The recent Israeli airstrikes in Syria, through which the Israeli Air Force appears to target weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah, provoked an important debate among those concerned about a U.S. military intervention in Syria. Given the prominence of concerns about the requirements of establishing air superiority over Syria not simply from civilians such as myself, but from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should the IAF’s successful raids prompt us to recant some of our skepticism?
CFR’s Steven Cook recently wondered why there was such contrast between a reluctant U.S. military and a daring Israeli one, asking:
Why does it seem that Israel’s air force can penetrate Syria’s alleged superior air defense network at will and with impunity, but whenever the idea of using American and allied air forces to help the rebellion comes up, the Syrians are 10 feet tall?
Undoubtedly some commentary and analysis has exaggerated the Syrian air defenses. While dense and certainly more modern and comprehensive than Libya’s relatively dilapidated Integrated Air Defense System (IADS), they are hardly insurmountable. However, simply because something is operationally feasible does not make it strategically wise. Strategy is not simply the sum of tactical possibilities. What matters, when assessing Syria’s military is what kind of costs and obstacles it poses for the objectives we want to undertake. Can our tactical and operational capabilities deliver us strategic results in proportion with the risks and costs?
Before I begin, I would like to note that Cook is absolutely correct that there’s no reason to exclude him from the conversation simply because he does not have military experience or a background in strategic studies or related technical knowledge. However, I do think civilians such as myself writing about the feasibility of military operations do have some obligation to engage thoroughly with discussions about capabilities. If we’re interested in answering why the Israelis conduct raids with impunity but the U.S. is worried about imposing an NFZ, we need to thoroughly examine the numerous military considerations and not simply questions about political willpower. Cook believes arguments such as mine and MIT PhD candidate Brian Haggerty’s boil down to five contentions, the first four of which he finds unconvincing “in whole or in part.”
1) Israel’s brief incursions are different from the sustained campaign the United States—and presumably allies—would have to undertake to establish a no-fly zone (NFZ) in Syria.
2) Israel’s missions have been on the “periphery” of Syria and have never had to contend with the dense network of air defenses in and around major population centers.
3) The Assad regime has placed air defenses within population centers, putting both Syrian civilians and American aviators at risk during any air campaign.
4) Intervention in Syria would be costly and detract from the U.S. military’s ability to conduct operations in other areas.
5) Syria is complicated and military intervention may not help the situation; in fact, it might make the situation for Syrians a good deal worse.
Cook’s objection to the first is that just because the U.S.’s imposition of an NFZ would be more complex and comprehensive than Israeli raids in 2003 on Islamic Jihad, 2007 on the Deir ez-Zor nuclear facility, and the three airstrikes since the beginning of the Syrian civil war (as well as he 2003 and 2006 overflights of Assad palaces), “does not mean the United States should not or cannot prevent Assad’s forces from flying.” That is true, but examining how different these operations would be is necessary to understand why Israeli strikes should not change the calculus of an NFZ.
First, let’s address the nature of the recent Israeli strikes. Several sources report that the attack targeting Syrian surface-to-surface missiles, possibly destined for Hezbollah, came from munitions launched over Lebanese airspace. The January attack on a shipment of SA-17 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) came from aircraft traveling over Lebanese airspace, although they may have briefly penetrated Syria. The most recent attack, supposedly conducted with “rockets,” likely used a similar model of avoiding or only briefly penetrating Syrian airspace, particularly if the IAF used an air-to-surface missile such as the Popeye (although “lofting” guided bombs could achieve similar results).
The point here is that the IAF is engaging ground targets with stand-off weaponry. Because they have extremely limited target sets located near the fringes of Syrian airspace, Israel can target them without the need to destroy Syrian air defenses, let alone achieve persistent air superiority. This relates to Cook’s refutation of the second generic talking point about Israeli air strikes, that they were at the “periphery.” As Cook rightly points out, Latakia is not at the periphery of Syrian air defense capability. Israeli over-flights of Assad’s summer residence, however, were conducted at extremely low altitude and supersonic speeds, and because Latakia is on the coast, Israel could conduct most of the operation from international airspace with the brief exception of over-flying the palace itself, significantly reducing the window of practical and political vulnerability to Syrian air defenses. As for the Israeli airstrike in Deir ez-Zor, like all these other raids, its goal was to minimize windows of vulnerability through an extremely limited target set, minimal sorties at high speed and low altitude, in addition to the relatively novel and extensive use of electronic warfare and computer network attacks to temporarily blind or misdirect Syrian radar in the area.
The problem is, none of these techniques apply to the essential conduct of a NFZ – patrols to establish and maintain control of Syrian airspace You cannot create a persistent NFZ through repetitive raiding in the Israeli style, because these raids rely on minimizing time over Syrian airspace and avoiding air-to-air combat. NFZs, to be effective, must do precisely the opposite. You want your aircraft to spend as much time as practically possible over the airspace you are patrolling in order to deny enemy aircraft windows of opportunity to operate. This renders your aircraft vulnerable to enemy anti-aircraft fire, which is why destroying hostile IADS, commonly referred to as suppression of enemy air defense (or SEAD) is such a vital prerequisite to NFZs (and would involve, as in many other cases, massive amounts of standoff fire and more direct attacks by specialized SEAD strike aircraft).
Rather than comparing Israel skirting around the task of SEAD, or using temporary SEAD techniques such as EW and computer network operations, to a Syrian NFZ, it would be better to examine Israel’s Operation Mole Cricket 19. During the 1982 Lebanon War, Israeli air operations faced Syrian forward deployment of SAM sites in the Bekaa Valley and along the Syrian border. In order to establish air superiority (in this case to facilitate air support to Israeli ground forces), Israel launched an ambitious operation, involving roughly one hundred aircraft, extensive use of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, and remotely-piloted aircraft to engage seventeen out of the nineteen SAM targets and hundreds of Syrian aircraft. While the raid was a brilliant demonstration of effective SEAD and air-to-air combat, it also highlights precisely why even an extremely successful SEAD operation is an onerous undertaking compared to the raid operations that seek to avoid it entirely.
According to estimates, SEAD operations destroyed 52 of 70 air defense targets in Bosnia and 33 of 35 air defense targets in Operations Northern and Southern Watch over Iraq. As in Mole Cricket 19, achieving air superiority over a conflict zone requires comprehensive SEAD, and even then, these operations often fail to break the will of enemy air defenses. Within months of Mole Cricket 19, Syrian batteries targeted and fired upon U.S. reconnaissance flights over Lebanon, provoking an airstrike that saw two U.S. planes downed. Even more directly, Iraq continued throughout years of U.S. NFZs over northern and southern Iraq to provoke or attempt to engage U.S. aircraft, and even rebuilt damaged sites. In the Kosovo War, U.S. SEAD efforts met continual challenge from Serbian forces despite overwhelming U.S. military superiority.
Avoiding the problem of destroying Syrian air defenses by trying to use shoot-and-scoot raids with the assistance of electronic warfare is utterly impractical for enforcing a comprehensive NFZ. Electronic warfare aircraft are not easy to come by and could not maintain the sortie generation ratio necessary to protect combat air patrols over Syria indefinitely, so short of a massive SEAD operation, a U.S. NFZ is simply not going to happen. Even dilapidated air defense systems must be thoroughly reduced in order for the U.S. to maintain effective air coverage to deny Syrian airspace.
Now, Cook argues that because the U.S. has the operational capability to impose an NFZ on Syria, the only relevant issue is whether or not a NFZ would improve the situation or not. It seems clear, however, that the scale of costs should influence what degree of prospective improvement justifies action. The U.S., as the strongest military power on earth, has the capability to undertake military operations of enormous scale. The question that a strategist must ask is whether or not the U.S. can realize such an operation in a way that improves the situation in Syria, but whether that improvement, and its advancement of American policy goals, is commensurate with the costs of the operation itself.
