September 1, 2013

Obama's Syrian strike strategy

Obama's decision to pause on any strike decision until after 9 September is realistic. Obama is shrewdly deferring to Congressional responsibility. It is  now up to Congress-people to consult their state and electoral district constituents. If Congress votes for "limited strikes against Assad" Obama  gains a mandate. If he loses the vote his hands are tied - so the US doesn't have world policeman against Syria's use of chemical weapons.

With the UK voting itself out and France waiting until the chemical weapons inspectors publish their conclusions (in 14 to 30 days) the US needs to persuade more allies to participate in a Coalition on Syria. Countries like Australia, Germany, Canada, and other NATO countries will be asked to contribute militarily or at least asked to officially support US actions - probably within 30 days.

The following is a well thought out article from Max Fisher of the Washington Post

"Here’s why Obama is giving up the element of surprise in Syria"

Military thinkers from Sun Tzu to Napoleon Bonaparte have long emphasized the element of surprise. So it might seem strange that the Obama administration is not just clearly telegraphing that it likely plans to launch limited strikes against Syria, but also when it’s going to strike and what with. Even the likely target list is starting to come out. This is the opposite of how military tactics are supposed to work, right?

Actually, publicly revealing when, how and where the United States (and some allies) will likely strike makes sense, given what Obama wants to accomplish. If his goal were to fully enter the Syrian civil war and decisively end it, then, yes, secrecy would be the way to go. But the administration has been very clear that it has a much more modest goal: to punish Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for his suspected use of chemical weapons so that he, and future military leaders, won’t do it again.
What’s about to happen, if the United States and allies do go through with the strikes, is less of a war and more of a ritual. This isn’t about defeating Assad, it’s about punishing him. And that calls for being really precise about how much punishment the United States imposes.

If the U.S. military just fired off a bunch of missiles, it would probably cause more civilian causalities than with its current approach, and the amount of damage it caused would be tougher to predict. Maybe it causes less damage than the United States wants, and then Assad is not sufficiently deterred from future chemical weapons use. Maybe it causes more damage, and then Assad might feel compelled to respond, perhaps by striking Israel, and that’s how things spiral out of control.

No, what the Obama administration appears to want is a limited, finite series of strikes that will be carefully calibrated to send a message and cause the just-right amount of pain. It wants to set Assad back but it doesn’t want to cause death and mayhem. So the most likely option is probably to destroy a bunch of government or military infrastructure — much of which will probably be empty.

This is what the Clinton administration did in 1998 with Operation Desert Fox, when it and the United Kingdom bombed Iraq as punishment for cheating on weapons of mass destruction disarmament. The strikes were also intended to degrade Iraq’s WMD production capacity.

The 100 or so targets were, as now with Syria, telegraphed ahead of time. Many of them were empty. Iraq knew it was coming and was mostly unsurprised, which meant that it didn’t escalate. The campaign was limited in scope and, although the history of Iraq and WMDs is obviously a thorny one, appeared to be largely successful at least at punishing Saddam Hussein.

President Obama has long made clear that he worries that any involvement in Syria could lead the United States to get sucked into a long and intractable conflict that it would hurt more than help. But his administration also clearly believes that Assad’s suspected chemical weapons use could set a potentially dangerous enough precedent that it demands some military response.

A Desert Fox-style limited, telegraphed, calibrated series of offshore strikes appears to be the balance that the administration is striking."


Kumar said...

Will not Syria retaliate? Obama's foreign policies are as confusing today as it was when he first assumed office. I do not quite understand the meaning of 'punishment' in this context. How is Syria going to be deterred, if US forces are going to launch a few missiles at Damascus?

Pete said...

Hi Kumar

Yes I think Syria will try to retaliate militarily by attempting to use anti-shipping missiles mainly against soft targets like tankers.

Syria could fire missiles and shells at Israel and Turkey and other neighbouring countries or more likely organised Hezbollah to do it.

Syria could organise or inspire international or home-grown terrorists to strike anywhere, anytime.

Obama and his national security and PR teams may or should provide answers, or at least explanations, to your other good questions.