Strategy and Certainty in Syria

On Friday, I proposed a limited intervention in Syria that would consist primarily of using airpower against Syrian military assets. The goals would be two-fold: (1) To punish the Syrian regime for its use of force against its own citizens, and additionally increase coercive leverage to push them to stop the repression, and (2) to test our assumptions about the reliability and resilience of the Syrian military.

I’ve received several criticism, and there were also a few published pieces this weekend that I wanted to address.

Okay, criticisms first. Gulliver from Ink Spots, commented:

You find it impossible to believe that the Syrian military would respond in precisely the same way the Libyan military did just a year ago? What happens if they drop their uniforms, leave their combat vehicles at home, and disperse among the population on foot and in civilian vehicles? What if they park their vehicles and barrack their troops in urban areas, in hospitals and mosques and apartment buildings?

I don’t actually find that impossible. Indeed, I think that is their likely response. That would also be good news. First, it would give the Syrian resistance more of a fighting chance since it would even  up the battlefield. Second, the Libyan military was defeated. So I don’t consider it a particularly damning criticism to note that my approach might transform the situation in Syria into one that looks like Libya. I would consider that a move in a positive direction, no?

Gulliver’s criticism is based on the same fallacy that Dan Byman demonstrated in his Washington Post piece this weekend. Byman wrote:

To be of any value, an intervention must end the bloodshed, or at least diminish it dramatically. Syria also must remain an intact state capable of policing its borders, stopping terrorism and providing services to its people. It should not fragment into a failed state, trade Assad for another dictator or become a pawn of foreign powers such as Iran.

Wow. End the bloodshed, keep Syria intact, prevent state failure. Okay, maybe. I mean, I get those. But how does one prevent another dictator from emerging or becoming a pawn of an outside power, and for how long?

Byman’s argument is, essentially, if you can’t fix it completely and forever, then you shouldn’t do anything. I think this is precisely wrong. Byman’s argument is exactly the sort of logic that got us a massive escalation in Afghanistan. If you insist that any use of the military must achieve maximalist goals, then you inevitably end up with recommendations for massive interventions, state-building, and the like.

Instead, we need to be thinking about limited objectives and limited means. There are three reasons:

(1) While raising the bar on intervention may seem cautious, it really isn’t. It forces policy discussions into an all-or-nothing logic, when in the final analysis neither one is acceptable. The more we talk about massive intervention as the only option, the more likely that becomes because as the violence continues in Syria, pressure to “do something” will mount. Some people argue “all or nothing” because they think “all” is too much and so won’t happen, and the result will be “nothing.” That is a dangerous game.

(2) While it seems sophisticated to talk about comprehensive solutions, and some people will claim that a strategy is incomplete if it lacks a clear “end game,” neither of those beliefs is true. The reality is that strategy is not always (indeed rarely) about grand schemes. Yes, you need to know your preferred end state, and you need to have a sense of how important the issue is to you in order to bound commitments, but the reality is that the world is complex, that the goal of strategy is what Dick Betts calls “strategy without confidence.” Or, more prosaically, the realization that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Strategy often involves taking steps that you believe move you generally in the direction you wish to go coupled with a willingness and ability to adapt to circumstance. This is, by the way, my main criticism of the Powell Doctrine. There are times when limited uses of force in uncertain circumstances can make sense, even if you can’t a priori specify the endpoint, much less all the intermediate steps and linkages to get to that endpoint. The real issue in these cases is “how do you keep it limited?”

(3) In this case, there are indeed intermediate steps that are worth pursuing, including punishment and coercion. This is not just empty theorizing either. One thing we know is that one of the most potent coercive tools is indeed the attritions of a regime’s military capacity (see Pape’s Bombing to Win). Yes, I want all the things Byman wants. No,  I am not willing to argue that any proposed intervention must be able to affect all of them immediately.

James Joyner raised a similar issue. He asked what I thought would happen if Assad fell. This tweet followed:

Argument #1 against intervention. Also #2-7 RT @BernardFinel: The usual, a messy and likely unsuccessful effort to transition to democracy.

But again, can the goal of every use of force be a successful transition to democracy? At the risk of trivializing the issue, when did some sort of confidence about post-conflict democratization become the sine qua non of use of force decisions?

Gulliver added another practical objection:

What about the fact that we would first have to wage a counter-air-defense campaign before we could safely undertake the sort of air campaign you’ve recommended (which suddenly looks considerably less “limited”)?

Indeed. And I’d like to see more discussion of this issue instead of crazy schemes involving Turkish armored thrusts. I could certainly be convinced that my recommendation is wrong on the basis of some serious analysis of Syria air defense capabilities. But, considering the Israeli destruction of a Syrian nuclear site in 2007, I have to wonder how serious an objection this is.

From my perspective, the biggest issue is the one Mark Lynch raises in relation to arming the FSA. He writes:

Fifth, what will we do when the provision of weapons fails to solve the conflict? Arming the opposition is held out as an alternative to direct military intervention. When it fails to solve the crisis relatively quickly — and it most likely will fail — there will inevitably then be new calls to escalate Western military support to airstrikes in the Libya-style. In other words, what is presented as an alternative to military intervention is more likely to pave the way to such intervention once it fails.

The issue, in  short, is how do you keep a limited intervention limited, particularly if it does not seem like repression is slowing?

I don’t have a good answer for that. I mean, I do have a proposal, but I doubt it would be adopted or work. My proposal is that if we go down the path of airstrikes, that the president should request a very limited grant of authority from Congress. Something along the lines of a 30 day authorization to use force that can only be extended if the president certifies that mass killings and repression are continuing. This would give the president both a legal obligation and political cover for ending the air strikes if despite them Syrian forces crush the opposition.

But in reality, President Obama wouldn’t do that because he established a precedent in Libya that extended airstrikes don’t require Congressional approval. And anyway, we nowadays like to give open-ended authorizations.

So yes, I do worry that once we go down the airstrikes path, it will be very, very hard to stop, and that it is possible we’ll end up with an open-end Northern/Southern Watch type situation. But on the other hand, we might end up with even worse if we do nothing and let pressure build to the point where a massive intervention seems more attractive.

At this juncture a limited intervention with limited objectives that nonetheless may transform the situation strikes me as the best we can do.


4 comments to Strategy and Certainty in Syria

  • I’ll have more detail and substance later, but I wanted to quickly focus on two criticism:

    1. First, why is intervention in Syria an imperative for the US?

    At this juncture a limited intervention with limited objectives that nonetheless may transform the situation strikes me as the best we can do.

    First of all, there’s a lot of hand-waving here with regard to what force can actually accomplish, and I would question the notion that aiding the rebels in overthrowing the Assad regime is not a “limited” objective. Your whole strategy appears to rest on the assumption that Assad can be forced to seek a political solution with the opposition. That outcome doesn’t strike me as remotely like when compared to other outcomes, and it’s not clear exactly how military force would achieve that. If the political solution doesn’t materialize, then what? Either you’re left with a bloody civil war in which the US has leveled the playing field, or we go the full monty to regime change. Like Libya, I think once the bombs start dropping, that regime change will end up as the goal regardless of what was said before. After all, we supposedly had a “political solution” as our goal in Libya too.

    2. Secondly, consequences of regime change in Syria are not going to be limited. Anything but.

  • I don’t think I’ve been doing a lot of hand waving. I think I’ve been pretty clear that my concern is that the Syrian regime is using a lot of force against civilians, and that my suspicion based on regime characteristics is that this will only get worse. I have always been in favor of interventions to prevent mass killings if those interventions can be done at relatively low cost.

    As a practical matter, the Syrian case is stronger than the Libyan case where there was a threat of mass civilian casualties rather than the reality of it. I was against the Libyan intervention both because I considered it premature and because I felt that intervening against Gaddafy after he’d normalized his status in regard to much of his rogue conduct was a bad precedent because it would discourage other rogues from making concessions. Syria is in another boat. It continues to play footsie (at a minimum) with terrorists and got caught mucking around with an undeclared reactor just a few years ago.

    In short, bad actor generally engaged in actual killings rather than formerly bad actor merely threatening to do so.

    I agree that we’d want our intervention to be effective. But effective does not necessarily mean regime change, or even an end to the repression. But I do think it is important that Assad pay a price if only to raise the bar on other regimes contemplating similar actions. In the process of imposing those costs we may discover that the regime is more fragile than people suspect, in which case regime change may result.

    But as I say, my minimal goal is punishment. My hope is that this punishment will increase our coercive leverage, but that is gravy. My dream is that it puts an end to the Assad regime and a democratic successor comes into power. But we don’t need to achieve either my hopes of my dreams for a limited use of force to be defensible.

  • First of all, I think there are three ways to prevent these particular mass killings:

    1. Regime change, by whatever means.
    2. Change the balance of power between Assad’s forces and the opposition so that Assad’s forces cannot conduct mass killings – again, by whatever means.
    3. Compel Assad to have a “change of heart” and stop the mass killings.

