Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey waits to be seated during the Senate Armed Services Committee reconfirmation hearing on July 18, 2013. Department of Defense Photo
How far the United States should go in supporting the Syrian opposition, and just what the role of the Chairman (and Vice Chairman) of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in formulating that strategy should be, dominated the sometimes testy re-confirmation hearing of Gen. Martin Dempsey and Adm. James Winnefeld on 18 July.
Dempsey’s re-confirmation is not assured. A key member of the panel—Arizona Republican John McCain—was so upset by Dempsey’s answers on Syria that he threatened to put a hold on the nomination. The chairman of the committee offered a possible compromise to get the nomination for a second Dempsey term back on track. Winnefeld did not come under that kind of scrutiny. Read More
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a vocal advocate for more U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict, is right about at least one thing—a victory for President Bashar al-Assad is a victory for his allies in Iran.
McCain is wrong on many other accounts, most notably the assumption that a more favorable outcome can be achieved if the United States plays a more heavy-handed role in the conflict: history shows that to be false. Read More
From the July, 1 2013 Congressional Research Service report: Syria’s Chemical Weapons:
Issues for Congress:
The use or loss of control of chemical weapons stocks in Syria could have unpredictable consequences for the Syrian population and neighboring countries as well as U.S. allies and forces in the region. Congress may wish to assess the Administration’s plans to respond to possible scenarios involving the use, change of hands, or loss of control of Syrian chemical weapons. Read More
Free Syrian Army fighters. Reuters Photo
As the United States begins providing arms to Syrian rebels , it enters an increasingly complex arena of arms-trafficking and proxy warfare. The highly factionalized Syrian rebellion and the combined third-party actors supporting it—often with competing aims—mean U.S. attempts to shape the Syrian conflict through military support will depend not simply on American resources and intentions, but the dynamics of the civil war and the network of actors that facilitates its logistics. With the U.S. role in Syrian arms-trafficking shifting from one of restraint to one of support, the difficulties encountered in producing viable political outcomes in Syria are likely to persist. Read More
After years of debate and increased involvement in the training and logistical support of Syrian rebel forces, the U.S. government authorized the CIA to begin directly arming opponents of the Bashar al Assad regime. Casualties from Syria’s civil war already number at least 93,000 according to some sources, and millions of Syrians are now refugees or internally displaced.
Meanwhile, the United States now confirms that Syria used chemical weapons in a number of instances, at a small scale that many fear may escalate. Chemical-weapons use provided rhetorical justification to this policy decision, but is not the entire reality of the matter. Internal pressure and Free Syrian Army leadership’s refusal to participate in a new round of negotiations at Geneva without U.S. weapons played a major role. Unfortunately for the United States and the administration, neither the known particulars of the U.S. plan, nor the concept of providing arms to rebel forces generally, appears likely to turn the war’s tide or secure lasting U.S. influence in Syria. Read More
Syrian protestors asking for a no-fly zone in 2011. European Pressphoto Agency
With the human toll mounting, the United States getting more involved in training, aid, and arms transfers, and continued calls for intervention, U.S. policymakers are grappling with the administration’s relatively non-interventionist stance on Syria. U.S. concerns about the increasing power of jihadist groups within rebel ranks, the possibility of loose chemical weapons, and the overarching desire to shorten the conflict remain. How has the course of events changed the logic of a no-fly zone, or intervention to secure chemical weapons? Read More
A Project 775 ship. DoD Photo
Early in the summer of 2012, a number of international observers got very worked up about Russia’s plan to dispatch half a dozen warships to the eastern Mediterranean. It sounded like some sort of escalation of an already awful situation, and even the most optimistic analyses noted that having a bunch of old, leaky Russian ships in an active war zone clearly was not ideal. Read More
Lebanon is one of the few Middle Eastern countries left that hasn’t been thrown into turmoil by the “Arab Spring.”
But with Syria next door, that may not last long.
Lebanon’s northern urban hub, Tripoli, has long been on the edge of stability. But now that it’s both a destination for Syrian refugees and potentially a rear base for Syrian rebels it has fallen into tit-for-tat killings and urban warfare.
