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The Pentagon shows that Barack Obama missed his chance to tip the balance in Syria

23 July 2013

5:52 PM

23 July 2013

5:52 PM

When General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before the Senate Armed Services committee last Thursday an intemperate exchange threatened to derail his bid for reappointment in the post.

When Dempsey repeatedly declined to say what advice he had given President Obama on Syria, John McCain threatened to block the nomination. McCain later sent Dempsey a letter asking him to clarify what military options the Pentagon has considered in Syria.

‘The decision over whether to introduce military force is a political one that our Nation entrusts to its civilian leaders,’ Dempsey replied. ‘I also understand that you deserve my best military advice on how military force could be used in order to decide whether it should be used.’ Dempsey then outlined five options currently under consideration by the Pentagon which include:

  • Train, advise, assist – this would be the least engaged option and involves supplying rebel fighters with specialist training, supplying them with intelligence assessments, and providing strategic assistance. The training would take place in friendly neighbouring countries (presumably Turkey and Jordan) and would not involve committing too many troops. There are three potential problems with such an approach. The first – and most worrying – is that American troops might end up inadvertently training or assisting jihadists. The second is the prospect of infiltration by agents loyal to Assad who then attack their trainers (think of ‘green on blue’ attacks in Afghanistan). Finally, Assad’s forces may choose to shell or bomb training centres. In both of the latter cases the United States would then be compelled to respond.
  • Stand-off strikes – unlike a no-fly zone this would involve a limited aerial bombardment campaign which targets strategic military and naval targets, ammunition depots, and key military and government posts. The Pentagon suggests potential problems would include retaliatory strikes and inadvertent civilian casualties. It would like cost ‘billions’ of dollars to execute.
  • No-Fly Zone – the military option Syrians have long been calling for. This would go further than the option above by destroying Syrian air defences and taking control of its airspace. Not only would it prevent the Syrian Air Force from bombing rebel held areas, it would also prevent the regime from rearming through the air – presenting a considerable problem for the Russians and Iranians who continue to fly weapons into Damascus. The most obvious drawback of such a plan is that it would expose American pilots to considerable risk with even conservative estimates suggesting that Syrian air defences would succeed in downing some jets. From a financial perspective the no-fly zone would cost upwards of $12 billion per annum to enforce. For all that outlay it remains unclear what a no-fly zone would practically achieve on the ground. While it would prevent the indiscriminate bombing of rebel held areas from the air, this overlooks the fact that Assad’s forces also use mortars and heavy artillery to attack rebel held areas.
  • Buffer zone – much like a no-fly zone, the idea of creating buffer zones and humanitarian corridors has been debated at considerable length by Western strategists. This would involve securing areas (either within Syria or just outside) where rebels can safely gather and regroup, while also providing a safe area for refugees. It would involve a limited no-fly zone, along with deploying a considerable number of troops. As with the other options, it remains unclear precisely what this would do to decisively change things on the ground, other than providing limited humanitarian relief for civilians.
  • Assault and Secure Chemical Weapons Depots – perhaps the most audacious option under consideration, this would involve bombing chemical weapons installations, interdicting their movement around the country, and deploying hundreds of Special Forces and other troops. It would require a no-fly zone, and the use of a large number of ships, planes, and submarines.

None of the options above are particularly attractive, incurring massive risks and costs with few obvious opportunities. The White House missed its opportunities to tip the balance a year ago and now, with the growing influence of jihadist elements and Assad’s recent gains (such as the victory in al-Qusayr) it is hard to see how decisive any externality might prove. The war has instead become attritional and protracted, fuelling the perception that the moment for intervention has passed (what the West should now concern itself with is management and containment of the conflict).

What’s most interesting about the Pentagon assessments – and a common theme which runs through all the options – is the clear sense of post-Iraq weariness. Military planners are acutely aware of the need to avoid opening a Pandora’s Box which later proves impossible to disengage from. ‘Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next,’ Dempsey writes. ‘Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.’

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