White House Says Still Fact-Finding Reported Chemical Weapons Use, and Weighing Military Options

According to an August 24, 2013, Washington Post article entitled, “White House Says Still Fact-Finding Reported Chemical Weapons Use, US Forces Toward Syria,” US President Barack Obama received a detailed review of requested options for the US and its international partners to use against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, if the fact-finding process concludes it engaged in deadly chemical warfare.  The White House was quoted as stating Obama discussed the situation in Syria with British Prime Minister David Cameron.  It was said to be Obama’s first known conversation with a foreign leader about Syria since the report that hundreds of Syrians had been killed by an alleged chemical attack in a Damascus suburb.  The Assad’s regime denies the claims.  It has warned the US against taking military action, stating such a step would “set the Middle East ablaze.”

The August 24th, Washington Post article also reported that US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated that the Obama had asked the Pentagon to prepare military options for Syria but declined to discuss specific force movements.  However, certain Defense Department officials, speaking under the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss ship movements publicly revealed that the US Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles in the Mediterranean Sea, but without immediate orders for any missile launch against Syria.  As the Washington Post article explained, the Navy warships in the Mediterranean were capable of a variety of military actions, to include launching Tomahawk cruise missiles as they did against Libya in 2011.  Hagel was also quoted as saying, “The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for contingencies and that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options—whatever options the president might choose.”

While the chemical attack issue is urgent, and military action of some type is most likely, Obama’s national security team’s meeting on August 24th was perhaps similar to many others in which they discussed contingencies for Syria..  Options for intervention in Syria have been continuously considered at the highest-levels of the Pentagon since the civil war there began, and at times they have been outlined publicly.  Most recently, in a letter to Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel of New York, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, presented a concept and intent behind possible military action in Syria and its likely sequalae.  A month prior, in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dempsey discussed the matter in greater detail, presenting options and their likely costs.  On the one hand, since Obama set a red-line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and Assad’s regime has decided to cross it apparently more than once, US credibility is at stake.  Any military effort should have a sound educational impact on Assad and promote US credibility globally.  However, any military strikes against Syria should in some way promote US policy goals of supporting the opposition and prompting President Assad’s departure.  Perhaps military action at this juncture should not be limited attacks against the Assad’s regime.  Conceivably, it could include a covert effort in support of mainstream elements against extremist, yet effective, Islamic militant groups fighting in Syria that are adverse to Syria’s transition to a democratic government.  Such an effort just might allow the US and its allies to stop treading water, shape events in Syria, and get their efforts moving forward.

Military Options Presented By the Pentagon

Dempsey’s letter to Congressman Eliot Engel, dated August 19, 2013, has been used by policy experts such as Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, to glean insight into the Obama Administration’s thinking on military action in Syria.  The letter was written in response to a correspondence from the Congressman regarding the resources required and the risk of applying US military force against the Assad regime.  Dempsey explained “there were certainly actions short of tipping the balance of the conflict” in favor of the opposition that could “impose a cost on Assad’s regime for unacceptable behavior.”  Yet, he made it clear that using military force to change the balance “cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious, and tribal issues that are fueling the conflict.”  Dempsey expressed that the crisis in Syria was “tragic and complex.  He called it a deeply rooted, long-term conflict among multiple factions and violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s role ends.”  To that extent, Dempsey noted, “The effectiveness of limited military options must be evaluated in this context.”

However, Dempsey’s letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee, to which he referred in his letter to Congressman Engel, and which was reported on by Reuters on July 22, 2013, provided an unclassified assessment of the options for using U.S. military force in the Syrian conflict.  According to General Dempsey, the options provided, developed in consultation with the Joint Chiefs and the US Central Command, would likely further the narrow military objective of helping the opposition and placing more pressure on the regime.  Even at that time, Dempsey explained, “We have learned from the past 10 years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action.”