In this sense, it actually matters an immense deal that Israeli airstrikes require only a handful of jets, but a SEAD effort in Syria would require perhaps around six times as many aircraft as did NATO operations in Libya. It matters quite a lot that few of the tricks the Israelis used to conduct their raids will allow us to avoid the major task of what will likely be a long and onerous campaign. Here, Cook’s dismissal of the fourth contention, that a Syrian NFZ could seriously distract from other fronts, rings especially hollow: “the last time I checked, the U.S. armed forces were designed to fight on multiple fronts.”
Yes, and it is wise to limit to that multiplier, especially when the wear of a decade of war and fiscal constraints on deployments, operations, and maintenance come into consideration. The U.S. is still at war in Afghanistan. The U.S. has security considerations in the Persian Gulf vastly more central to its interests than what is occurring in Syria. America has security guarantees of far greater gravity and value to South Korea and Japan. As Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Mark Welsh, remarked, deploying, say, the F-22 to Syria could detract from “a concern in the Pacific somewhere, there aren’t many airplanes. In this business, quantity does have a quality all its own.” (An infamous RAND briefing on the dynamics of U.S. air combat in the Pacific reached a very similar conclusion.) Much the same could be said about electronic warfare aircraft such as the B-2, EA-18G Growler, ISR aircraft, along standoff precision-guided munitions, which take part in everything from deterrence missions in Korea to intercepting and disrupting insurgent communications in Afghanistan. The cost a NFZ imposes on the U.S. increases as it drags on and imposes further constraints on redeployments and lag-times for combat readiness in other theaters.
That the U.S. capability to impose an NFZ in Syria would require hundreds of aircraft and thousands of precision guided munitions that its air defense capabilities, then, deserves much more emphasis than the fact that the Israelis were able to execute a completely different and more limited mission set without such a commitment. While Syria’s air defenses could not indefinitely hold off the USAF, USN, or IAF in a pitched battle, that they can still challenge the air forces such as Turkey’s, and that its smaller allies lack the ability to scale up their deployments from their performance in Libya will mean the U.S. will face poor prospects for mitigating or spreading the costs of its operations with its allies. Do any of these considerations make an NFZ impossible? No, but these operational considerations complicate the answer enough that simply saying we have the capability to impose a NFZ on Syria is woefully insufficient for analyzing an intervention’s practicality and prospects.
I personally agree with Cook about the third concern in the abstract – civilian casualties from U.S. strikes are an inevitable outcome of imposing an NFZ in virtually any situation, and must be weighed against the danger of Assad’s air force. That said, it does matter that U.S. forces would be in danger of inflicting larger numbers of civilian casualties if a Syrian NFZ expanded to a bombing campaign against regime ground forces as the campaign in Libya did almost immediately (Cook does not make this argument in his post, but some proponents who want “safe zones,” such as John McCain, have objectives that imply striking ground forces and not simply aircraft). Given that Assad’s forces are greatly more numerous than Gaddafi’s and engaging in overwhelmingly urban combat, and in an environment where tactical intelligence for targeting purposes will not likely be as forthcoming.
Ultimately, Cook argues that the only salient objection is whether “military intervention might not attenuate the civil war or might make things worse and, I would add, the American people do not want to become involved in another Middle Eastern imbroglio.” Yet failing to weight the cost of exercising a capability makes assessing the actual risks and benefits of a campaign impossible. For example, interventions that provide minor or discrete but not decisive advancement to our objectives in a conflict can often be very sensible if they require a limited amount of force at low risk, but far more questionable when limited gains come at massive expense even when the risk is low.
If anything, the Israeli strikes provide a useful insight into everything a NFZ will not or cannot be. The Israeli strikes aim at specific, identifiable direct threats to vital Israeli interests and use the smallest force and lowest risk possible to eliminate those threats. The Israelis may not be able to solve the problem of potential arms transfers to Hezbollah writ large, but standoff strikes against discrete targets do not tie down Israeli forces enough to make it a distracting quagmire.
A NFZ, on the other hand, massive amounts of aircraft and munitions in both standoff and air superiority roles to even deliver the basic goal of grounding the Syrian air force. A Syrian NFZ presents an even larger operation than the Libyan air campaign, and one that is likely to be even less effective, especially if it is a pure NFZ that refrains from the additional aircraft, munitions, and ground/intelligence efforts that would be necessary to support a campaign to target the Syrian army. Syria’s mix of ground forces and paramilitary groups appear far more combat effective than their Libyan regime equivalents, and, even without air cover, would not be operating at crippling loss without their air force (Syrian aircraft appear far more competent at terror bombing than tight close-air support).
Whereas Israel can pick and choose which targets to engage and which raids to forgo, a NFZ is an open-ended commitment that requires a major aerial (and likely naval) presence until the Syrian government capitulates. Even if the U.S. is operationally capable of imposing such an outcome, it is entirely fair to argue the requirements of such an operation would make such a minor improvement in the Syrian situation insufficient to grant that capability a strategic logic. The operational requirements of a NFZ are great and yet they only seem to ameliorate U.S. concerns about Assad-rebel fighting, but provide only nebulous and indirect ways of addressing other key concerns in the region. Syria’s military may be puny on its own, but launching a massive operation for the sake of stripping away one instrument in a civil war while the U.S. is limited in its fiscal means and faced with far more direct challenges (if ones less immediately violent) to its interests elsewhere merits scrutiny of the means required. Large aerial operations against third world militaries were attractive and appealing in the 1990s when the U.S. enjoyed greater flexibility and little fatigue or fiscal trouble in its armed forces, policymakers must now make harder choices.
The fifth objection that Cook recognizes as legitimate – concerns about the efficacy or potential harmfulness of intervention – is not independent of the other four. The requirements of dismantling rather than evading Syrian air defenses and the opportunity costs of expending those resources absolutely weigh upon whether an intervention’s effect on a conflict makes for good strategy and policy. Through parsing why the Israeli strikes are so different from U.S. operations, the disproportionate ratio of requirements to outcomes, the dubious clarity of objectives, murky parameters for action all become even more obvious in contrast.
Uditinder Thakur is a foreign affairs analyst, focused primarily on issues related to the broader Middle-East and South Asia. A graduate of American University’s School of International Service, he holds a degree in International Studies with concentrations in U.S. foreign policy, International Conflict Resolution, and Islamic Studies. He can be found on twitter @UditThakur_
As President Obama analyzes the ongoing crisis in Syria, compounding threat variables and all, his assessment should be tempered by a now unquestionable and unfortunate reality. The state of Syria, the Arab world’s “beating heart,” has slipped into critical condition and is not likely to recover anytime in the foreseeable future. All signs show that the destruction of the nation is in its final stages, as a once peaceful struggle has now descended into conflict marred by sectarian strife and aspects of proxy warfare. A sense of cohesive Syrian national identity has largely broken down only to be replaced by loyalties to one’s religious group, ethnicity and/or family. Additionally, instances of coercion and excessive uses of force by both competing parties in the conflict further complicate the situation on the ground. With such a complex mixture of interests and loyalties, establishing uniform measurements of moral action is understandably problematic. Whatever happens next we can be sure of the following: The chaos in Syria is sure to get far worse before it gets any better.
Yet, despite the several sobering complexities on the ground, there are still those that call out for the United States to do something. This plea seems to be at the heart of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent piece in the Washington Post; “Obama should remember Rwanda as he weighs action in Syria.” The title itself hearkens back to a moment of shameful tragedy, one worthy of remembrance in its own right whenever policymakers approach issues of conflict today. However, aside from invoking a shared emotional narrative, Slaughter’s Rwanda-Syria comparison and the deeper underpinnings of her piece have a number of factors that prove to be flawed.
First, the basic framework of comparing the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 with the ongoing Syrian Civil War is highly problematic. Rwanda’s genocide emerged from a conscious agenda to wipe out an entire ethnic group. Syria, on the other hand, morphed quickly from a situation of peaceful protest to one of all out civil war. Qualitatively the circumstances and contexts in either case are hardly comparable. It is also worth noting that genocide in Rwanda was a one-sided affair perpetrated by massive mobs of Hutus wielding machetes, while Syria exists as a complex civil war involving heavily armed rebel groups and even more heavily armed regime forces. These differences I’m sure are not lost on Professor Slaughter, and yet she seems to prioritize evoking the emotional similarities of the two cases, with our feelings of helplessness and shame taking precedence over any sort of strategic discussion.