On Monday last week, the city was quiet with tension, and cars were backed up as far as the eye could see at military checkpoints.
At the Citadel, a formidable medieval fort that is normally one of Tripoli’s biggest tourist destinations, there was hardly a foreign soul to be seen. Asked why attendance was so light, the government ticket-seller there mumbled, “Syria.”
In the three days following, according to press reports, at least 10 people were killed— most gunned down by snipers on the aptly named Syria Street, which divides a Sunni – Muslim neighborhood from an Alawite one.
In July, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Mullalem declared that Syria’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons would go unused in its civil war – unless a foreign power chose to intervene. The threat constituted a rare confirmation of the regime’s unconventional arsenal. The declaration raised serious concerns about U.S. policies in the event the regime did use its chemical or biological weapons. President Obama stated this would constitute a “red line” with “enormous consequences” that would alter calculations for military actions.
Given the various risks concerned with the proliferation or use of unconventional weapons, particularly chemical weapons, understanding the scope and requirements of potential military missions is essential. The first major consideration is whether U.S. and potential allied military strikes would focus on destroying, deterring, or securing Syrian weapons stocks. While a deterrent threat can be made without any military deployment, destroying Syrian weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would require airstrikes and special operations teams. A mission to secure Syria’s WMDs would likely be the most costly and dangerous of all, as it would likely involve tens of thousands of foreign ground troops, perhaps as many as 75,000, according to at least one press report.
A sailor from the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 11, adjusts his Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) gear during a simulated chemical agent attack during a field training exercise in 2008. U.S. Navy Photo
A mission to destroy Syrian chemical weapons stocks could perform a preventive, preemptive or mitigating measure. Effectively degrading the entire arsenal would likely require an extremely wide target set. Syria has roughly 50 sites involved in manufacturing or storing chemical weapons. Its arsenal consists of G and V-series nerve agents, which block neurotransmitters, causing convulsions and death through loss of respiratory control, as well as blistering agents, whose chemical burns restrict respiration and form large, painful blisters on the skin. Both are absorbable through the lungs or skin, requiring a full body suit for adequate protection. Between Syria’s VX, Sarin, and Tabun nerve agents, and its mustard gas blistering agents, this totals to several hundred tons of chemical agents stockpiled for combat use.
As the Syrian civil war escalates and expands, policy makers are increasingly examining proposals to patrol “safe,” “liberated,” or “buffer zones” with military aircraft. Creating safe zones, Turkish officials have argued, could relieve human suffering and hasten the fall of the Assad regime without a more costly direct intervention. Ubiquitous in Western interventions since Operation Provide Comfort in postwar Iraq, and infamous in the Balkan wars of the mid-1990s, safe zones once again appear a straightforward solution to an intractable conflict. Yet the strategic and logistical details present serious challenges. Despite the relatively easy execution of a safe zone around Benghazi in Libya, a comparable effort to protect besieged cities in Syria would be much more costly and difficult.
A previous post outlined the significant aerial and maritime demands for creating a no-fly zone, which would be a prerequisite to creating a safe zone over any part of Syria. Inadequate suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) would be problematic enough for air superiority fighters enforcing a no-fly zone, but would be even more threatening for aircraft performing ground interdiction strikes.
Despite the prominence of attack helicopters and combat jets in discussions of the Syrian conflict, destroying Syrian air power is unlikely to be either decisive overall or sufficient to defend safe zones.
The success of the Libyan air intervention is a historical anomaly. In 1993, NATO’s Deny Flight no-fly zone over Bosnia failed to deter ground forces from attacking designated safe areas, eventually requiring ground bombardment and, more importantly, a massive Croatian ground offensive to defeat Serbian forces. In Iraq after the Gulf War, no-fly zones and years of punitive bombardments did not dissuade Saddam Hussein from repeatedly launching ground attacks into Shia and Kurdish areas. In Libya, it was rapidly obvious that destroying the Libyan ground threat to Benghazi, not simply its air force, was necessary to defend safe zones.