February 14th, 2012
09:00 AM ET

Zenko: When America attacked Syria

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on TwitterThe following is reprinted with the permission of CFR.org.

By Micah Zenko, CFR.org

In response to the worsening civil war in Syria and the Bashar al-Assad regime’s continuous use of rockets, artillery, and sniper fire against civilian population centers, some policymakers, analysts, and members of the Syrian opposition are calling for some sort of military intervention—no-fly zones, safe zones, humanitarian corridors, close air support, and more. The various objectives of the proposed operations are to protect civilians, assure the delivery of humanitarian assistance, aid the armed opposition, encourage military defections, or oust Assad.

Ongoing debates on intervention in Syria recall an earlier era when the U.S military was used in the region with similarly muddled objectives that led to disastrous outcomes.

In September 1982, President Ronald Reagan authorized the deployment of up to 1,800 Marines to Lebanon as part of a Multinational Force (MNF)—consisting of French, Italian, and later British troops—“with the mission of enabling the Lebanese Government to resume full sovereignty over its capital, the essential precondition for extending its control over the entire country.”

In a diplomatic note exchanged between Washington and the nascent government in Lebanon, it was agreed that the MNF would fulfill its mission by serving as an “interposition force at agreed locations and thereby provide the Multinational presence requested by the Lebanese Government.” Soon after the first Marines arrived at Beirut International Airport, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was asked to clarify the scope of the U.S. military’s mission, to which he replied: “What we need is a multinational force until certain conditions have been achieved. Nobody knows when those conditions can be achieved. It is not an open-ended commitment.”

In the aftermath of the full-scale Israeli invasion months earlier in 1982, which sought to drive out the PLO and install a friendly regime in power, Lebanon had become a war zone. The Lebanese military and various militias were receiving weapons, military training, operational guidance, and money from a number of countries, including Israel, Syria, the Soviet Union, Iran, and the United States.

Recognizing the futility of deploying several hundred soldiers with a poorly-defined mission to positively impact the degenerating situation, the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously opposed sending the Marines to Lebanon to serve with the MNF.  The commandant of the Marine Corps, General P.X. Kelley, would retrospectively describe the environment: “Given the Beirut international airport area to put our forces in, with the mission of presence. That’s not a military mission. You will never find it in a military dictionary.”

While the United States was supposed to have been a neutral entity in Lebanon as part of the MNF, by summer 1983 it had openly sided with the pro-Israeli Lebanese government. To support the Lebanese military, the U.S.S. New Jersey was authorized to shell the Druze militia and Syrian military forces in the mountains surrounding Beirut. As Colin Powell laterdescribed the response: “When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American ‘referee’ had taken sides against them. And since they could not reach the battleship, they found a more vulnerable target: the exposed Marines at the airport.”

The October 23, 1983, suicide truck bombing of the Marine barracks at the Beirut International Airport would kill 241 U.S. military personnel; simultaneously, another suicide bomber killed fifty-eight French servicemen of the MNF several kilometers away. (Two weeks later, yet another truck bomb exploded in the Israeli military headquarters in Tyre, killing sixty.) A FBI forensics assessment called the Marine barracks bombing the “biggest non-nuclear explosion since World War II.” According to a Pentagon commission formed to investigate the attack, it was “tantamount to an act of war using the medium of terrorism.” Within weeks, the CIA determined that “the bombings…of the United States and French MNF headquarters were carried out by Shia radicals, armed, trained, and directed by Syria and Iran.”

The Reagan administration grappled with the appropriate response against the Syrian and Iranian governments. As a “two-fer” military option, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy Richard Armitage recalled, “we wanted to put a cruise missile into the window of the Iranian ambassador in Damascus,” although this approach was ultimately rejected.

Another idea—never pursued, but worth highlighting given the demand of many political leaders for Syrian president Hafez al-Assad to be removed from power—was developed in a NSC paper entitled, “The Destabilization of Syria.” According to David Wills’s unmatched history of the era, The First War on Terrorism: Counter-Terrorism Policy during the Reagan Administration:

“When Assad challenges Israel and the Marines in Lebanon, he knows that if Israel attacks him it cannot occupy all of Syria. Assad feels he can always retreat to the North and set up a smaller state and with stronger Alawite control. However, if Turkey is brought into the calculations of Rifaat [Assad] (the real power in Syria) and Hafez, their calculations will be totally different and would be impossible to add up without losing their power. If Syria is attacked by Turkey from the north the Alawite stronghold will be gone at the start and Assad and his supporters will have to fall back on an ocean of hateful Sunni moslems (sic) in the south where they will be eaten like lost sheep. Therefore the pressure on Syria should come from Turkey and not from the Marines and or Israel.”

The Reagan administration ultimately decided to attack the support infrastructure of the groups responsible for the Beirut bombing at the Sheik Abdullah barracks in Baalbek, Lebanon, where several hundred of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah members were based.  On November 14, 1983, President Reagan approved a joint U.S.-French air raid against the barracks to be carried out two days later. What happened next is hotly disputed by Reagan administration officials, although almost all accounts concur that Secretary of Defense Weinberger refused to give the authorization order to the U.S. commander of the Sixth Fleet permitting the U.S. aircraft to leave their flight decks. The French—who did not know that the United States had abandoned them until their planes were airborne—proceeded with the airstrike. Briefed on what had happened, Reagan responded: “That’s terrible. We should have blown the daylights out of them. I just don’t understand.”

Despite the miscommunication—or direct insubordination—the United States eventually did bomb Syrian military assets in Lebanon, although it had nothing to do with the loss of the 241 American servicemembers. Beginning months before the barracks attack, Syrian anti-aircraft batteries in Lebanon intermittently fired upon U.S. Navy F-14 reconnaissance planes. Initially dismissed by Secretary Weinberger as not “unusual or surprising,” the attacks did not elicit a counterstrike on Syrian air-defense capabilities. In late November 1983, however, President Reagan agreed to authorize a more robust response and a retaliatory airstrike plan was drawn up by U.S. Navy planning staffs of the Sixth Fleet. On December 3, 1983, two F-14s flying a routine tactical reconnaissance mission encountered Syrian anti-aircraft fire and at least ten surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).

On December 4 at 8:00 a.m., twelve A-7 Corsairs and sixteen A-6E light bombers took off from the U.S.S. Independence and U.S.S. John F Kennedy, escorted by an E-2 Hawkeye, two EA-6 Prowlers, and two F-14s. The bombers were ordered to strike three sites east of Beirut, which included an ammunition depot, air-defense radars, anti-aircraft guns, and SAMs. (A Reagan administration official claimed that the airstrikes would somehow “also encourage Lebanese forces to defend their own territory.” They didn’t.) Without offering any evidence, a Pentagon spokesperson reported that airstrikes had hit fourteen of the twenty intended targets and that “whatever was in each of the areas received significant damage.”

Despite official statements, however, the first direct combat in Lebanon between the United States and Syria was both a military and political disaster. Two of the U.S. planes were shot down either by anti-aircraft rounds and/or approximately forty SAMs; one pilot was killed, another was captured by Syrian forces, and another parachuted safely into the Mediterranean Sea. (The hostage pilot, Lieutenant Robert Goodman, Jr., was held and interrogated in a Syrian prison for thirty days until Reverend Jesse Jackson secured his release.) Furthermore, although Pentagon claimed that the airstrikes were ”very successful and achieved our objective, which was to prevent, through a measured response, repetition of the attacks on our reconnaissance aircraft,” that never came to pass. Syrian forces continued to target the U.S. reconnaissance flights.

This suboptimal outcome resulted from several factors, any of can—and does—limit the effectiveness of military operations.

  1. Micromanagement: The commanders aboard the U.S.S. Independence and U.S.S. John F. Kennedy received last-minute orders from the Pentagon that superceded the well-prepared retaliatory airstrike plan. Reportedly, these included “very specific instruction about the targets that were to be attacked, weapons to be used, as well as the time-point of the strike.”
  2. Weather: A Pentagon official noted that unusually heavy haze over eastern Lebanon had “restricted the visibility to a far greater degree than we would have hoped.”
  3. Poor intelligence: Having received the latest Soviet infrared sensor technology, Syrian SAM capabilities were more advanced than Navy planners had assumed: “We didn’t expect to encounter quite the level of defense we did.”
  4. Concerns of collateral damage: Pilots were told to ascend to three thousand feet to visually acquire the mobile SAM systems before bombing them, which exposed the slow-flying bombers to ground attacks. (According to the Newsweek report of the botched attack: “The Israelis have urged the Pentagon to buy pilotless drones—which might have been used for surveillance runs or to test Syrian air defenses.”)

The Pentagon commission report of the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut contained a recommendation that received a great deal of attention within Washington and influenced the thinking of some Reagan administration officials throughout their careers: “The commission recommends that the secretary of defense continue to urge that the National Security Council undertake a reexamination of alternative means of achieving U.S. objectives in Lebanon, to include a comprehensive assessment of the military security options being developed by the chain of command and a more vigorous and demanding approach to pursuing diplomatic alternatives.” Diplomacy, however, takes time and is difficult, whereas bombing things is immediate and relatively easy.

A criticism of proponents of military force in Syria, Iran, or elsewhere, is that they rarely take into account recent history and how it can be instructive for likely outcomes today. Or worse, advocates often rely on myths or mischaracterizations about earlier applications of force, particularly in their supposedly successful outcomes. Despite approximately $600 billion in defense and intelligence spending, kinetic force not only fails to achieve its intended military or political objectives, but it often makes things worse. If history can provide any guidance, it is that it is impossible to foresee the unintended consequences and lasting impact of military force.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Micah Zenko.

Post by:
Topics: History • Military • Syria

soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Gina Roberts

    Americans didn't attack Syria. They attacked Syrian military targets in Lebanon – a separate country.

    February 14, 2012 at 9:54 am | Reply
    • S.V.P.YADAV

      U S doing Mission on SYREA only for OIL , It is one type of MASSACRE and Syrian peoples are ignorents so that you are moving please stop OIL eating.

      February 15, 2012 at 3:14 am | Reply
  2. Sherifa Zuhur

    Yes, echoing the above; I do not think an analysis of what went wrong in Lebanon is relevant to the situation in Syria today. The revolutionaries are in various parts of the country and can move around if need be. We could be discussing ways for them to achieve some parity with well-armed, Syrian land forces whose armored tanks are more of a problem than the size of the force itself, as well as humanitarian provision of medicine, food, water. If you want to make comparisons to Lebanon, remember how effective it was for Hizbullah to obtain anti–tank missiles. Surely the U.S. can do something! Logistical support was already promised, but it should link up to these needs.

    February 14, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Reply
  3. A DM Opinion

    Reblogged this on A DM Opinion.

    February 14, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    I agree with the author that "it is impossible to foresee the unintended consequences and lasting impact of military force".Caspar Weinberger was secretary of defence between 1981 and 1987. Under Ronald Reagan he was responsible for a massive increase in military spending. He was convinced that the U.S. should only take on wars that could sustain popular support and not those that threatened to be indecisive. Without being involved directly he was given an honary kinighthood for his support of Britian during the Falklands conflict. He was embroiled in the Iran/Contra enquiry but received pardon by Bush One before the trial was due to start.

    February 14, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  5. Leader2050

    When America attacked Syria!!
    This isnt true!! Correct address is: when Syria attacked America, because America has lost 241 soldiers in a suicide bombing of Lebanon by Hezbollah's "client of Syria." In addition, Bashar al-Assad sent thousands of suicide bombers from al Qaeda to Iraq to kill thousands of American soldiers. In 1996, Hezbollah carried out a suicide truck bomb attack on a U.S. base in Al Khobar city in Saudi Arabia. 19 American pilots were killed, and hundreds of wounded pilots. These attacks from Syria on U.S. soldiers in Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia have taken place without the revenge of the America from Assad regime (father and son). For this reason, we note that America doesnt want to air strikes against Syria to save innocent Syrian . Mr. Zinco wants to say, "We attacked Syria 30 years ago!" Therefore, we dont need to attack Syria now to save innocent Syrian pro-democracy. Let them die! OK , But what about the thousands of U.S. soldiers killed in Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia by the Assad regime (father and son). Let them die!! Because the Assad family terrorist protect the borders of Israel in 35 years!! Israel is important to live safely by the family of a terrorist. U.S. soldiers' lives arent important!! If the U.S has a moral obligation to protect its soldiers American, pro-democracy in dictatorship country, should the U. S do air strikes for two weeks to destroy the military power of Bashar al-Assad to stop the massacres against the people of Syria, which wants freedom. Finally I want to ask the Israelis: If Bashar al-Assad and his brother Maher were killed by FSA now, Israel is going to die! You have 200 nuclear bombs, and you can live safely without the protection of the family of the terrorist al-Assad. Please leave the Syrian people get the democracy and freedom. The future of Israel is to sign a peace treaty with the Syrian people not with the terrorist al-Assad family.

    February 15, 2012 at 9:24 am | Reply
  6. Andea

    The U.S and the west , if they decided to get rid of the Syrian regime by force, it is possible, but right now, they have a bigger fish to fry.
    Iran has to be dealt with first by using the sanctions, and if that failed then the Syrian turmoil would be part of the Iranian equation.
    I think that the Syrian conflict is not going to be more than a side show compering to the Iranian one if it has not been resolved .

    February 15, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Reply
  7. BASHAR AL KALB=IRAN-HIZBOALLAH-TERRORISTS

    Thaier Souri
    دمشق
    لقد أثبتت روسيا أنها بلد محكوم بمجموعات مافيوية لا يعنيها من أمر البشر الا مقدار ما تجققه من مكاسب, و أثبتت أن لا منظومة أخلاقية تحكمها و ربما تحكم شعبها, و ربما كانت هذه خطوة أخرى حاسمة في انحسار الدور السوفييتي السابق الذي اضمحل الى حجم روسيا و لا ندري الى ماذا سيضمحل لاحقا, و كل ذلك بسبب غياب الركيزة الخلقية الداعمة للمواقف المعلنة أو الغير معلنة

    73 MOURAD
    ALGERIA
    روسيا و الصين تشعران بتواطؤ اوروبي امريكي يهدد مصالحهما الاقتصادية

    72 عفوا سوريا ومعذرة
    الاردن
    النظام السوري وما يرتكبه من مجازر بحق شرفاء سوريا الشام العظيم ما هو الا الفساد والبطش بعينه وما هو الا للحفاظ على مصالح فردية لفئة علوية طغت وتجبرت وتقمصت دور الممانعة والقومية العربية وهي تلك الفئةهي التخاذل والجبن متمثل على وجه الخصوص بشخص بشار الاسف وزبانيته. شلت يمينك يا من تطلق القذائف والقنابل على شعب حمص الاعزل ودرعا وريف دمشق ودير الزور فوالله رجالهم رجال ونساؤهم خير الحرائر . الله على ظالم جبان

    71 الفجر

    يا لها من مهزلة يا جماعة كل هذه الجرائم منذو ١١ شهرا انتهت بكلمة في الجمعية العامة بادانة .هدفهم جعل من سوريا صومالا اخر.على فكر هل اسرائيل ايضا نددت ام كانت مع...سعودية تصيغ القرارات ومصر توزعه وروسيا تعدل بالقرارات والمعارضة الخارجية مشغلون برئاسة المجلس الوطني والشعب يقتل على يد من لا احد يعرف

    70 ليث
    السويد
    لافروف زود عميله بشار بالاسلحه وهو والصين يديرون عمليات قتل الشعب السوري وبشهود احد الضباظ المنشقين..روسيا اصبحت في الجانب المخزي من التاريخ ..ولافروف يتحجج يالقاعده وكانه القذافي ..لا ينقصه الا ان يصيح ..زنكه زنكه دار دار..بس يقوله بالروسي مافي مشكله المترجم موجود.

    69 عربي حر
    سوريه
    اعرفوا يا عرب ويا مسلمين ان نظام السوري ونظام الحاكم في ايران وحزب الله واسرائيل هي جميعا اوجه لعمله واحده افهموووووووووووووووووو

    68 سوري
    syria
    كم اكره اي انسان يقول سوريه الاسد يا اخي دوله كامله تربط بشسخص يوجد في سوريه امكانات رهيبه وسوريه لجميع الطوائف والاديان الذي يقول ذلك هو انسان لايعيش الا ياكل او امي حتى ولو كان متعلما

    February 16, 2012 at 11:01 am | Reply
    • Joe Fattal

      I don't know if I can agree with you. But first I have to understand what are you writting about.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  8. ebtissam

    how do you ask people to choose the first answer ? is this your democracy??

    February 17, 2012 at 5:30 am | Reply
  9. Joe Fattal

    The Syrian people are asking too much. Its war. And war have its casualties.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  10. nori al maleki of iraq helping syrian killers

    يا أبناء شعبنا الصابر
    يا أبناء امتنا العربية
    منذ أن أُبتُلي العراق بالاحتلال الأميركي الصهيوني الفارسي البغيض نفذ المحتلون وحلفائهم الأشرار وعملائهم الأخساء سلسلة من عمليات الإبادة للشعب العراقي كانت حصيلتها اكثر من مليون ونصف المليون شهيد عراقي ، فضلاً عن ملايين الجرحى والمعوقين وخمسة ملايين مهجر ، ناهيكم عن عمليات التجويع والإفقار والحرمان من الخدمات بل وتدمير العراق أرضاً وشعباً وحضارةً واقتصاداً ، حيث شُلت الصناعة والزراعة وأستحوذ السراق من العملاء على التجارة والخدمات ووظفوها في خدمة مصالحهم الخاصة .