This emphasis on abstract characterizations of conflict continues, as Slaughter addresses the issue of the Assad regime’s suspected use of chemical weapons. Instead of addressing the actual significance of chemical weapons, knowing how limited U.S. options in Syria are, Slaughter simply accepts them as a game-changer and describes a situation in which one increasingly feels as though the U.S. has no choice but to act. Paul Pillar, former national intelligence officer and current professor at Georgetown University, has warned against this type of false dichotomy between chemical weapons use and the need for an escalated U.S. response as he notes the following:
So once again—as was the case ten years ago—a factual question with a presumed yes-or-no answer about a regime's use or possession of a certain category of weapons gets treated as if the answer dictates a certain policy course, even though it doesn't.
Following up on Pillar’s criticism of the game-changing nature of chemical weapons is important. At present, the President’s logic on chemical weapons dissects the issue into two dimensions, one based on a concern for international legal and moral norms while the other focuses on the strategic threats posed by the proliferation of such weapons. President Obama clarified his approach during his most recent news conference, in which he defended his chemical weapons red-line by stating:
[…] we have established international law and international norms that say when you use these kinds of weapons you have the potential of killing massive numbers of people in the most inhumane way possible, and the proliferation risks are so significant that we don't want that genie out of the bottle. So when I said that the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, that wasn’t unique to -- that wasn’t a position unique to the United States and it shouldn’t have been a surprise.
Due to the fact that the violence in Syria already constitutes a violation of several international norms, particularly regarding the targeting of civilians, the President understands that any arguments for increased U.S. involvement will have to be based primarily on an approach that emphasizes the threats posed by chemical weapons proliferation. He gave evidence that this approach will most likely be the one he favors as he went on to say:
[…] if I can establish in a way that not only the United States but also the international community feel confident is the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, then that is a game-changer because what that portends is potentially even more devastating attacks on civilians, and it raises the strong possibility that those chemical weapons can fall into the wrong hands and get disseminated in ways that would threaten U.S. security or the security of our allies.
While such an approach by the President would show a slight bias towards pragmatism, his persistent caution shows some signs of the fact that he is weighing the realities of the situation. Arguing that chemical weapons pose a hypothetical threat to U.S. national security is not enough to justify increased U.S. action. Instead, the President now faces the task of weighing the potential threats. He must now determine whether the threats emanating from possible proliferation of chemical weapons outweigh the threats posed by the fact that increased U.S. action could actually exacerbate violence within the region. Within the context of this debate, over which threats poses the greatest threat, Slaughter’s analogy to Rwanda takes on an all too familiar rhetoric.
Professor Slaughter’s argument assures us that while anti-Americanism in the region currently exists as “a cancer,” the lack of a strong US response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons puts us at risk of cementing such sentiments throughout the Muslim world. Herein lays a greater problem with Slaughter’s characterization of action versus inaction in Syria. In Slaughter’s formula, action exists as a solution framed in the language of moralism as opposed to morality. The President and readers are asked to believe that somehow the perceived injustices of fifty plus years of U.S. foreign policy failures within the Middle-East have culminated up until this point, and that our actions in this particular conflict hold the key to shifting our entire image in the region. Such wishful thinking avoids the fundamental conflicts between stated U.S. strategic interests in the region and the aspirations of the people of the Middle-East and North Africa. Anti-Americanism is the result of a set of structural deficiencies in U.S. foreign policy, all of which stem from unfortunately irreconcilable differences between U.S. interests in “stability” in a region characterized by increasing popular demands for greater sovereignty. Until one is willing to come to terms with that fact, and place morality and espoused values clearly above all other strategic interests, the people of the region will have no major shift in their views towards U.S. policy.
The lesson in all of this however, is not that we should eschew action or inaction in Syria. More importantly is the question of how our actions in this conflict must be framed. Discussing Syria from the perspectives of moralism or American exceptionalism will not simplify the cold-hard realities of the present situation. As it stands today, whether the US imposes a no-fly zone, provides lethal aid to the rebels, or does nothing at all, it is virtually guaranteed that at least hundreds if not thousands more will die. That is the nature of a conflict in which central themes of revenge and justice have emerged in reaction to accounts of atrocities on both sides. It is precisely this complex nature of conflict that should have been among the most important lessons learned from our experiences in Iraq. Andrew Sullivan expressed this lesson in his 2008 piece titled “What I Got Wrong About Iraq,” where he made the following admonition:
I recall very clearly one night before the war began. I made myself write down the reasons for and against the war and realized that if there were question marks on both sides, the deciding factor for me in the end was that I could never be ashamed of removing someone as evil as Saddam from power. I became enamored of my own morality and this single moral act. And he was a monster, as we discovered. But what I failed to grasp is that war is also a monster, and that unless one weighs all the possibly evil consequences of an abstractly moral act, one hasn't really engaged in anything much but self-righteousness. I saw war's unknowable consequences far too glibly.
Here rests a final critique of the ideology behind Slaughter’s problematic plea for us to “remember Rwanda.” Her comparison calls us to remember only our immediate and emotional responses to conflict, while altogether avoiding the fact that there is no outcome in Syria that does not end with at least thousands more causalities. The prevalence of this moralist rhetoric in referring to conflicts is rampant, and while I may be referring specifically to Professor Slaughter’s piece I am by no mean’s singling her out as a unique offender. The practice of confusing strategy with ideology, or prioritizing the latter at the cost of the former, has been referred to as a growing problem in U.S. foreign policy by a number of leading international relations theorists. The importance of this theme cannot be over-emphasized, especially in the case of Syria, and we must be careful to guard against its potentially disastrous effects.
It is supremely important for us to approach the Syrian conflict differently than we have approached challenges in the past. The usual language of moralism and poli-speak will not cut it. Regardless of what actions we end up taking in response to a prolonged conflict, policy makers and citizens alike will have to understand the profound ramifications such actions will have considering the realities of American power. Over-estimating our capabilities and imagining post-Assad Syria as a more peaceful environment runs contrary to reality, and as such has no connection to self-professed notions of morality.
However this conflict ends we can rest assured that it will force us to understand just how limited our ability to dictate the outcome of events in places like Syria has become.
Therefore, it goes without saying, the question the President must answer is not the one that Dr. Slaughter poses in regards to chemical weapons. The question has been, and remains:
Does the U.S. have the capacity to end the violence, in any meaningful way, within the immediate future?
The answer, at present, remains a resounding no.
With the drumbeat for directly joining Syria’s civil war growing, it probably should not surprise us that the U.S. governments quiet efforts to aid the Syrian rebels are now coming to light. Alongside insistent denials that the U.S. was directly arming the rebels, news now emerges the CIA has not simply been vetting the recipient groups (to the limited extent that is really possible) but also coordinating the distribution and sourcing. More interestingly is further confirmation the U.S. is training a small group of Syrian fighters in Jordan, who are in turn operating near Damascus in southern Syria:
The training has been conducted for several months now in an unspecified location, concentrating largely on Sunnis and tribal Bedouins who formerly served as members of the Syrian army, officials told The Associated Press. The forces aren't members of the leading rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, which Washington and others fear may be increasingly coming under the sway of extremist militia groups, including some linked to al-Qaida, they said.
The operation is being run by U.S. intelligence and is ongoing, officials said, but those in Washington stressed that the U.S. is providing only nonlethal aid at this point. Others such as Britain and France are involved, they said, though it's unclear whether any Western governments are providing materiel or other direct military support after two years of civil war that according to the United Nations already has killed more than 70,000 people.
