The PJ Tatler

Military Officers Warn Against Syria Strike

Count former and current military officers among those who are skeptical of a strike on Syria.

“There’s a broad naivete in the political class about America’s obligations in foreign policy issues, and scary simplicity about the effects that employing American military power can achieve,” said retired Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold, who served as director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the run-up to the Iraq war, noting that many of his contemporaries are alarmed by the plan.

Marine Lt. Col. Gordon Miller, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, warned this week of “potentially devastating consequences, including a fresh round of chemical weapons attacks and a military response by Israel.”

“If President Asadwere to absorb the strikes and use chemical weapons again, this would be a significant blow to the United States’ credibility and it would be compelled to escalate the assault on Syria to achieve the original objectives,” Miller wrote in a commentary for the think tank.

Still, many in the military are skeptical. Getting drawn into the Syrian war, they fear, could distract the Pentagon in the midst of a vexing mission: its exit from Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are still being killed regularly. A young Army officer who is wrapping up a year-long tour there said soldiers were surprised to learn about the looming strike, calling the prospect “very dangerous.”

“I can’t believe the president is even considering it,” said the officer, who like most officers interviewed for this story agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because military personnel are reluctant to criticize policymakers while military campaigns are being planned. “We have been fighting the last 10 years a counterinsurgency war. Syria has modern weaponry. We would have to retrain for a conventional war.”

The “just muscular enough not to be mocked” strike is extremely unlikely to achieve any US foreign policy goal. And that’s supposing that it is undertaken with any real goal in mind. At the moment, no strategic goal is apparent other than re-establishing the “red line,” somehow.

US forces won’t be striking with the aim of killing Assad or toppling his regime. They won’t be striking his actual chemical weapons depots, out of fear that the introduction of high explosives would just spread the poisons among the population and even outside Syria’s borders. So we’re left with striking to “punish” Assad, but he will survive the punishment because he is not a target. He will then claim to have “defeated” the United States. If he is feeling especially defiant he will display some dead mothers and children and accuse us of killing them. As Lt. Col. Miller points out, Assad’s survival and propaganda victory could lead to an escalation on our part to “punish” Assad even more. But without killing him.

Assad is in a fight for his own survival. He knows as well as anyone that what happened to Gaddafi will happen to him if he loses the war. There is not much we can do to alter the behavior of a brute whose back is against the wall. If we punish him too little, we look weak. If we punish him too much, we may end up swapping his brand of despotism out for al Qaeda’s. The enemy of our enemy is still our enemy in Syria.

Additionally, President Obama has managed to isolate himself from Congress so far, and is certainly isolated from the allies at this point. The British aren’t coming. The Germans and French are backing away. How is it that the United States, not Syria, stands alone on this?