President Barack Obama’s 10 September address to the American people about Syria continues to send confused messages about the administration’s plans. Obama reasserts his authority to authorise a strike following the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons on 21 August, but he persists in asking an unwilling Congress for support before he acts. He points to the risks of the US doing nothing:
If we fail to act the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons. As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them. Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians.
Having made this case for urgent action, Obama asks Congress to delay a vote so the administration can explore Russia’s confected and opportunistic offer to relieve Assad of his chemical weapons. There’s no way Russia can deliver on this offer in a manner that will verifiably prove Syria has surrendered all chemical weapons. But it’s certainly within Moscow’s capacity to string out an international discussion in a way that reduces any probability of a US strike. From a position occupying the moral high ground of opposition to chemical weapons, President Obama’s own diplomatic missteps have allowed the Russians to look like the conciliators working hard to prevent American aggression. It takes a special brand of diplomacy to make Vladimir Putin look like a peacemaker, especially in the Syrian context where Russia has been the essential prop to Assad’s rule.
Obama’s speech will continue to provide comfort to the Assad regime because, in haste to assure the American people that he will not fight a ground war in Syria, the President’s narrowing the extent of a possible strike to a remarkable degree:
I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective, deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad’s capabilities. …
Others have asked whether it’s worth acting if we don’t take out Assad. Now, some members of Congress have said there’s no point in simply doing a pinprick strike in Syria.
Let me make something clear: the United States military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.
I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can makes [sic] Assad—or any other dictator—think twice before using chemical weapons.
Secretary of State John Kerry reinforced the President’s message at a media conference in London, saying ‘That is exactly what we are talking about doing—unbelievably small, limited kind of effort’. Pentagon planners will no doubt be shaking their heads at the pointlessness of designing an attack aimed at doing no more than getting Assad to ‘think twice’.
What might an ‘unbelievably small strike’ look like? The IISS has published a useful map showing the disposition of US and French military assets in the eastern Mediterranean. The key US naval assets are five Arleigh Burke class destroyers, the USS Georgia— an Ohio class ballistic missile submarine converted to carry out primarily a land attack role with cruise missiles—a Virginia class and a Los Angeles class submarine. There may be several hundred cruise missiles available for Syrian targets. The challenge though, will be gathering precise targeting data after Assad’s forces have had weeks to disperse chemical weapons stocks. Even if the US is able to locate stockpiles, there’s a risk that a strike could release chemical agents unless there’s a high probability that stockpiles will be fully destroyed. It’s possible that the US may try to target command and control centres and artillery units which were identified with the 21 August chemical attacks. These too might well have been dispersed.
Graeme Allison, who wrote the classic study of the Cuban missile crisis, Essence of Decision, writes in The Atlantic about Obama’s challenges in designing a strike. His advice is that Obama should try to build international support for the action, accepting that both Russia and China also have an interest in maintaining a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. The best way to do that, Allison says, is to make public as much information as possible linking the 21 August attack to the Assad regime. He says the US should look laterally to consider cyberattack and to directly target close interests of Assad and his lieutenants.
This approach, though, is a long way from Obama’s current unhappy predicament. The longer a Congressional vote is delayed, the greater the risk that the House of Representatives won’t authorise a strike. Obama’s choice then will be whether to proceed with military action after giving Congress a free kick to voice their opposition. As outrage fades about the chemical attack itself, the US will inevitably have to deal with the consequences of any collateral damage that might ensue from their own attack. Alternatively, Obama could back down and not strike after saying how essential it was. The delay in action has made it possible for Russia to position itself more favourably, and for Assad to rally some shreds of regional support against a US strike. It’s difficult to see how the Obama administration could have handled this situation more amateurishly.
Peter Jennings is the Executive Director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.