The first issue to highlight here is the essential mechanics of proxy warfare. What is the objective of indirect support? Arming the rebellion generally (which clearly expands beyond this proxy group) and engaging in political coordination through the Syrian National Coalition often appear as solutions for simultaneously increasing rebel combat power, Western leverage, and decreasing Islamist and jihadist influence. Yet promoting unity and increasing combat efficacy implies giving powerful but internationally maligned groups some sort of seat at the table, and indeed U.S. attempts to exclude them often broaden a front more in opposition to U.S. preferences.
To simultaneously make a proxy loyal and powerful, then, is a significant challenge. The U.S. spent years convincing the anti-Somoza factions disaffected with the Sandinista regime to effectively cooperate with the overthrown Somoza loyalists in Nicaragua. Even then. the U.S. enjoyed large advantages because it was the overwhelming logistical supplier to the Contras, who were particularly dependent on its aid. Even then, Contra success came at devastating human cost to the Nicaraguan population.
Paul Staniland provides a social-institutional explanation for why a large influx of resources can fragment or break down insurgent fronts. Without strong, horizontally integrated social bases to provide unifying institutions, new resources can reopen or exacerbate prior divisions over logistics, leadership, and influence. U.S. objectives to marginalize undesirable elements of the Syrian rebellion exacerbate fragmentation and division by seeking to exclude unfavorable factions.
It is not surprising Syrian infighting is occurring, as there have been signs of it brewing for months. More confusing would be trying to marginalize large swathes of rebel forces while simultaneously stepping up arms provisions, and expecting unity, rather than heightened infighting, to be the result. “Marginalization” of dedicated insurgents in an ongoing civil war involves violence. While “peeling the onion” of jihadist sympathizers and cobelligerents away is important, it is a means to the end of more effectively targeting and dismantling hardcore Islamists and jihadist groups. Without that, the policy provides an anvil but no hammer. Trying to shorten the Syrian civil war is a noble intention, but doing so while pushing out jihadists invites and likely even requires prolonging its second phase. Scaling up our efforts will not solve the practical or moral dilemmas with proxy warfare.
Fostering a smaller Syrian group, then, that can fight on the U.S.’s behalf, may seem appealing. There’s a catch. Ensuring proxy loyalty to patrons relies on factors that impede many of America’s present Syrian preferences. Patrons often draw loyal proxies from populations disaffected or vulnerable to prevailing political conditions, which made the Lao and Montagnards particularly effective and loyal sources of “secret armies” and irregular partners for the U.S. during operations in Indochina. Southern Syrian secularists, former regime soldiers, and Bedouins may prove more receptive to U.S. interests, but they are also an unlikely nucleus for a post-Assad government likely to be dominated by groups associated with the civil war’s northern front. Their capability for building the kind of broad, horizontally integrated network to achieve influence over the rebellion and post-war Syria will be limited.
Yet placing such a group outside the Free Syrian Army’s aegis points to a tougher truth about proxy warfare, which is that the same characteristics which limit the group’s ability to effect desired humanitarian and political outcomes in Syria make it easier to handle. Small groups take fewer resources. Groups unable to operate in the north or from across the Turkish border are less likely to fall under Turkish or Islamist sway. A proxy that coordinates poorly with local political-military authorities is less likely to default on U.S. preferences than a larger, locally predominant entity such as the FSA, which, by the nature of its social-institutional foundations, will be inclined to answer to local interests first.
While patron states can shove social-institutional development in the right direction, creating a broad, unified front from without can take years. Many of the conditions that enable it – the ability to exclude other regional suppliers, relatively low reliance on local power bases, and compatible ideology – may be impossible to produce within Syria.
For many powers willing to engage in proxy warfare, a second-best outcome is a local proxy just strong enough to carry out a more limited set of tasks. The U.S. may not be able to rely on the FSA to secure or create a buffer against hostile groups along the Jordanian border, or assist the U.S. in monitoring or targeting jihadists or Iranian/Hezbollah proxies of interest. A smaller force coupled with a logistical effort could perhaps execute those tasks, but it could not deliver a unified Syrian opposition or widely deny hostile groups a safe-haven in Syria. The administration’s current strategy in southern Syria appears sized for a more modest U.S. role. As many demand the U.S. step up its support though, it’s worth remembering the returns to scaling up resourcing or objectives for Syrian proxy forces could have minimal or even negative returns at the margin. Above all, proxy war will not effectively be simultaneously be an instrument of humanitarianism an effective tool for carving out U.S. influence in Syria – in such scenarios, we not only can’t always get what we wish for, we often enough don’t even get what we pay for.
Since the beginning of Syria’s roughly 20-month-long civil war, the question of whether or when the regime would turn to chemical warfare to ensure its survival has loomed large for Syrians and the wider world alike. Damascus maintains, by most estimates, prodigious stocks of blister agents and even advanced nerve agents that could inflict horrific results on civilians and soldiers alike. The recent military gains by rebels in the neighborhoods of Damascus and their increasingly potent air defense capabilities all speak to plausible motive. U.S. officials report preliminary steps towards readying, and exhortations to begin employing, chemical weapons as well.
We know relatively little about the regime’s mindset, or its military’s logistical or ethical readiness to follow out such horrific orders. Nevertheless, it is wrong to suggest Syria is the first regime to face an endgame with chemical weapons in its arsenal. If Assad’s regime’s death spiral involves poison gas, it would in fact be the first incident of its kind.
One of the first – if not the first – regimes to collapse with chemical weapons was Tsarist Russia. Even in its death throes, it did not deploy them, although Tukachevsky inflicted chemical warfare against the Tambov Rebellion before the end of the Russian Civil War. The Russian Revolution and Civil War demonstrated a recurrent pattern, although one with a very small sample size.
Embattled regimes, on their last legs, do not deploy their chemical arms. Germany, despite highly advanced CW capabilities, used them during the Holocaust but not on the battlefield, even as vastly superior Soviet forces were crushing the Third Reich. Nor did Japan, a country which used gas and biological weapons frequently against the Chinese early in the war, and whose soldiers frequently displayed suicidal levels of loyalty and commitment, employ gas against the Americans.
Rather than a last resort, CW is most frequently used when the side employing it appears to control the escalation ladder (though with such a small sample size, the exact causality here is murky). Iraq used CW from the very beginning of the Iran-Iraq war, and it could do so with relative confidence. It had the Soviet Union as its patron and there was no chance the U.S. would decisively crush the bulwark against Iranian power. Saddam also used CW to massacre weaker opponents and civilians, as the Anfal campaign horrifically demonstrated.
So why do dictators appear to forgo chemical warfare in their most desperate hours, particularly when they are willing to use them in less immediately dangerous circumstances? A major explanation is the increased danger of escalation or reciprocity. The Allies, too, had major chemical weapons stocks in WWII, and were prepared to use them if the Axis deployed them. Japan was well aware of this:
In 1944 Ultra revealed that the Japanese doubted their ability to retaliate against United States use of gas. 'Every precaution must be taken not to give the enemy cause for a pretext to use gas,' the commanders were warned. So fearful were the Japanese leaders that they planned to ignore isolated tactical use of gas in the home islands by the US forces because they feared escalation.
Unsurprisingly, the Japanese used chemical weapons against Chinese forces with limited capability to retaliate in kind, but forwent their use even as the U.S. was crushing them. Although the U.S. also forwent an invasion that would likely employ them, it unleashed a much more deadly and efficacious weapon on two of Japan’s major cities instead – the atomic bomb. Similar considerations likely guided German reluctance to employ CW against the allies – for a losing side the prospect of increased escalation is generally a poor idea.
Of course, even if the FSA captured chemical weapons depots, it would have limited ability to escalate. Assuming Assad was inclined to use chemical weapons, that possibility is strongly balanced by the U.S. “red lines” against chemical warfare use. While they are vague, explicitly committing to any specific series of punishments could be politically complicating enough with regard to domestic concerns and international commitments as to undermine the credibility of the threat. Given that basically all U.S. military options for dealing with CW are immensely problematic, locking the U.S. into any specific course of action would be highly problematic.
Deterrent threats from third party actors do sometimes work in these cases. When Iraq appeared to be employing CW against Shia in the south of Iraq, James Baker used a similar script. While military options were considered, they were never officially stated. Of course, despite the ultimatum, the lack of chemical weapons use, and the imposition of a No-Fly Zone, Saddam still ably suppressed the Shia and held onto power for more than a decade.
Another limiting factor on chemical weapons, separate from the issue of escalation and 3rd party intervention, is that they simply are not very effective outside of certain battlefield circumstances. Effective Iraqi CW against Iran involved massed fires and combined arms against identifiable hostile formations, command, and logistical elements. Fighting a guerrilla opponent grants few of these advantages. Chemical weapons in and of themselves did not cause anything but a small minority of deaths or casualties, but they did pose effective in constraining Iranian options for massing their forces. Against Halabja, gas killed thousands, but it was in the context of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi forces in a combined arms operation against insurgents almost a magnitude smaller in size – and it still failed to destroy insurgent activity in that corner of Kurdistan. Iraq was never able to fully destroy the Peshmerga, and indeed relied on leveraging Kurdish infighting as part of its counterinsurgency in the north.
Much as the Japanese and Germans lacked much of the equipment and mass to use CW effectively in the closing years of WWII, a massive CW campaign, if it does occur in Syria, would likely be too little, too late to significantly check the FSA, but would almost certainly arouse increased regional attention. While chemical weapons are horrific in effect, their lack of clear military efficacy against an opponent willing to absorb the casualties and capable of adapting their tactics does a significant part of explaining their relatively infrequent use. Against a casualty-averse opponent, such as a potential foreign intervening actor, they may be of great use, particularly if that foreign intervening state lacks the capability to escalate in response to CW use. Against a determined popular insurgency, CW use is not particularly efficacious outside specific tactical situations (such as clearing confined areas). That lack of efficacy has compounding effects. Not only does it make states less likely to employ CW, those ordered to employ CW who still fear losing are more likely to defect (particularly when combined with the issue of escalation), or else suffer at the hands of the victors.
Of course, assuming Assad does decide to break with this small pattern and use CW in his regime’s death spiral, should the U.S. intervene? Dominic Tierney has pointed out that deciding to go to war on the basis of a regime murdering civilians in one way rather than another seems morally insignificant, particularly when the lack of efficacy of chemical weapons relative to conventional ones is apparent (indeed, I dislike the term WMD for skewing attention away from much more historically lethal conventional arms, lumping in CW with nuclear weapons generally). Syrian chemical weapons use, particularly at a stage where its air force is increasingly threatened by MANPADS and AA guns and its ability to maintain large formations is withering thanks to Syrian rebel IED use and raiding, is unlikely to be highly effective, and given the lack of battlefield experience with them, it is questionable if Syria’s troops would even be effectively versed in their operations. As in basically all other major conflicts with CW, conventional arms would remain responsible for the vast majority of the death and misery inflicted on the country.
I do not necessarily agree with Tierney’s argument there are strategic reasons to oppose Syrian WMD use in this case. Firstly, Assad’s use of chemical weapons is not likely to trigger chemical weapons use elsewhere, since the factors I mention constraining, such as fear of escalation and limited efficacy would hold regardless. Indeed, the overplaying of the effect of CW probably adds as much to their symbolic and psychological value to foreign regimes as does their actual record in the field.
Secondly, far more likely than Syrian CW use seriously affecting proliferation or use elsewhere, an intervention to destroy Syrian CW would be a massive military campaign, and one that actually secured the CW on the ground (particularly after guards presumably desert depots after bombing) would be a significant ground campaign. I have argued elsewhere that a WMD-focused mission would be immensely difficult and expensive, and not only that, but even limited airstrikes would pose severe problems due to the intelligence considerations of finding weapons and the collateral damage considerations of actually hitting them.
Especially if our concern is preventing terrorists or other groups from acquiring CW, limited deterrent airstrikes simply will not do. Somebody will need to provide a comprehensive ground presence, and even then the insertion of specialized personnel to destroy or transport out CW would be incredibly vulnerable without protection. If Benghazi was bad, one can only imagine what would happen to Western personnel traipsing about a Syria where Jahbat al-Nusra is active. Not only that, but given the complexity of accounting for CW, the length of time it takes to destroy them (the U.S. still isn’t done), and the difficulty of using CW in an effective terrorist attack*, one would be wise to consider the costs of such an operation.
Hopefully, as in past instances of civil war, revolution, or regime downfall, Assad will forgo using CW against his own population. Given Turkey’s emphasis on missile defense from NATO, the use of CW against 3rd party states with lower casualty tolerance may be Syria’s aim. Generally, CW’s effects, its likelihood of use, and the necessity of going to war to stop it seem frequently overstated. While this may be an exception to that general pattern, we should recognize it is far from a clear one as we consider policy options.
*This is a controversial point, but Aum Shinrikyo’s attack, while awful, was not so horrific as to suggest CW terror is worth a war to prevent a similar attack. The Tokyo Sarin attack killed 13 and injured over 1,000. The London bombings in 2005 killed 52 and injured 700 with vastly less complex resource requirements. Aum Shinrikyo had a large amount of technical expertise to the point they could produce their own factory and atropine antidotes. A group which has CW simply through the fortune of stolen artillery shells is highly unlikely to be able to employ CW to effects so dramatic it warrants a preventive war. Much more dangerous, I suspect, will be the new generations of jihadists trained in small-unit tactics and IED-building. A CW attack would be dangerous but given its similar damage profile to a conventional attack with a similar (or smaller) amount of personnel and lower technical complexity, preventing them from proliferating alone is probably not worthy of a massive conventional land operation to secure CW.
my last post here, we looked at some of the issues inherent in the use of
client and partner states in tackling the issues of counterterrorism. However,
there are many cases where the United States has and will have to work with
non-state or parastatal actors. At a time when America’s appetite for full-bore
conventional interventions into failed or collapsed states (or states which we
would like to induce failure or collapse in) is low, proxies, paramilitaries,
and rebels seem like appealing, low-cost, and safe ways for the United States
to influence outcomes abroad.
The problem is, as with working with state and military actors, the groups the United States frequently tries to enlist into its myriad efforts at proxy warfare possess a separate set of interests from the United States. This diversion in interests is not necessarily nefarious. Groups may primarily seek wealth, local political power, or ideological aims that are not inherently anti-American. Yet very few groups will have sets of interests so limited and circumstances so pliant to patronage that they will subsume themselves into straightforwardly reliable instruments of U.S. foreign policy aims.
The indirect approach with proxies, as with client or partner states, tries to obfuscate or eliminate a fundamental policy problem with a different strategic execution. Few would claim they wish to engage in nation-building in Syria, or advocate launching a counterinsurgency or counter-terrorism campaign there. To do so would evoke images and memories of Iraq and Afghanistan, of thousands of American troops and strategic folly.
But trying to create a friendly state or quasi-state out of the Free Syrian Army through supplying them with weapons requires precisely them to execute policies we would rather leave unspoken. When we look at the aftermath of the Benghazi attack, we recognize that a Libyan government which effectively translates its pro-U.S. proclivities into meaningful policy outcomes will have to engage in counter-terrorism operations against jihadists. It will need to undergo nation-building efforts to develop a military powerful enough to take on militias and other paramilitary organizations, and develop criminal justice institutions and practices to ensure that the rule of law can prevail.
In Syria, we frequently hear that providing arms to the rebels will enhance U.S. goals to unify the opposition, marginalize jihadists such as Jabhat al-Nusrah which operate outside the FSA’s already loose command structure, and earn the loyalty of the future government in Syria. This would occur, supposedly, through the U.S. preventing Qatar or Saudi Arabia from taking control of arms flows, outgunning the jihadists, and collapsing the Syrian regime before they can establish a foothold within the country.