    وبسبب ذلك كله والانهيار الأمني المريع فقد تتالت التفجيرات الإجرامية وغطًت أيام الأسبوع كله ، والتي سميت كلها بالأيام الداميات والتي تكررت فيها التفجيرات الدامية وآخرها وليس أخيرها تفجيرات يوم الخميس الثالث والعشرين من شباط الجاري والتي راح ضحيتها المئات من الشهداء والجرحى في بغداد وصلاح الدين وبابل ونينوى وديالى وكركوك وبقية محافظات العراق .

    وكانت وما زالت وستبقى التفجيرات الإجرامية المتتابعة في العراق لطخة عار صارخة في جبين حكومة المالكي العميلة التي استمرأت عمليات ذبح الشعب العراقي بهذه التفجيرات الإجرامية والاغتيال بالكواتم وحملات الاعتقالات الغاشمة الواسعة النطاق المصحوبة بالقمع والتعذيب الوحشي ، والتي شملت الآلاف من المناضلين البعثيين وضباط وطياري وضباط صف الجيش العراقي الباسل وأبناء شعبنا الأبي في الشهور الأربعة الماضية والمضافة الى مئات الآلاف من المعتقلين على امتداد سنوات الاحتلال البغيض .

    يا أبناء شعبنا المكافح
    لقد حاول العميل المالكي وبطانته الشريرة استثمار ظروف هزيمة المحتلين الاميركان بفعل الضربات القاصمة والعمليات الجبارة لمجاهدي البعث والمقاومة بالإفصاح عن عمالته المباشرة لإيران الصفوية التي سلمها المحتلون الاميركان خسئوا العراق ، فراح هذا العميل الصغير المالكي يُصَعد من عملياته القمعية ونهب جلاوزته لثروات وأموال الشعب العراقي وتجنيد ( الميليشيات الإرهابية المرتبطة به مباشرة ) لتكريس سلطته القمعية الديكتاتورية في محاولة بائسة لتجاوز هزيمة العملية السياسية المخابراتية بهزيمة صناعها المحتلين الاميركان عبر تصعيد عمليات التصفية والاحتراب بين أطراف هذه العملية ، والتي بلغت ذروتها عبر فبركة الجرائم وتحميل هذه الأطراف مسؤوليتها والإمعان في شل أجهزة الدولة التي دمرها المحتلون وتعطيل حركة الحياة في ميادينها الاقتصادية والاجتماعية والسياسية والثقافية كلها .

    وقيادة قطر العراق لحزب البعث العربي الاشتراكي إذ تستنكر ممارسات حكومة المالكي العميلة المدانة كلها فأنها تستنكر بشدة التفجيرات الإجرامية المتواصلة ، وتحمل هذه الحكومة العميلة المسؤولية الكاملة عنها بوضعها تحت قصاص الشعب العادل الذي لن يصبر طويلاً على جرائم المالكي وزمرته العميلة ، وسيواصل نضاله وثورته العارمة وحتى التقويض الكامل للعملية السياسية المخابراتية التي راح أطرافها يتلهون بمناوراتهم الخائبة دائرين ظهورهم لأبناء شعبنا الأبي الذي يرسفون في معاناتهم القاسية عبر اللعب على النغمات النشاز من قبيل السعي المحموم لعقد ما لم يتفقون على تسميته من قبيل ( المؤتمر ) أو ( الملتقى ) أو ( الاجتماع ) ، فالجميع يعتقدون واهمين أنهم يكسبون الوقت على حساب معاناة أبناء شعبنا الصابر الذي لم ولن يَبُت على ضيم وإنما يُواصل جهاده الملحمي وحتى الإسقاط النهائي للعملية السياسية المخابراتية وإقامة حكم الشعب التعددي الديمقراطي الشعبي المستقل والعادل ويمضي قُدماً على طريق النهوض والتقدم الحضاري والإنساني الشامل .

    وإن غداً لناظره قريب .

    February 24, 2012 at 9:58 am | Reply

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