It tells you something about the composition of the Obama administration in its second term—without Bob Gates, Hillary Clinton, or David Petraeus—that the leading hawk is now Secretary of State John Kerry. But so it appears to be, at least if Jeff Goldberg is right in reporting that at a recent “principals meeting in the White House situation room, Secretary of State John Kerry began arguing, vociferously, for immediate U.S. airstrikes against airfields under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime — specifically, those fields it has used to launch chemical weapons raids against rebel forces.”
The plan went nowhere because of the opposition of General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who reportedly argued “that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties. At a time when the U.S. military is exhausted, and when sequestration is ripping into the Pentagon budget, Dempsey is said to have argued that a demand by the State Department for precipitous military action in a murky civil war wasn’t welcome.”
As my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elliott Abrams has astutely noted, this is a policy disagreement masquerading as a technical judgment. In point of fact, Israel has attacked Syrian installations at least three times, apparently using aircraft that never penetrated Syrian airspace. The U.S. could easily do the same—and more, if we were to employ cruise missiles and other stand-off weapons fired from warships in the Mediterranean or from heavy bombers such as the B-52 flying safely outside Syrian airspace. More to the point, whether it would take 700 sorties or not, taking down the Syrian air-defense network is well within American capabilities, especially if we were to act before the more advanced Russian S-300 system is online. The Pentagon claims this would be a formidable undertaking; the ease with which U.S. aircraft took down the similar air-defense systems of Iraq and Libya suggests otherwise. The Pentagon, recall, made similar arguments against intervention in the civil war of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, yet American intervention helped tip the balance and make a durable settlement possible. Dempsey is right to be worried about the cost of such an operation at a time of sequestration, but presumably Congress could pass a supplemental appropriation to pay for the added expense.
The real nub of the issue is a policy disagreement: Should we use our airpower to attack Syria? The case that Kerry makes, as outlined in a subsequent Jeff Goldberg column, is, to my mind, powerful and persuasive. Some of his key points: “The administration can’t sit idly by as the civil war claims hundreds of victims a day. … For negotiations to work, the regime of Bashar al-Assad must feel that its existence is threatened…Whether we like it or not, we are in a conflict with Iran, and our credibility is on the line….President Obama threatened unspecified, but dire-sounding, action against Assad if he deployed chemical weapons (or even if he shifted them around)…. The Israelis did it, and so can we. …The rebels aren’t the lunatics the Pentagon believes them to be. The State Department has been working for some time with the more moderate leaders among the fractured and disputatious rebel alliance. It believes not only that it can do business with many of these leaders, but also that by doing business with them it will strengthen them.”
To all this one should add the obvious: that providing small arms to the rebels will not stop the regime, which is reconquering territory in northern Syria. More dramatic action is needed to tilt the balance of power.
The argument against this is essentially Realpolitik on steroids: the notion that both Assad and the rebels are bad news and we should just let them fight it out indefinitely, providing only enough aid to fuel the conflict but not enough to allow the rebels to win. That is a deeply amoral argument—it suggests that we should allow thousands more Syrians to be slaughtered every month—and its strategic rationale is, at the very least, questionable. Given the progress Assad is making on the ground, absent more American aid the government could very well win this war—and that in turn would represent a big victory for Iran. Conversely, if Assad were to fall, that would be a big blow for Iran.
Do we have cause to be concerned about what kind of government will take over after Assad’s downfall? Of course. But, as suggested above, our best bet to shape the post-Assad Syria would be to help the moderate rebel factions now. Otherwise the Islamist extremists will be in control should Assad be toppled—and even if he stays in power the extremists might continue to exercise sway over a significant chunk of Syrian territory, as they do today.
We should never enter into any military intervention lightly, even if no one is proposing the dispatch of U.S. ground forces to Syria (beyond perhaps a few dozen Special Forces and CIA paramilitaries to work with the rebels). But the bulk of the evidence suggests we need to do more to end the civil war and prevent an Assad victory. Those who think otherwise, inside and outside the administration, need at the very least to make better policy arguments against further action instead of hiding behind a specious military analysis which claims that we have no military option. Even weakened as they have been by sequestration, the U.S. Air Force and Navy would have no trouble dispatching Syria’s air power and air defenses—and it is better to act sooner rather than latter because readiness will continue to fall as sequestration bites deeper.