For U.S. patronage to translate into those outcomes, though, the U.S. must induce some nasty behavior by its friends on the ground. It should be very obvious that Qatar and Saudi Arabia will search for preferred proxies. As recent reporting reveals, the Qatari and Saudi governments are trying to steer arms towards hard-line Islamists, and rebel groups, in turn, are shifting their behavior and appearance to cash into these arms. One the one hand, this is heartening, as it means that alternate arms provision might at least discourage aping hard-line Islamist or jihadist practices. But these faux jihadists are hardly the real concern.
If the U.S. seeks out groups it believes align with its values, this encourages the Saudis and Qataris to more aggressively support their own proxies, in order to maintain leverage among the rebel co-belligerents. It is entirely possible to have a scenario where aggressive patronage produces unity within each patron’s preferred factions of the rebel forces, but creates starker divide among the coalition overall. As much as the United States would like to disassociate itself from the concept, using proxies to shape political outcomes and state consolidation is still a form of nation or state-building behavior, one made palatable by the lack of direct exposure but all the more difficult by the lack of leverage.
Frequently, the first impulse of a proxy group, whether it takes arms or not, is going to focus using them on fighting its primary enemy (the Syrian state) rather than asserting dominance over fighters who are driving at similar aims. When relatively moderate rebels killed an extremist leader, it was not because he was initially unwelcome, but because he was trying to assert control over rebel activities. Attempting to marginalize the jihadists sounds well and good, but it involves engaging in a severe and likely violent power struggle that jeopardizes the interests of several major regional state and non-state actors engaged in the Syrian civil war and its broader proxy conflict.
So the United States is left with a situation where it must potentially fracture the rebellion by attempting this marginalization during the course of the conflict, or by hoping its arms have bought enough loyalty, capacity, and willpower for the rebel groups to undertake a second or third phase of Syria’s civil war in order to purge the country of jihadist groups. In either case, U.S. anti-extremist efforts work at cross-purposes with either unifying the rebels or shortening the civil war. This is doubly problematic when one considers that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Gulf states have demonstrated their ability to resource and implement proxy strategies in countries such as Libya. Even in the case of Syria, the United States would need the support of the very countries propagating the movements it hopes to quash.
When the U.S. engages in proxy warfare in the context of the Syrian civil war, it thus encounters not simply implementation problems, but these implementation problems, like those of partner and client strategies, reveal a fundamental lack of ability to prioritize policy aims. Advocates of proxy warfare cannot decide or agree about their policy objectives, let alone their prioritization. It is nice to say that the U.S. wishes to shorten the Syrian war, build opposition unity, protect safe areas, and marginalize radicalism. These goals all conflict at various junctures (shorten the Syrian civil war requires minimizing infighting among rebels or killing off undesired rebels postwar), and without prioritization, the result is a mess.
The U.S. has frequently employed proxies, but the aims were narrowly focused. During the Cold War, paramilitary proxies broadly existed to inflict maximum damage on hostile forces, with the outcomes for civilian welfare, war termination (the goal very often necessitated the opposite) or long-term state-building or capacity building.
At the end of the day, whether there are boots on the ground or not, the question of how the U.S. uses proxy forces to consolidate a friendly or relatively liberal state in Syria are nation-building and state-building problems, and the question of how the U.S. uses proxy groups to marginalize jihadists is a counter-terrorism problems. By their nature, proxy strategies compound on existing flaws in these policies because they delegate a central role in the strategy to self-interested third parties. By their practice, proxy wars in areas where the U.S. lacks the intelligence or logistical capability to unilaterally furnish its desired partners with weaponry involve yet another set of external actors with their own interests and goals.
Unilateralism is a dirty word these days, but very often the problem with it is that the United States grafts unilateral aims and approaches to policies which require far more consensus and complicity from other actors. Squaring the circle through indirect approaches seems appealing, but the reality is that whether the U.S. is conducting drone strikes or distributing arms, it is putting its policy and strategy at the mercy not simply of the enemy, but of its would-be partners, clients, and proxies. The deep and entangling double games and strategic surprises the U.S. so often finds itself in now, if anything, highlight the need for the United States to develop a set of genuinely unilateral options appropriate for achieving limited aims. As American relative power declines, the more indirect the U.S. approach, the less leverage it will have to shape the implementation and outcome of that approach to its own liking.
State formation and
regime consolidation, as any astute
reader of Charles Tilly could tell you, is an ugly business. Just as ugly, though, can be what its
absence brings. Since foreign aircraft, foreign arms, and local manpower toppled
the Gaddafi regime in Libya, a debate simmered between skeptics, who feared the
infiltration of al Qaeda, jihadists, and widespread instability, and optimists,
who saw potential in a new Arab-formed democracy forming in the wake of a
low-cost intervention against a brutal regime. Both sides have sought to wring
evidence for their positions out of a muddled state of affairs. While jihadist
groups appeared to increase their presence in Libya, relatively secular, even
so-called liberal and independent politicians and coalitions dominate the
Libyan government. Though Libya’s patchwork of legal and extralegal armed
groups remains, these myriad militias have not reduced the country into a new
Somalia on the Mediterranean shore.
The Weberian monopoly on force is a hallmark of political science and a historical analysis, but it is also an ideal-type. No state has a total monopoly on force, and many eke out a form of status quo where coercive instruments remain outside the state’s hands. In the U.S., militias were intended to be the last line of defense against the overlong extension of federal power, but when paramilitary groups overstepped an acceptable political threshold, as they did during the Reconstruction era, federal troops would intervene.
Libya’s recent shrine bulldozing crisis similarly reveals a tenuous equilibrium between Libya’s various coercive agents. Groups many suspect adhere to Salafist teachings demolished two shrines last weekend, prompting Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel A'al to resign, and then reverse his resignation. Yet in doing so, he defended his refusal to use security forces to stop extremist groups demolishing shrines, claiming:
"If we deal with this using security we will be forced to use weapons, and these groups have huge amounts of weapons. We can't be blind to this. These groups are large in power and number in Libya. I can't enter a losing battle (with them), to kill people over a grave," he told reporters.
It was up to the country's religious bodies to stop the desecration, he said.
"If all shrines in Libya are destroyed so we can avoid the death of one person (in clashes with security), then that is a price we are ready to pay," the minister added.
What is going on here is
certainly more complicated than simply state failure, but it also underlines
the difficulties for policymakers trying to navigate the interplay of
paramilitary groups and state-formation. Despite vigorous Western intervention,
support for favored NTC militias, and a government at least theoretically
opposed to violent extremist groups, Libya’s security forces remain incapable
or (perhaps worse) unwilling to exercise the political prerogative of a sovereign
government and prevent armed groups from acting unimpeded in Libya. It may be
that the Libyan government will not concern itself with the destruction of
religious property (though the assumption that desecration and death are
alternatives, rather than potential bedfellows, seems quite naive).
In many cases, states or political elites allow violent non-state groups to flourish so long as they pursue narrowed aims that do not threaten the sovereign government’s ideological, power-political or rentier interests. In some cases, sympathy, sanction, or outright support for these groups is a viable means for supplementing a political community’s capacity beyond conventional limits. Rightist paramilitary and terrorist groups performed this function in Latin America, while white supremacist paramilitaries and terrorists served much the same function for the parties, classes and interests opposed to Reconstruction in the U.S.
While the sheer volume of arms and weakness of state security forces in Libya suggest incapacity plays a significant role in this crisis, the Interior Minister’s acknowledgment that some members of the security forces (which arguably amount to the integrated, approved militia groups in Libya) may be sympathetic or active participants in the attacks suggests a lack of will is also at play. After all, if unfettered desecration is preferable to risking the lives of the state’s security forces, and then left to religious institutions to check, that is a tacit political sanction or concession in the evolving negotiations between Libya’s armed entities.
Such stories should make us skeptical, too, about the ability of arms provision to paramilitaries and proxy forces to reliably advance foreign political interests. In Syria, many arguments assert that a more vigorous role in arming the relatively secular or moderate opposition will undermine the position of al Qaeda and jihadist groups. Yet arms provision in Libya, and indeed the consolidation of the most favorable government the West could ask for, failed to create a force organized and coherent enough to actually stamp out local extremists. Aaron Zelin and Andrew Lebovich, in their earlier analysis, make a persuasive case that jihadist groups did not dominate the Libyan rebels. Nor, of course, do jihadist groups need to totally dominate a country’s territory or the composition of its militia groups to pose a significant concern. Yet today the new government supposedly faces groups better armed and organized than their own, or at least well enough such that the state forces cannot effectively suppress them. How could this come to pass?
