policy is a failure, to say the least, in utter tatters more accurately articulated.
    The consequence is a regime bent on using their huge stockpiles of CW. If the regime falls, a potential for terrorists gaining access to CW is in the cards. Further, we have a public utterly opposed to sending in troops to secure and remove CW stockpiles. add to that a key ally has already opted out!
    The US Military options, short of sending in the troops, is a stand off attack that takes out enough assets, such that it deters further use (or more likely large scale use like Aug 21st). That is a hope on what Assad values.
    Another option is the Free Syrian Army, significantly upgrading their capability, including a massive deployment of Gas Masks. This again, is based on hope the FSA turns out to be victors over the regime and later Al Qaeda.
    Lastly, we can hope Regional powers such as Turkey and Jordan send in their troops.
    We were promised “hope and change” in 2008. That is all we are left with. A policy with goals would be nice.

  • Lisa dobecki says:

    The phrase ‘Allahu Akhbar’ is said repeatedly by the man taking this video of chemical weapons victims. Thought you may want to know about this as I have wondered about it and worried about it.

  • Lisa dobecki says:

    No, preemptive strike. None. Zero. Zilch. Natta. No, NO, NOOOOOOOOOOOO

  • mike d. says:

    It’s all or nothing. Either take massive action or do nothing at all. Either would suffice. Half measures would be a mistake. Also, stop leaking and talking. Let your actions (or lack of them) do the talking.

  • kimball says:

    This link is from May, //www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22424188
    Anybody who wish to bomb the Wahabits to power
    are sooo crayzy. Maybe the game is to neutralise
    Syria and eventually break Al Nusra – Qaida?
    Saudi like the first part for sure, 2nd no.
    Mix it with what is going on in Egypt, power up
    Secularism, create a KURDISTAN from Iraq – Syria
    space and as the endgame, close out the Sunni mad-hats in Saudi and AUE.
    Great stuff and as Stalin said ” one lost life is a tragedy, a thousand is stats.”
    Surprise England are to broke to stay out while France are betting there last centimes on a profitable outcome.

  • Cleo Noel says:

    Glad my comments from last week about a possible unexploded Falaq-2 FAE Rocket being possibly mistaken for a CW attack are being picked up by others!
    Still no hard evidence has been presented to the American People showing how we are so certain that Assad forces did it. Sorry but I do not accept that 500 people in the Beltway get to see TS/SCI intelligence and we the voters just have to trust their judgment – 90% of which have no background in National Security, Defense, or the games that Spooks play!
    So even though the low information voters who put the current team in the WH may be snookered by a treasonous press – I remain skeptical !!
    USA is in rapid decline – too many wars and too much welfare (of all types) !!!
    Recommend even if your not religious you go and read what Jesus said about the “end times” and I pray you make peace !

  • Lisa dobecki says:

    “Rebels” notice the ‘Allahu´╗┐ Akbar’ fighting Assad for a Christian neighborhood. I pray our military has something up our sleeve.


  • sundoesntrise says:

    I think we would all benefit in this world if we completely separate religion from war and politics. Humans have for a very long time now abused the concept of ‘God’ to serve their own greedy purposes and agendas. Yeah, I get it, people need God as a crutch sometimes, but when you use the idea of God to promote your own agendas that’s when enough is enough. Unfortunately we don’t have many intelligent people to take over after the ‘God’ factor is dropped, hence the continuation of using God as a weapon without anything changing
    But not only can people fighting modern wars not seem to be able to do stop using ‘God’ for their own gain, the people in these comments cannot either.

  • Stu says:

    Let’s back up a bit!
    Given that Israel is facing a death grapple eventually with Iran, and given that the Shia and Sunni sects are whipping themselves into all out war with each other–a war that may last for decades like the war between Catholics and Protestants in 16th and 17th Century Europe, shouldn’t we in the U.S. focus on growing our energy infrastructure as rapidly as possible so that we can thrive without this insane dependence of the middle east. Now there is a strategy I could support.
    Is that isolationist? yes, from the energy perspective. Internationally we can continue the polite Minuet with the U.N. etc. But war for us in the M.E. No way!

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis