As of this writing, four U.S. Navy destroyers are on station in the eastern Mediterranean, postioned (ostensibly) for a strike against Syria and its chemical weapons facilities.
The move came four days after an horrific nerve gas attack in a Damascus suburb that killed at least 300 people, most of them civilians. An Obama administration official said there is “little doubt” that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashir al-Assad were responsible for the slaughter. It was merely the latest example of Asad using weapons of mass destruction against his own people, violating the “red line” that Mr. Obama imposed more than a year ago.
Which brings us to that Navy strike group, now awaiting orders off the Syrian coast. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the U.S. is “prepared for all contingencies,” but based on those recent military movements, it’s fairly easy to envision what our response would be: a fusilade of cruise missiles, targeting chemical weapons storage complexes; command and control facilities and weapons systems capable of delivering chem and biological weapons.
It sounds like a forceful response, but as retired Major General Bob Scales has observed, a few salvoes of cruise missiles doesn’t represent a “strategy” in Syria, and it may have little effect on Assad’s chemical weapons inventory, for a variety of reasons.
First, there’s the matter of timing. The White House (understandably) wants hard evidence that Assad was behind the attack, evidence that can be presented to the U.N., our allies and anyone else who might be asked to support U.S. military action. Of course, gathering and analyzing that type of information takes time, assuming you can actually gain access to it. Strangely enough, the Assad regime announced today that it will allow a United Nations team to examine the site of last week’s chemical attack, suggesting the government may have already tampered with the evidence that remains. So much for conclusive proof.
Additionally, the search for evidence will give the Syrian government more time to scatter its remaining CW assets. It’s a safe bet that the U.S. will not attack while the UN team is on the ground, so Assad and his generals may have a week–or longer–to move chemical weapons to secondary storage sites, and move light aircraft and helicopters to dispersal locations. The expected delay could also give the Syrians time to mate chemical weapons with other delivery platforms, giving them more options for future attacks. No wonder President Assad was so happy to honor the UN’s inspection request.
Various “experts” inside The Beltway claim that Mr. Obama is closer to military action than at any time since the Syrian conflict began more than two years ago. Admittedly, there are no good options in Syria, and you can easily make the case that the U.S. missed its military window-of-opportunity long ago. But when a dictator is gassing his own people–and the President insists such actions will not be allowed to stand–military action becomes almost inevitable, at some point.
Other sources say the White House has been studying the 1999 air campaign against Serbia as a possible model for Syria. But those assertions seem far-fetched; the air war over Kosovo came after a huge build-up of American airpower in southern Europe, and the campaign was an all-out assault against Belgrade’s military forces. Air strikes went on around the clock for almost three months, with Allied aircraft hitting everything from airfields and SAM missile sites, to the Serbian power grid.
This time around, there is no surge of airpower in the eastern Mediterranean; in fact, there’s been no mention of a carrier group in the region, usually one of the first power-projection assets to arrive on the scene. Perhaps a better model for Syria is the air “campaign” that hastened Mummar Qadhafi’s exit from power in Libya. The number of sorties over Libya was a fraction of those flown against Serbia, and some of our partners complained openly that the U.S. wasn’t “doing enough,” particularly in the early stages of the effort.
There may be similar mummurings this time around. Without a build-up of air assets in places like Turkey, Italy, Sicily, and Jordan, any strike against Syria would be build largely around cruise missiles and sorties by B-2 stealth bombers, flying round-robin from their home base in Missouri. While the B-2 has played a prominent role in all air operations since Kosovo, there has been some debate over potential strikes against Syria. Assad’s air defenses include relatively sophisticated SA-17 surface-to-air missiles, which pose more of a challenge than than the 1950s and 60s-era SA-2s and SA-3s found in places like Kosovo and Iraq. But veterans of the B-2 program claim the jet has never been tracked for more than a few seconds–let along engaged by air defense systems–and they believe the stealth bomber would figure prominently in attacks on Syria.
But without additional air assets–and the personnel and logistics for a sustained effort–any campaign against Syria would be fleeting, and its effects uncertain. And that’s probably the preferred option for this administration, which views drone strikes as the ideal platform for prosecuting the war on terror. Hit selected targets; virtually eliminate the chance of collateral damage, and claim victory when the raid is judged successful. Any combination of B-2 and cruise missile strikes on Syria would almost certainly follow that pattern.
Would it have any impact on the conflict’s eventual outcome? Probably not, but that’s not the objective. Having painted himself into a corner with those red line comments–and embarassed by the Syrian regime–Mr. Obama now finds himself compelled to act. So, he will likely borrow a page from the Clinton playbook and we don’t mean Kosovo. Instead, we refer to our response to the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. In his reply to Osama bin Laden, Mr. Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on terror training camps in Afghanistan (which were largely empty) and a suspected chemical weapons plant in Sudan, later identified as an aspirin factory. We rather doubt that Assad’s aspirin complex is at the top of potential target lists, but it does seem likely that the target roster is rather limited, and there won’t be very many follow-on attacks.
That’s what happens when posturing becomes a substitute for strategy.