Asessing combat power, political cohesion, and other factors vital to understanding the sorting-out that occurs of armed groups in a multi-faceted rebellion, requires recognizing qualitative elements. Radical groups are not always the largest or best-armed group initially, but they may be more organizationally coherent thanks to shared ideology. Additionally, unlike militias primarily focused on overthrowing a tyrannical regime, success at that aim does not lead to their dissolution. They may also have superior access to foreign advisors that allow them to tap into a well of experience and superior tactics, techniques, and procedures.
Further, arms remain instruments, and do not reliably alter the political agency of their users. In Syria, the fact that many rebels buy their arms from regime troops, or from Iraqi soldiers reselling U.S.-provided arms, should suggest that any foreign power that floods Syria with arms is likely to see those weapons used for undesired purposes in unexpected places. Not only that, but as Libya demonstrated, merely providing arms to rival groups does not preclude the existence of others.
Many Libyan militias appear to be seeking primarily to extract political and economic rent from access to state revenues and local control. Creating a monopoly on force could actually severely disrupt this process, and what benefits does it offer the militias? Similarly, in Syria, while foreign patrons can arm friendly militias, how can they exclude the wrong militias from being armed by other actors, their own proxies, or as a result of regime caches entering the market? The more likely scenario than undesirable groups fading away is a multiplicity of armed groups existing simultaneously. As Libya should now demonstrate, supporting a rebel group and new government does not guarantee it will be ready, willing, or even able to stamp out the armed undesirables. More extreme groups may choose to focus more on preserving and expanding their combat power and revolutionary agenda, while groups whose political aims mainly sought overthrow of a regime may, with their ideological objectives satisfied and primary threat extinguished, may face fewer incentives to enhance their combat readiness or mobilize politically.
The result, then, is that groups that may be a popular or political minority, and even outside the bounds of a new government’s security infrastructure, maintain a share of combat capability large enough to pursue their aims or at least hinder or deter the new regime’s attempts to extinguish it or curtail its influence. They may do this in spite of relative disfavor in foreign political ties and arms trade, and in spite of a failure to contest or undermine the popularity or non-coercive operations of the new regime. Warlords’ games are not so easily or durably won, which is why states approximating the Weberian ideal type will not play by their rules in the first place, and refuse to tolerate such groups’ existence.
State formation and the maintenance of state power involves tacit deals with potentially dangerous and undoubtedly unsavory actors as often as it does, whether by might or right, the imposition of a monopoly on force. Whether through a corrupt bargain that tolerates or legitimizes racial violence and disenfranchisement, a stable arrangement between a government and powerful narcotics traffickers, or the integration of gruesome paramilitary and its allies into an expanding state, we should be wary about letting Hobbesian anarchy color our metrics for success or failure. We should be even more wary about pursuing policies that seek to tame the complex and ugly business of finding a working distribution of political and violent power in a transitioning political community. Ultimately, the covert remedies so popular today must grapple with many of the problems of nation-building and state formation that supposedly belonged to the failed policies of the past.
If I wrote a blog post each time something I read annoyed me, I would obviously blog more frequently. Two things that I have noticed over the past few days, though, deserve especial mention this morning.
1. If you study conflict and conflicts long enough, you will either gain invaluable perspective over your peers or lose your perspective entirely. By the end of his career, for example, the late John Keegan, who once wrote this masterpiece which forever changed the way military historians write history, was writing silly things like, "Politics played no part in the conduct of the First World War worth mentioning." (Step forward, Hew Strachan.)
Robert Fisk has his defenders and his detractors. I have never been accused of being the former, though I re-read a lot of his reporting for The Times in the 1980s as part of my doctoral work and came away impressed by his earlier work. Fisk has been accused by his peers of being a fabulist, and today he writes columns for the Independent. He once bragged to me, after I questioned the veracity of one particular column, that his editors never question what he writes. I'll let you decide whether or not that is a good thing. Of late, meanwhile, Fisk has been the target of some pretty withering satire.
Fisk's column today is the result of what happens when an observer of conflict loses all moral perspective. Fisk does not excuse any atrocities or crimes. No, he does the opposite. For Fisk, all crimes of war are now for all intents and purposes equal, and all armies at war are criminal. This is a valid perspective, I guess, in that one could make a moral argument in its favor. But unlike this, it doesn't tell me anything useful about what is taking place in Syria. If all acts of wars are crimes and they are all equal, I don't need Robert Fisk's first-hand observations, do I? They don't tell me anything of substance.
Among his peers, Fisk is arguably the least popular journalist covering either conflict or the Middle East today. That's probably because in addition to the alleged fabulism and lack of any useful perspective, in Fisk's narrative of conflict and conflicts, there is only room for one truly good man: and that man's name is always "Robert Fisk."
2. I finished Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War this weekend -- yes, I realize that reads exactly how Robert Fisk might begin one of his columns -- and a few things struck me:
a. The successful Roman counterinsurgency campaign in Gaul took eight years.
b. The enemies against which Rome fought were not a unitary actor, and neither were Rome's allies.
c. Rome's allies one summer were often Rome's enemies by winter. And visa versa.
But the two things that made the biggest impression on me were the following:
d. Caesar was the commander for eight full years, and he enjoyed similar continuity among his subordinate commanders.
e. Caesar very rarely sent green units into the offensive. By the fourth and fifth year of the campaign, he is still making those legions which were the last to be raised in Italy responsible for guarding the freaking baggage. He relies over and over again on those legions -- most especially the Tenth -- that have proven themselves in combat in Gaul.
With Caesar's commentaries in mind, I read Doug Ollivant's lament about Gen. Joe Dunford. Gen. Dunford will be the fifteenth commander of NATO-ISAF in eleven years of combat in Afghanistan and the ninth U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Each of his subordinate commanders have rotated on an annual basis. Gen. Dunford -- who is, by all accounts, an excellent officer and highly respected by his peers -- has never served in Afghanistan.
The cultures, politics, tribes and peoples of Afghanistan are at least as complex as those of ancient Gaul, yet we Americans are so arrogant to think that we can send officers there with no experience and, owing to our superior knowledge of combat operations, watch them succeed. We will then send units which have never deployed to Afghanistan to partner with Afghan forces and wonder why they do not get along.
This is madness. The casual arrogance with which the U.S. military has approached the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has a direct relation to the difficulty with which we have fought each war. That we think we can send a commander to Afghanistan with no prior knowledge of Afghanistan and watch him be successful in the eleventh year of the conflict shows that after eleven years of conflict, we really don't know too much about Afghanistan. And we might not know too much about conflict either.
The French Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le
Drian, recently stated that France is willing to help impose
a “partial” no-fly zone in Syria, pending
international legitimacy and participation, and so long as it was not a full
no-fly zone, since that would be “tantamount to war.” There are several
curiosities to unravel here, and they are not exactly unique to this case.
The modern obsession with finding forms of military intervention short of war is a quixotic enterprise. As Micah Zenko has extensively studied, and co-blogger Adam has written about elsewhere, Discrete Military Operations such as no-fly zones are tantamount to wars in many respects. They are, if not sanctioned internationally, acts of aggression. They will often be treated by the target actor as an act of war. The dynamics of conflict and military action still apply.
What is particularly revealing here is that a “partial” no-fly zone is floated as some sort of non-war action, but a nationwide no-fly zone in Syria would be “tantamount to war.” But of course, imposing a no-fly zone over part of Syria or the whole of it is a matter of quantitative degree rather than qualitative difference. As I explored in a piece for the United States Naval Institute, imposing a no-fly zone in Syria would likely mean conducting intensive Suppression of Enemy Air Defense to destroy Syria’s air defenses and air force. Even a partial no-fly zone would likely require some strikes outside its limits in order to degrade Syrian airfields, early-warning radars and mobile or semi-mobile air defense systems.
