Op-Ed: The US Has No Coherent Strategy in Syria

When Congress returns from vacation on 9 September, it will begin to debate an appropriate response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. President Obama warned last year that Syria should not cross the ‘red line’ of the use of chemical weapons, which are illegal under international law. Syria has at least twice ignored his advice, and pressure is building on the president ‘to do something.’ Having established his position, it is now up to Congress to debate. Yet, making a political decision clearly isn’t a priority.

Meanwhile, the situation in Egypt continues without resolution. Egypt’s newest strongman, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is moving aggressively to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood. The ferocity of the military’s crackdown, manifest in the quick and unhesitating resort to wholesale slaughter, raises questions about continued US support for America’s oldest Arab ally.

The question before Congress is, naturally enough, “What should the US do?” That is the wrong question. A better question might be, “Should the US do anything?” Realistically, what can America do to change the situation on the ground?

The sad answer is, the US cannot do much to end either conflict. This is partly because American leadership balked earlier. Even more crippling, the US has at best a vague notion of its strategy or the risks it faces, not simply in Syria and Egypt, but across the Middle East and beyond, from North Africa to Afghanistan.

There are powerful emotional and intellectual arguments for decisive action, but none spring from a coherent strategy. All underestimate the risks and consequences of an ineffective response. A delayed response shows that strategy has been trumped by political expedience. The US is floundering because it lacks a strategy to guide it.

Syria crossed a red line, but not in the sense Obama meant. Chemical warfare escalates the conflict and changes the rules of engagement for all sides. This is no longer a conventional civil war. Any plans for counter strikes by the rebels or foreign military forces must be reconsidered. No good solutions are available to Congress.

The greatest risks to military intervention in Syria rest with the people of that beleaguered country, not with the forces coming to their rescue. In the muddled American calculus, Assad must pay a devastating cost for his behavior, but Assad knows the US and its allies are not willing to pay much themselves to protect Syrians.

Any costs the US and its allies are willing to bear in terms of expenditures and physical losses have to be measured against the additional costs that will be imposed upon the Syrian people by Assad’s reaction, for surely they will bear the brunt of his military’s response.

The US has already ruled out the one military option that offers any hope of putting a stop to Assad’s war against his own people – US invasion. Having signaled to Damascus that the US is unwilling to end the Assad family rule, the world’s sole superpower has again proven itself irresolute in the face of a minor regional challenge.

Other options considered for Syria are incapable of thwarting chemical attacks. Sending arms to the rebels risks prolonging fighting and strengthening local al-Qaeda franchises. Arming rebel forces is likely to further escalate the war and risk additional chemical warfare. In any event, both the chemical weapons and armaments trains have left the station.

Establishing a no-fly zone over the country or launching the airborne destruction of Syrian air and ground assets will not counter the further use of chemical weapons, either. Accounts indicate the poison gas was delivered by rockets and artillery, not aircrafts. Reducing Syrian air forces to smoldering hulks on cratered runways sends a signal, but it would also free up Syrian military personnel for redeployment to the ground forces that have wrought so much destruction. This redeployment also increases the risk of more chemical attacks.

Selective targeting of Syrian military infrastructure is not likely to destroy the regime’s chemical capacity either. Such attacks presuppose the existence of concentrated targets. While there may be suitable targets, chemical weapons have undoubtedly been dispersed throughout the armed forces by now. It might be possible to destroy their warehouses and storage areas, but unless Assad’s military is criminally incompetent, there is not much chance of wrecking his chemical capability. Syrian internet might go down, though.

Launching a Tomahawk through Assad’s bedroom window one night could prove effective, but it is really not America’s style to assassinate heads of state. It is murder, plain and simple, offensive to American legal and moral sensibilities.

The US has even fewer options available in Egypt. The most powerful leverage in the US arsenal is cold, hard cash – $1.3 billion in aid is doled out annually to Egypt, which the US has already threatened to cut off. No sooner had it done so, than other US allies in the region, led by Saudi Arabia, offered $12 billion to make up for assistance withheld by the Americans, provided the Egyptian military continues to hound and obliterate the Muslim Brotherhood. Other effective US alternatives already appear exhausted, but they might still be debated next.

The major takeaway is that though it does not lack strategic interests in the region, the US does lack a strategy for securing them. Israel is heavily invested in the region, and its military has generally proven effective, so it might offer a useful lesson. The US could do worse than taking a page from the Israeli response to growing regional instability.

The Israeli military is evolving rapidly from a mechanized force to one focused more on airpower, intelligence, and cyber warfare. Iran, which recently warned the US not to cross a red line itself by intervening in Syria, poses a greater strategic threat than either an unstable Syria or Egypt. Israel is preparing for a new kind of war. Like British and French colonialists before them, the US is fighting the last war. In the Middle East, America risks losing its credibility, not to mention the blood already wasted and the cultural treasures already destroyed. Strategic failure is very expensive.

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Categories: Middle East/North Africa, Security

Author:Steven Slezak

Steven Slezak is on the faculty at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California, teaching finance, strategy, and risk management. His research is supported by the university’s Farm Credit Program in Finance and Appraisal. Previously, he taught financial management and financial mathematics at the Johns Hopkins University MBA program. He holds a degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and an MBA in Finance from JHU. He has worked in fields as diverse as international economics, national security, commodities trading, and risk management. He consults on business management and strategy.

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