Syria: All the Options are Terrible

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has been very negative about any US military involvement in Syria.  The military takes this position when either (1) it truly believes that the use of military force will not achieve a satisfactory outcome at a satisfactory cost in lives and money, or (2) it has serious doubts about the political support for military engagement.  In the case of Syria, I strongly suspect that (2) drives Dempsey’s opposition to US intervention, but that the messy aftermaths in Iraq and Libya have also convinced him (and the rest of the military) that (1) is true too.  Obama is obviously allergic to military intervention, and the military is no doubt fearful of getting involved in  a conflict with a commander in chief who is not committed to seeing things through. There is no deep political support in the country for intervention.  Viet Nam and Iraq still haunt the US military.  So Dempsey has resorted to the common tactic of a commander who does not want to be ordered into combat: he emphasizes the negative, and the capabilities of the would-be enemy.

But the recent alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in an attack that reportedly killed hundreds-mainly children-has changed the dynamic dramatically.  This attack, if it indeed occurred-and the initial US assessment is that it did-took place on the anniversary of Obama’s drawing of a “red line” involving Syrian CW use.  Obama gave himself an out a year ago, with the “whole bunch” proviso.  Well, an attack that kills hundreds would be hard to write off as a minor employment of WMD. Obama is hoist on his own petard, and quite honestly, even if he had not staked his-and the country’s-credibility on this issue, the pressure to intervene in the aftermath of a proven mass-casualty CW attack would be intense.  The drawing of the red line only makes it harder for Obama to resist this pressure.

Consequently, the US is apparently assembling a target list, and if Assad’s use of CW is confirmed, some action is highly likely, even in the face of Russian and Chinese opposition.

In my opinion, Dempsey has exaggerated the dangers and costs of a US air campaign against Assad.  Yes, Syrian air defenses are more formidable than Libya’s were, but they are still a Russian-designed system operated by Arabs.  Pretty much every one of those has been shredded, either by the US or Israel, every time they have been attacked since 1973.  (I always remember Moshe Dyan’s answer to the question of how he explained his military success: “Fighting Arabs.”  This is particularly true when it comes to anything involving the operation of technically advanced systems.)

This quite useful presentation provides an overview of how an air campaign would proceed.  It clearly suggests that such a campaign could be successful with very minor risks to US personnel, and at modest cost.

A robust air campaign against Assad would seriously jeopardize his ability to survive.  But then what?

That’s the real problem.  Perhaps if the US had intervened in US and toppled Assad in 2011, a somewhat stable outcome could have been achieved.  Stable by Mideastern standards, anyways.  Maybe like Iraq, circa 2008-2009.  You wouldn’t want to live there, but it could be worse.

That’s no longer an option: it now will be worse than Iraq post-Surge, and likely worse than Iraq pre-Surge.  In the last two years, the Islamist fanatics, many of them foreigners, have come to dominate the opposition.  Assad’s fall would result in a bloody civil war between the factions of the opposition, and the communities that support Assad (notably the Alawites).  The place would become a horror show, a magnet for jihadists, and a sanctuary for terrorists.

The US Army and Marines have no stomach for getting involved in such a fight, the American people have no stomach for it, and it is hard to justify on the basis of our national interest.  Some Europeans, notably the French and British, are currently all hot to intervene, but given their pathetic military capabilities, that’s a case of “let’s you and him fight.”  Moreover, you know that as soon as things get tough, or at the first claim that the US military has committed an atrocity, the Europeans would be self-righteously criticizing us.

So I have little doubt that US airpower could make relatively short work of Assad’s military forces and government, and tip the balance to the opposition (who were on the verge of victory early this year without air support) but the aftermath would be a bloody mess, and we would be led by a CIC who would have no stomach for the fight.  So I can understand Dempsey’s reluctance completely.

I am seriously conflicted about how to proceed.  On the one hand, I cannot abide Assad and his brutality, and the use of chemical weapons on civilians would put him well beyond the pale.  But I foresee a bloody, messy, inconclusive aftermath of his overthrow.  The US military would have a thankless task.  It could be totally confident that the Europeans who support intervention now would desert at the first sign of trouble, and can provide  no meaningful military heft. The cynical ultra-realists say that the US should just let the two sides kill one another, thereby distracting them from terrorizing us: this is a variant of the Kissingerian “it’s too bad they both can’t lose” attitude to the Iran-Iraq war.  But that is profoundly amoral, because it’s not just jihadis and Syrian government thugs who would be dying: innocent civilians would bear the brunt.

Things would have been ugly in 2011, but things will be infinitely uglier now.  2012 and 2013 are years of the locust.  2014 and beyond will be hell, regardless of what Obama decides to do.  We are where we are, and where we are is not a good place to be.

If I had to choose, I would decide that removing Assad would have some geopolitical benefits, and would not make the humanitarian situation any worse.  Syria is Iran’s major ally, and its bridgehead to Hezbollah.  Assad’s fall would be a strategic blow to Iran, and thus would be a strategic benefit to us. But this objective is not sufficiently beneficial to justify the commitment of any American ground forces.  So I would limit American involvement to a robust air campaign targeting the Syrian air force, command and control targets, chemical weapons facilities, air defenses, and Hezbollah logistics and support, supplemented by a program to arm the opposition, trying to the extent possible to direct the weapons to the least bad guys.  And I would plan like hell for the myriad contingencies that may follow.

What I definitely would not do is what Obama is apparently considering, namely, a set of limited strikes intended to “send a message.”  Back in the day, I would have said if you want to send a message, use Western Union.  That’s obsolete, but the concept is fully operative.  The message that would be sent is that we lack seriousness and are just doing something because we have to do something so it doesn’t look like we’re doing nothing.  Such actions betray a lack of will and seriousness and actually tend to encourage rather than deter thuggish rulers.  We don’t need Rolling Thunder in the desert.  It would also unleash all of the negative diplomatic consequences that a more aggressive strike would.

In other words: moderation in war is imbecility (attributed variously to Lord Fisher and Macaulay).  Or in other other words: If you want to take Vienna, take Vienna. Assad is facing an existential moment. We are not going to change his “calculus”: he isn’t going to back down in a war for survival in the face of attacks that don’t threaten his survival.  We cannot affect his will to survive: we can affect his capability to survive.  The best we can do is affect the “correlation of forces” to use the old Soviet term. By so doing, we can increase the odds that he will topple.

Even if this is done, the aftermath will be very ugly.  But so are all the other alternatives.  This just seems the least ugly of a hideously repulsive lot.  Act or don’t act, we’ll be blamed for whatever ugliness transpires.  Contributing to Assad’s overthrow would at least have some strategic benefits. So, with reluctance, I guess that’s the way I’d go.

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About Craig Pirrong 238 Articles

Affiliation: University of Houston

Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.

Professor Pirrong's research focuses on the organization of financial exchanges, derivatives clearing, competition between exchanges, commodity markets, derivatives market manipulation, the relation between market fundamentals and commodity price dynamics, and the implications of this relation for the pricing of commodity derivatives. He has published 30 articles in professional publications, is the author of three books, and has consulted widely, primarily on commodity and market manipulation-related issues.

He holds a Ph.D. in business economics from the University of Chicago.

Visit: Streetwise Professor

1 Comment on Syria: All the Options are Terrible

  1. I don’t know if you know anything about Marines but there’s 2,000 in the Med itching to get the call.

    During the worst times in Iraq & Afghanistan there was no complaints from the Marines. In fact when things calmed down in Al Anbar the Marines requested to be transfered to the toughest part of Afghanistan at the time Helmand Province.

    Not saying it’s a good thing or bad but you should know something about the people your writing about before you speak for them.

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