Imposing even a partial no-fly zone would be tantamount to war, just as arming Syria’s rebels would be an act of war, and constitute foreign engagement in the Syrian civil war, and their success would rely on the combustible cocktail of passion, reason, and chance that all wars do. The difference between these “time-limited, scope-limited kinetic military actions” and war is ultimately an arbitrary distinction of political language which gives away when either the target or the intervening force, in order to achieve its objectives, escalates force to the point where the label is no longer tenable or useful.
In Iraq, the case is instructive on the dangers and shortcomings of such short-of-war thinking. In the wake of Desert Storm, despite the battlefield defeat of the Iraqi army and widespread desertion or imprisonment of Iraqi conscripts, Iraq maintained the will to suppress revolts in its north and south, resulting in the imposition of no-fly zones under Operations Northern and Southern Watch. The result was continued U.S. engagement in warfare against Iraqi air defenses and air forces and Iraqi warfare against rebelling forces in both no-fly zones. Saddam repeatedly violated America’s imposed standards despite the experience of 1990-91, which occasionally required the threatened reinsertion of Western ground forces or, in the wake of Saddam’s intervention in the Kurdish Civil War, and ended pretenses of respecting them due to strikes nominally aimed at his WMD program (but in practice, at many other critical political and military facilities). Ultimately, America’s political goals in Iraq, as codified in the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, required a military action everybody rightfully identified as a war.
Ultimately, although using labels such as “humanitarian intervention,” “kinetic military action,” or, to get really old school, “Quasi-War” may be politically or historically sensible, particularly in retrospect, they remain, from the perspective of military analysis grappling with prospective scenarios, frequently misleading. It is only the result of an equilibrium between the preferences of the belligerents engaged, and frequently devolve into war because each side retains the capacity to frustrate the political objectives of the other without an unmistakable increase in willpower or commitment. In Iraq, that increase ultimately came in the form of an invasion force. In Libya, luckily enough, it was a combination of NATO airstrikes and a weak government military which allowed escalation to proceed on much more favorable terms. Any application of concerted military force against a sovereign state is “tantamount to war.” Being vague or conflicted about its ends and obscure about its ways and means just makes it more politically convenient to discuss openly, but less convenient to discuss effectively.
Is there a lazier way to dismiss analysis of the contemporary Middle East than by leveling a blanket accusation of Orientalism?
[The] discussion of how events will unfold in post-Assad Syria is riddled with wildly unsubstantiated speculation and pessimism, often tarnished by doses of Orientalism, anti-Arab and anti-Islamic racism [what is the Islamic race? -- Ed.], and plain old-fashioned amateurism and ignorance.
The prevalent speculations I refer to include that Syria will long remain locked in domestic strife; the Alawites will face eternal hostility and revenge; sectarian civil war is likely to break out; the post-Assad struggle for power will be chaotic and perhaps violent; Syria could easily break up into several smaller ethnic statelets linked to neighboring states or compatriots; Syria’s collapse will trigger warfare across the region, and a few other such scenarios.
It occurs to me that learned students of civil wars and insurgencies as phenomena might argue there are ample, non-racist reasons to believe that any of the above might happen in Syria. It also occurs to me that students of the conflicts in Lebanon (1975-1990) and Iraq (2003-present) might also find reason for any of the above to happen in Syria -- but these concerns can safely be dismissed as Orientalist. There is actually nothing to fear, because as Khouri helpfully explains:
The Syrian people are too intelligent, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan to allow themselves to sink into a dark pit of sectarian warfare.
[Editor's note: the history of civil wars, eastern and western, is filled with people too intelligent, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan to fight them.]
Wondering how the Afghanistan-Libya-Syria? template of air power, special operations forces, and native forces got going? Simon Anglim, author of a wonderful new book on Orde Wingate, has a new piece worth your attention in the Journal of Military Operations. Paramilitary support operations, as Anglim calls them, have a long and somewhat checkered history. There are essentially two methods of supporting an insurgency that Anglim catalogs: first, issuing weapons and supplies to irregulars while using small units existing outside formal command structures to plan operations against the enemy's nerve centers and communications. Wingate was not a huge fan of this method:
Wingate was vitriolic about [T.E.] Lawrence’s approach to paramilitary support – issuing weapons, ammunition and money to anyone claiming they would fight, in the hope that they would wage protracted ‘People’s War’ along enemy lines of communication, forcing enemy formations to disperse and breaking their will via frustration and exhaustion. Wingate knew that winning the ‘armed struggle’ in reality necessitated success in battle, requiring disciplined, well-trained and well-armed professional guerrilla forces – the opposite of anarchic tribesmen like Lawrence’s Bedouin:
Certainly there were also personal issues involved, as Lawrence had written some nasty things about Wingate's mentor. But there was also a genuine philosophical difference prompted by Wingate's rather desultory experiences with guerrillas. Whlle fighting againt the Italians in Ethiopia, Wingate had experienced the problems of trying to hand out weapons and then expecting that the weapons themselves would unify squabbling tribesmen, warlords, and 'accidental guerrillas' with their own disparate agendas. More often than not Wingate found that the results did not result in strategic effect for British policy aims. Moreover, Wingate also lived in a time when the primary counterinsurgents suppressing internal rebellion were the thoroughly destructive Imperial Japanese Army and the German military and paramilitary warmaking apparatus. Both maintained iron grips on conquered lands, even if the Japanese could never gain strategic control over the whole of China and the Germans struggled mightily to cope with partisans in Yugoslavia and the Eastern Front. Compared to the "Three Alls," even the horrific brutality of a Assad or Gaddafi looks rather tame in comparison.
Either way, the partisans on both fronts did not create a true strategic threat to their German and Japanese opponents. Soviet destruction of German military power in Belorussia 1944 in Operation Bagration did what partisan bands could not, and Japanese ground military power in China was only uprooted after the Soviet destruction of the Kwantung Army in 1945's Manchurian Strategic Offensive. As Wingate noted, "When opposing ruthless enemies, such as Japanese or Germans, it is wrong to place any reliance upon the efforts of the individual patriot, however devoted. Brutal and widespread retaliation instantly follows any attempt to injure the enemy’s war machine, and, no matter how carefully the sabotage organisation may have been trained for the event, in practice they will find it impossible to operate against a resolute and ruthless enemy." Survival at all costs was the prominent concern when faced with such opponents, especially since those who survived long enough to see the Japanese and Germans leave would have a head start in the postwar struggle over domestic political power.
Wingate attempted to create a new mode of warfare rooted around a different vision. Regular units specializing in operations inside enemy lines, supplied by air and able to draw on close air support, would convert "potentially drawn-out and desultory guerrilla warfare into combined-arms operations having swift, decisive strategic effect." His Long Range Penetration (LRP) forces would find targets for bombing attack deep behind enemy line. But as Anglim observes, "airpower on its own was perhaps less important than the ability of ground forces to summon it, and then exploit its impact." Ultimately, the United States carried out a version of this sort of warfare on a grand scale in Afghanistan in 2002, and Anglim argues that Britain, France, and Qatari special operations forces in Libya provided forward air control, operated anti-tank missiles, and coordinated rebel ground offensives with NATO airstrikes. In 2003 in Kurdistan, the United States took Mosul in concert with Kurdish irregulars. The key to Wingate's mode of warfare was the prosecution of integrated air-ground offensives with an aim to generate strategic effect through operational guidance of ground forces to ensure that weapons are used appropriately and tactics are sound. Such a presence need not necessarily be too large, but must also be sufficient for the task.
Whether or not paramilitary support operations are in the national interest is a policy question, but Anglim has admirably outlined the British operational lineage of the "Afghan method" that many have assumed was explicitly American and invented in 2001. Of course William "Bull" Donovan and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) also worked on similar ideas, and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) implemented a similar operational design at times. But Wingate expressed the primary ideas with perhaps the most clarity.