Dempsey went on to reveal that training, advising and assisting the opposition, which could include weapons training, tactical planning and intelligence and logistics assistance, would cost an estimated $500 million a year.  Limited stand-off strikes, using air and missile strikes to attack Syrian air defenses, military forces and command structure to damage the Assad government’s ability to wage war, Dempsey claimed, could cost a billion dollars a month and risk retaliatory strikes and civilian casualties.  Dempsey stated that establishing a no-fly zone would require hundreds of strike aircraft and support units. The cost could be a billion dollars a month and would risk the loss of US planes while potentially failing to reduce violence because Syria relies mainly on surface arms rather than air power.  Establishing buffer zones, Dempsey explained, would mean the use force to create and maintain safe zones inside Syria where the opposition could train and organize while being protected from attack by government forces. He stated the cost would be over a billion dollars a month and could improve opposition capabilities over time, but the zones, themselves, could become targets for Syrian attack.  Directly on the point of controlling chemical weapons, Dempsey stated that lethal force could be used to prevent proffer proliferation of chemical weapons and to destroy Syria’s “massive stockpile” of the weapons. However, at that time, he explained the option would require hundreds of aircraft as well as personnel on the ground and could cost over a billion dollars per month.  Clearly, these military options are not quick and easy and would dramatically increase US costs and risk of loss in Syria.  Yet, the guaranteed party to incur costs and loss will be the Assad’s regime. 

The US Military Can Still Act Decisively in Syria

Any attack on Assad’s forces whether to destroy his chemical weapons stockpiles or degrade his command and control capabilities will have a significant impact on their capabilities.  In an effort not to shift the balance, the key would be not to act decisively against his forces.  During the 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya, Operation Unified Protector, decisive use of airpower and cruise missile strikes against the forces of Muammar Qaddafi, supporting the movement of rebel forces with tactical support and attacks in depth, resulted in the overthrow of Qaddafi’s regime.  During the 1995 NATO-led intervention in Bosnia, Operation Urgent Fury, decisive use of airpower and cruise missile strikes against Bosnian Serb forces around Sarajevo and throughout the country, facilitated the movement of Muslim and Croat forces of the Bosnian Federation.  Limiting strikes to a degree that will prevent them from having a decisive impact while being sufficient enough to achieve the desire effect upon the Assad forces will not be easy.  However, perhaps at this juncture, failing to act decisively in Syria, and that does not mean acting solely against Assad’s forces, would be a mistake.  What would be best effect of the military action in Syria would be to create opportunities for the US to pursue more than one political goal in Syria.

Islamic militant factions continue to impede US efforts to support the Free Syrian Army, the loose knit umbrella organization of around 1200 groups, which is the fighting force of the Syrian opposition’s military wing, the Supreme Military Council.  The more powerful Islamic militant factions such as the foreign fighter laden Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), the new Syria based affiliate of Al-Qaida and the well-armed, mostly Syrian, Al-Nusra Front, are not directed toward a transition in Syria to a democratic form of government.  Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS, not necessarily the best of friends, may have done the bulk of the fighting and account for the most of the Free Syrian Army’s successes, however, the group would be unable to cooperate with mainstream Free Syrian Army units in a postwar Syria.  Further, Islamic militant factions, particularly ISIS, have continued to abuse and kill Syrian citizens, and intensified their attacks upon mainstream Free Syrian Army groups and Kurdish groups.  As long as Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria, their numbers and capabilities will reach a point where the mainstream forces would no longer be able to contend with them.  

Purging rogue Islamic militants factions, the US and its allies could halt the deterioration of the Free Syrian Army, allow for the proper organize its remaining groups as a military force, permit unit cohesion and coordination to develop between units, improve their fighting capabilities, and let their combat power to be enhanced with better arms.  As it was explained on greatcharlie.com in its July 11, 2013 post “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” the Obama administration would inevitably need to do more than meet its promise to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons and ammunition.  Only by intervening covertly in support of mainstream elements against Islamic militant factions would mainstream Free Syrian Army groups ever have a chance of being positioned to defeat Assad’s forces.  In a July 20, 2013, the New York Times report, this view expressed by greatcharlie.com, was echoed by David R. Shedd, the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.   Shedd pointed to the resurgence of the Islamic militant factions, noting that “Over the last two years they’ve grown in size, they’ve grown in capability, and ruthlessly have grown in effectiveness.” He further stated, “The reality is that, left unchecked, they will become bigger.”  Shedd suggested that in addition to strengthening the more secular groups of the fractious Syrian opposition the West would have to directly confront more radical Islamist elements. Shedd did not say how that could be accomplished.  