    Which of these (or is it all three) is the goal? Let’s go through each of them:

    1. Best case is a successful coup, but that’s not something we can create through military force. Worst case is a civil war in a highly militarized country rife with internal divisions that also happens to have a lot of chemical weapons. Regime change is something that is doable with a “limited” intervention by following, very roughly, the Libya model. Or another way to look at it is the post Desert Storm counter-factual where we help the Shia rebels by giving them a proxy air force to finish Saddam off after we decimated his conventional forces. Whatever the case, the problem is that we can’t control how regime change occurs or turns out. It’s a pretty big gamble and the odds are good that the result will not be pretty. You may simply change who is doing the mass killing. Patting ourselves on the back for that would be just as hollow as our triumphalism at freeing the people of Iraq from Saddam.

    2. There are three basic ways to do this. First is the no-fly/no-drive, Southern/Northern watch model. I think we know that’s not sustainable. Related to that is the Bosnia partition model. Same problem, but bigger since it requires an enduring ground-force commitment (who will volunteer for that job?). Third is attriting Assad’s forces while strengthening the opposition so that Assad no longer has the capability to conduct the mass killings. Part of that is doable with military force. The problem is, what then? Either the situation will slide again into Assad’s favor (a return to the status quo ante), or the opposition will be strong enough to overthrow Assad (see #1), or you end up with a stalemated civil war. None of those sound very good to me.

    3. This is the fantasy scenario. I think one would have to present some pretty compelling evidence that Assad would buckle under the pressure. I think the evidence shows the opposite – he knows he’s a dictator and he knows that weakness will ultimately result in his head on a pike.

    Here’s a fourth, “punishment” option which doesn’t prevent mass killings but gives Assad a good spanking: A big raid like Operation Desert Fox. Strike regime targets and maybe some key strategic facilities to register our displeasure. It won’t stop the killings, won’t topple the Assad regime, but at least we can be satisfied that we “did something.”

    Honestly, I don’t see how any other so-called “limited” military intervention ends well except by luck, and luck is not a strategy. And Mark Safranski makes some really good sense here.

    As I noted in Friday’s post, I think the best option is covert assistance to the rebels plus additional sanctions.

  • Your proposal for limited military action against al-Assad’s military assets makes eminent good sense.

    A point lost in many of the debates is that the commission of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other gross violations of fundmental human rights on a vast scale needs to be halted, now. This was a key point made in an editorial in The Daily Star (Beirut) some weeks ago, which underlined the fact that nothing the diplomats were discussing was likely to stop the killing any time soon.

    After 11 months of diplomacy, including the Security Council resolution on February 4 (13-2) vetoed by China and Russia, and the General Assembly Resolution on February 16 (137-12 with 17 abstenctions) condeming Syria’s human rights violations, immediate action must now be taken that will stop the massacres.

    A limited military attack might achieve the objective of making Syria’s government and military think twice about the consequences of continuing their barbaric attacks on the civilian population.

    A variant on your proposal would be the establishment of humanitarian corridors and humanitarian safety areas, which would be defended by the use of military force if necessary. The problem is that it may be necesary to take down Syria’s air defenses, or a significant part of them, to carry out such a plan.

    Thousands of people died in Libya while diplomacy and hesitation delayed effective military action, even after the Security Council vote authorizing “all effective measures” to defend the civilian population from attack. A repetition in Syria should be avoided. Time is of the essence.

    It is a colossal blunder to have the NATO commander and various other actors affirming that military action is not an option. They are arguing to each other in various bureaucratic decision-making games, but al-Assad and his military are the key recipients of their messages, and are undoubtedly emboldened by them.

    Instead of declaring that military options are off the table, we should keep al-Assad guessing, while we move all availble military assets to the eastern Mediterranean region to be in a position to act militarily, if necessary, to stop the commission of massive crimes against innocent people. That decision can come later. We need to get the assets in place now.

    A new legal justidication under international law may need to be crafted, drawing on the precedents of the General Assembly’s “Uniting for Peace” resolution (1950) and its progeny, the Security Council’s “duty to protect”resolution of 2005, and the many precedents of “intervention to protect nationals” and other foreigners.

    We may be at a point where a new legal doctrine needs to be forged out of these precedents, permitting the use of force strictly to defending the civilian population, and the international humanitarian corredors and safety zones that may be established, against al-Assad’s further use of terror.

    The Trenchant Observer

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