One of the arguments that is being trotted out to support the extremely unpopular proposal of a military strike against Syria is that it will establish US credibility against Iran. I understnad the motives. When you have a weak case, you pull out anything that you think will change the odds. But let’s just look at the facts:
Iran took a decision to proceed with a nuclear program roughly a quarter of a century ago. Since that decision, the US has invaded Iran’s neighbors to the east and west; we have surrounded Iran with military force that they could never possibly match; we have imposed the most draconian sanctions, possibly in world history, and have forced the gross devaluation of their currency while cutting off the bulk of their trade. We have acquiesced in the the assassination of their nuclear scientists and we have almost certainly conspired to introduce the most damaging offensive cyber attack (Stuxnet) in history against their nuclear sites. We have flown drones over their territory…need I go on?
Despite all that, they have proceeded slowly and steadily to increase their nuclear capability, in the process drawing closer to a possible breakout capability. They have already spent twice as long as any other country that chose to go for a nuclear weapon — and they still haven’t done it. In fact they say they reject the very idea. They have a new government that is committed to seeking a negotiated settlement to the nuclear issue.
So they don’t believe we are serious? And a limited strike on Syria is supposed to change this somehow for the better?
I have no reason to doubt that President Obama has, as he said today, made up his mind to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons by a US military attack. He has also been quite explicit that this is not intended to bring about regime change, and he is deeply aware of the dangers of getting dragged into the Syrian civil war, so the strike will be limited. It is, however, explicitly intended to prove that the US means what it says and to deter further use of CW by Syria or anyone else.
Imagine that you are a White House adviser and you have been asked to calibrate a military intervention that will send an unmistakeable message to Assad that his use of CW was a serious error and persuade him that any such action in the future would be unacceptably costly to Syria generally and to the Assad government in particular.
However, the attack should not change the fundamental balance of power in the civil war — specifically it should not empower the radical Sunni opposition forces that are potentially worse than Assad. The strike should not be so great that it inspires reckless behavior by other states or parties in the region — specifically it should not provoke retaliation, for example, by either Hezbollah or Syria against Israeli targets.
The attack should be time limited, so the United States should not be required to go back again and again — to “mow the lawn” in Israeli parlance. Above all, it should not require us to escalate, regardless of how Assad or his allies may respond.
Ultimately the strike should at best encourage a shift to a negotiating track or at least not place an insuperable obstacle in the path of a non-violent solution to the problem. Within Syria, the attack should not create a new wave of refugees or make the conditions of ordinary Syrians worse than it already is.
You may have up to ten days to present your plan (depending on the Congressional calendar), but your proposal really should be available tomorrow for proper vetting in advance and possible immediate use.
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It is on occasions like this that I am grateful that I am no longer a White House aide. I truly wonder if it is possible to balance all these moving parts and give the president the policy instrument he wants and needs. I am absolutely certain that I don’t know how to do it.3 months ago • 5 notes
There seems to be a general agreement that, at a minimum, a flock of cruise missiles and/or guided bombs will make Assad stop and think twice before ever using chemical weapons (CW) again. Sadly, the facts offer very little grounds for optimism. Just recall that:
- Despite Obama’s very clear and repeated warning, it appears that Assad was willing to use CW on civilians to serve his own strategic ends — apparently to clear out a rebel stronghold in a Damascus suburb which refused to surrender despite constant attacks and bombardments;
- Not only that, but there is every reason to believe that Assad’s two most important allies — Russia and Iran — had counseled him not to use these weapons under any circumstances — certainly the Iranian position is crystal clear, since they were the victims of CW in their war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s and are as opposed to CW as the Japanese are to nuclear weapons;
- And just to rub it in, Assad chose to launch his largest and most egregious CW attack just as a UN inspection team arrived in Damascus to investigate previous charges;
The facts and the timing suggest that Assad has his own strategic calculus and that he has discounted the reactions of the international community — most specifically the US but also his most critical allies.
His behavior reminds me of Saddam Hussein in the waning days of the Iran-Iraq war. The US (then his most important ally) was finally getting around to condemning his use of CW against civilians after years of deliberate ambiguity. But Saddam in effect flipped the bird. He was getting the results he wanted on the battlefield and in the sheer terror of the civilian population of Iranian border cities, and he wanted nothing more than to pour it on.
One should never underestimate the bloody-minded imperviousness of a dictator who thinks he is fighting for his very life.
If Assad has already discounted the bombs and cruise missiles that he must have suspected would follow, there may a grim second act in this tragedy.
It is entirely possible that he would respond by conducting still another attack in another location if he felt it served his existential purpose. What happens to the credibility of the US and the international community then?
The almost unavoidable answer, of course, would be to escalate, to join the Syrian civil war on the side of opposition, which of course includes radical Sunni jihadis, some of whom are aligned with Al Qaeda.
As this process begins, keep firmly in mind the brilliant successes of our previous entanglements in regional civil wars.
If you liked Iraq, you will love Syria.3 months ago • 1 note