Hussein Ibish

Go Strategic in Syria

The upcoming American military action in Syria, anticipated in Kerry's speech yesterday, should be strategic, not tactical

Obama at a press conference.

Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday left no doubt that the United States is preparing to act, in a significant military way, in Syria. "President Obama," he said, "believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny."


For many of us, it has been a long time coming. But we have steadfastly insisted that intervention in Syria was required and inevitable. The question now is, will it be tactical or strategic?


For too long it has been tempting to think that the Obama administration has essentially viewed Syria as a secondary issue – a subset of either the U.S.-Russia or U.S.-Iran files. While caution is always justified, neither perspective was defensible.


Kerry laid out a clear moral and political vision that leaves the United States with no choice but to act decisively to stop the use of the "world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people."


When, early in the second Obama term, the United States finally decided to provide nonlethal aid to rebel groups in Syria I called for some "good, old-fashioned American mission creep." That aid wasn't ever going to be enough. And now, American military action in Syria of some kind is a virtual fait accompli.


But it is far from clear what – apart from stopping the use of chemical weapons – the broader strategy is. This could simply prove a tactical, limited intervention designed to prevent the use of internationally banned weapons and punish the Syrian government, again in some limited ways, for having used them.


This would, of course, have a significant impact on the war. The Syrian military will be hit and, presumably, deprived of its ability to use some of its most appalling lethal weapons. But if it is limited to that, it will hardly be decisive. Indeed, despite the blow to the Syrian government and military, it's far from clear that this would have a major strategic impact on the balance of power on the ground between the rebels and the government – or among rebels themselves, for that matter.


But the United States would be well advised to avoid limiting its intervention to a tactical, chemical weapons based, approach. Instead, whatever is done under this rubric should be part of a broader effort to shift the strategic balance on the ground away from both the odious family-led Mafia regime in Damascus and the despicable, bloodthirsty Salafist-Jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, and in favor of the groups like the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army led by General Salim Idriss.


This process, though underreported, is already well underway on the ground in the south, where, unsurprisingly, the recent chemical attacks occurred, It has been amply described by Michael WeissElizabeth O’Bagy, and Thomas Pierret, among others. Such strategic intervention would require coordination with allies such as France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey along multiple fronts. It would mean providing not only much more sophisticated weapons and intelligence, but also training, and command and control capability for the FSA.


This would probably from the outset, or by additional "mission creep," lead to the creation of safe areas and no-fly zones, certainly in the south, and possibly the north as well.


Most importantly, the intervention should focus on weakening the regime's most potent strategic advantage: its airpower. Above all, the systematic destruction of airbases and major landing fields under the control of the regime would dramatically shift the ability of Iran and Russia to supply men and materiel to the Damascus dictatorship.


As things stand, it's possible that the Obama administration is acting mainly out of moral and legal outrage, as eloquently expressed by Kerry. If so, I would both urge, and cautiously predict, additional "mission creep" of the kind that took us from belatedly providing lethal aid to being on the brink of unavoidable direct military intervention.


Tactical intervention against chemical weapons-related resources is a good start. But it's not enough. A strategic intervention designed to shift the balance of power on the ground – away from both the regime and the more extreme rebel groups – and toward more nationalist, rational, and acceptable rebel forces is required.


Everything is in place. It may not happen, or be obvious, right away. But if the United States is to finally abandon, however reluctantly, what has heretofore been a fundamentally risk-averse, reactive policy that has allowed other, entirely malevolent, forces to shape realities on the ground in Syria, a genuine, coordinated strategic intervention is required.


The time to act decisively is now. Both the Damascus regime and the extremist rebels simultaneously must be outmaneuvered, thwarted and defeated. This will require real, courageous American leadership.

Obama at a press conference this August. (AFP photo)

"Tactical intervention against chemical weapons-related resources is a good start. But it's not enough."

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    For an insight into Ibish's metamorphosis from a staunch Syrian regime defender and an opponent of any attempt by the US administration to hold the regime accountable (circa 2003), to an anti-Syrian zealot begging the American administration to invade Syria and topple the Assad regime (2013), just read: http://www.adc.org/media/press-releases/2003/september-2003/adc-oped-voting-on-an-ominous-future-for-syria/ Please read the details of his obfuscation in 2003 on Syria's stockpiles of Sarin nerve gas, his mocking of all those who were right (while he was wrong) to hold the Syrian regime then (before it became too late as is the case today), his blaming the neoconservatives for their aggressive stance against Syria as "Israel-driven" (which might be applied to him today), etc... A complete metamorphosis of this "Arab-American" now proudly begging today's "pro-Arab" Democratic administration of Obama to go to war against an Arab country. Treachery, duplicity, lack of principles, hatred of America so deep as to want to push another generation of Americans into the Syrian trap...

    September 14, 2013

  • richard.rittenburg

    I think they should damage the airfields in northwest from aleppo-turkey west to the coastal corridor. The airfields should be damaged with intent to ruin runways for jets take off and landing. Then provide rebels forces with short and medium range missiles to shoot down any helicopters. This will establish a defacto no-fly zone away from from both al queda and hezzbollah influences. Giving up the ability to control such a strategic area is a price too heavy for regime. It will make them regret chemical weapons far more than any amount of buildings or soldiers.

    August 28, 2013

  • jack.barker.351

    Except for a few advisers, weapons trainers and a handful of special ops personnel, there will NOT be American boots on Syrian ground. Strategically, the US will effectively blind the Syrian military, and take away their ability to deploy large weaponry, whether of the conventional variety, or otherwise. This will be done by destroying airfields, radar, missile & artillery sites, and command & control centers. And they feel they have to do this while minimizing collateral damage to civilian areas and Syrian military personnel alike. What they will NOT do, is engage Syrian infantry directly. Nor will they engage Hezbollah (and similar) brigades, but I am certain they will attempt to disrupt/destroy their lines of communication and supply; a task easier said, than done. This is a tightrope act for the US, as they will not want to engage Iran in any way, nor engage in anything that could be seen as 'overkill.' Since the Syrian military does not have a massively upper hand in this conflict – rebel groups have made great advances, and perhaps more importantly and against all odds, toughed it out – this US leveling of the playing field should be enough to ensure an opposition victory.

    August 27, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    "I would both urge, and cautiously predict, additional "mission creep" of the kind that took us from belatedly providing lethal aid to being on the brink of unavoidable direct military intervention." DIRECT MILITARY INTERVENTION BY THE US is precisely what Hussein Ibish's and others' laments against the US have been for the past 3 years. Arab and Muslim pundits, largely on the pay of Saudi Arabia, want a direct boots-on-the-ground American intervention in Syria for the following two sequential purposes: 1- to force the balance of power against Assad and in favor of radical extremist Sunni terrorists (despite the vehement pre-emptive propositions by Inish), then in a second stage 2- to establish a Sunni-led government with the accoutrements of a Muslim Brotherhood-like rule at best, or a Taliban-like rule at worst. While Mr. Ibish would publicly disagree with that second proposition, the likelihood - once on the ground - that US and allied troops would make the inevitable mistakes of the sort we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan is very high, thus providing fodder for the anti-American, anti-Western mindset that is constitutive in the minds of Ibish and his like. Give the US intervention a couple of years for those mistakes to materialize, then use them as an excuse to turn the anti-Western, anti-American vitriol spigot on, and BINGO! We got the naive Americans to intervene, but we will not reward them or thank them because deep down we hate them and we will not tolerate them on Arab-ISlamic land. That has been the history of Western interventions in the Arab world, and that history will - yet again - repeat itself. There should be no boots on the ground in any US Intervention in Syria. PERIOD.

    August 27, 2013