By Bilal Y. Saab, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bilal Y. Saab, a non-resident Middle East scholar at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, is the executive director and head of research of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) North America. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Pentagon staffers are scratching their heads, at least according to conversations I have had with defense analysts and planners. The president of the United States has asked them to come up with a military plan to strike Syria with apparently no strategic objective in mind, no exit strategy, and no serious blueprint for wider war should the operation go awry. No wonder the U.S. public is so confused and allies in the region are so nervous.
What U.S. President Barack Obama does have is a vague intent to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons and deter him from using them again. This objective would have been perfectly reasonable and achievable had Obama not also specifically instructed the U.S. military to preserve the al-Assad regime and calibrate the strike so as to avoid any response from al-Assad that could drag the United States into a broader conflict in the Middle East. Talk about threading the needle.
There are numerous unknowns – both domestic and regional – that could shred Obama’s plan to pieces. But there are also some things that are anyway bound to increase the risks of escalation, regardless of how limited Obama wants the strike to be: al-Assad is fighting for his life, which makes him erratic; Syria is a chemical powder keg; al Qaeda’s affiliates are the strongest anti-Assad forces on the battlefield; and the civil war has effectively turned into a regional proxy war, the outcome of which will impact the strategic interests of U.S. adversaries Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
But don’t waste your time trying to call for a reset of this administration’s approach toward Syria. Obama seems intent on pursuing military action on the cheap to restore some of his credibility vis-à-vis his adversaries. With so little clarity and strategic guidance from the president, it is now solely up to the U.S. military to bail the commander-in-chief out and prevent the worst from happening.
To reduce the chances of things spinning out of control following U.S. military action, Obama has telegraphed his intentions to al-Assad (and to the Syrian president’s allies). The administration even specified to Syria the primary weapon of choice: sea-launched cruise missiles. Rarely in the history of warfare do you see such an unambiguous transfer of critical information specifying end and means from the attacker to the defender. Even traditional arms controllers would be puzzled by the level of transparency that Obama has exhibited. But judged against the president’s stated objective, which is to deliver a shot across the bow, this approach, while bizarre and counterintuitive, has been rational (although al-Assad or his allies could still miscalculate).
So what could a U.S. military strike accomplish? And what are the risks of going after the wrong targets or shooting too hard?
Regime buildings. Obama could punish al-Assad by destroying his Defense or Interior Ministry, Air Force Intelligence Directorate or other key government, military and intelligence facilities. But by now, it is assumed that many of these buildings have been emptied and (at least senior) staffers have relocated. True, the strikes could still degrade the regime’s ability to hold large meetings and coordinate policy and strategy, but destroying the regime’s central facilities carries some risks. For example, such facilities are considered powerful symbols of the regime, and their destruction could leave al-Assad humiliated and tempted to retaliate.
Regime leadership. If U.S. strikes end up killing leading regime figures, the repressive capacity of the Syrian government could be severely damaged. However, the death of relatives and/or close associates could reduce al-Assad’s incentive to head to the negotiating table. After all, the regime is very much a family affair, and al-Assad might react brutally if his hot-tempered brother Maher, who heads both the Republican Guard and the army's elite Fourth Armored Division, is killed. While all regime figures have blood on their hands and should be held accountable for their crimes, some might be more inclined than others to reach a political deal when things start falling apart. Systematic elimination of all Syrian regime figures by the United States would hurt U.S. policy.
Command and control centers. “I like to say that without communications, all I control is my desk, and that is not a very lethal weapon,” U.S. General T.S. Power reportedly said way back in May 1959. In war, the first thing an attacker wants to strike is his opponent’s command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) capabilities, with a view to isolating the other side’s forces.
But if the U.S. military wipes out the C3I network of the Syrian military (most likely it could not with just cruise missiles), there is a real chance of the situation escalating. Under attack and unable to communicate and coordinate with the central leadership, Syrian commanders on the ground could resort to extreme measures if cornered, such as launching chemical weapons. Therefore, if and when the United States strikes, whatever chance of averting escalation to chemical weapon use could depend on the continuous flow of Syrian communications. Finally, widespread destruction of Syrian C3I could reduce the likelihood of early conflict termination if al-Assad strikes back and war erupts, because it would impede transmission of any cease-fire order.
Chemical weapons sites. Given the tremendous risks, it bears repeating that the last target the United States wants to strike is chemical weapons sites. Hitting such targets could cause massive air contamination and lead to the deaths of many of the civilians that the United States is supposed to be trying to defend (cruise missiles, while highly accurate, do not have the incendiary capability to destroy the poisonous substance). This problem is exacerbated by the fact that chemical weapons are in some cases believed to be stored close to densely populated areas.
So what is left for the United States to hit? Given the president’s limited operational aim, the most logical targets to go after should be purely military in nature. If Obama wants to achieve deterrence by denial, he has to degrade al-Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons (something noted in the latest Senate resolution on Syria). The targets for such a mission are the delivery systems his regime has available, such as aircraft, artillery, rockets, missiles and ground transportation vehicles.
The problem is that effective destruction of delivery systems would require a more comprehensive military campaign, and a maximalist objective, which is the defeat or surrender of al-Assad’s army, something not currently in the cards. True, Obama could target al-Assad’s land forces, including tank units, armored brigades, supply depots and possibly some nodes in its sophisticated but redundant air defense system. But absent clear strategic guidance, effective targeting and tactical military action becomes extremely challenging.
Ultimately, there is no way to know for sure whether al-Assad will be deterred in the future, how he prizes his military assets, and how much he is willing to absorb the hits without hitting back in some fashion. By now we know that he wants to survive and cling to power, and so the fact that his choices are even worse than those confronting the Obama administration might be of some comfort to the United States.
Still, when the U.S. is confronted by a foe whose behavior has caused the death of more than 100,000 of his own people and the displacement of millions, it is hard to be confident exactly what he might do next.