Likely Outcome of Purge

Rogue Islamic militant factions would be relatively defenseless against the type of airstrikes and missile strikes that could be used against them.  Unlike airstrikes against the Assad regime, the risk of loss to the US and its allies in attacks against them would be low.  The vetting process in which the Central Intelligence Agency and its regional counterparts have been engaged to support the delivery of arms and supplies to appropriate groups of the Free Syrian Army by now should allow the US to determine friend from foe.  As discussed in the July 11, 2013 greatcharlie.com post, “Opposition in Syria Continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option For Its Allies,” Central Intelligence Agency officers and operatives and special operations forces, with Free Syrian Army commanders at their side, have undoubtedly interviewed locals and quietly gained granular information on the Islamic militant groups including the size of specific units, the locations of its fighters, the backgrounds of individual fighters and commanders, unit capabilities, and its combat and nonlethal resources.  Islamic groups that seek to work with mainstream groups have most likely been identified and an effort has been made by the Central Intelligence Agency to establish a rapport with them.  An effort has also most likely been made to support those groups and place them under the leadership of the Free Syrian Army.  The whereabouts and activities of Islamic militant groups hostile to the concept and intent of the Syrian opposition, and identified as having attacked mainstream Free Syrian Army fighters, are well-known by Central Intelligence Agency.  Special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance means very likely has kept track of them.  Leaders, arms, supply lines and depots, and financial support have most likely been identified.  All entry points of Islamic militants have also most likely been identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance.

Any contingency plans or new plans for conducting Free Syrian Army operations without the targeted Islamic militant groups could be put into effect.  Sufficient numbers of new mainstream fighters must be trained, equipped and fielded to cover any gaps created by the Islamic militant groups that would be removed from Free Syrian Army controlled territory.  The Central Intelligence Agency could request to have its efforts, and those of US Special Operations teams, further supported by allied intelligence and special operations forces.  The rapid and robust training and equipping of the Free Syrian Army in which the US would prefer to be engaged, could be conducted.

Assessment

If Assad has sought refuge in a bunker at some undisclosed location, he should not check out any time soon.  Military action of some type is certainly coming his way.  To have a sound educational impact on his regime, the US does not need to act decisively against Syrian forces.  True, as a result of an attack, the regime’s military capabilities will be greatly damaged, but those forces would still be able to fight.  Moreover, it is very likely that Russia and Iran would mitigate the effects of most damage, outside of replacing his chemical weapons capabilities and stockpiles, which would be in their interests.  Russia might replace destroyed and damages weapons systems and send in “civilian technicians” to to train Assad’s troops to use them.  Iran might go as far as to reinforce Assad’s forces in the field with additional Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps or Iranian Army units.  Moreover, It is possible that the full power and capabilities of the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies might finally be brought to bear on the Free Syrian Army in a large scale offensive, potentially overwhelming it.  That would certainly mean the end of the effort to promote a “gentler look” for Syria and its allies, evinced by arguments made by Russia, portraying Syria as the victim of European leaders “fuelling the fires of war” and “provocations.”

While the US and its allies may still choose not to act decisively against Assad, it can seize this opportunity to act decisively in following with its policy goals in Syria by striking against rogue Islamic militant factions that effectively have thwarted its efforts.  (Striking against rogue Islamic militant factions in Syria may also meet US Counterterrorism policy goals, as Al-Qaida and its affiliates are still at war with the US.)  Foreign fighters attempting to go into Syria to join certain Islamic militant units may find them displaced, reduced, or destroyed.  That may have a sound educational impact on them.  Intervening covertly on the side of mainstream elements against Islamic militant groups would literally emancipate the Free Syrian Army freed from the pressures the rogue Islamic factions placed on the organization. A renewed effort could be made to train and equip its members.  The possibility of the Syria’s transition to a democratic form of government would be greatly enhanced.  US policy would be on track.  In the region, providing this “helping hand” to the Free Syrian Army would prove the US to be a reliable ally to such movements as the Syrian opposition.  With civilian deaths well exceeding 100,000 as a result of the conflict, the Syrian opposition must be allowed to get on with its task and end this conflict.  This is the moment to act.  Time is of the essence.

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