Thursday, April 25, 2013

To Chemical Weapon, Or Not To Chemical Weapon

UPDATE:  Survey says?  To chemical weapon... Just like that the landscape has changed.  A new AP report now states that U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel believes that Syria has used chemical weapons.  According to the report, "U.S. intelligence has concluded 'with some degree of varying confidence,' that the Syrian government has used sarin gas as a weapon in its 2-year-old civil war, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday."  Does this change our strategic position?

So now that we know that Syria has used Chemical weapons...
Israel declared Tuesday that it had found evidence that the Syrian government repeatedly used chemical weapons last month, arguing that President Bashar al-Assad was testing how the United States and others would react and that it was time for Washington to overcome its deep reluctance to intervene in the Syrian civil war. 
In making the declaration — which went somewhat beyond recent suspicions expressed by Britain and France — Israeli officials argued that President Assad had repeatedly crossed what President Obama said last summer would be a “red line.” 
With added confirmation by Syrian rebels...
The chief of staff for the Free Syrian Army said he can confirm that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons in the Syrian cities of Homs, Aleppo and Otaiba, outside Damascus. 
“We took some samples of the soil and of blood. The injured people were observed by doctors and the samples were tested and it was very clear that the regime used chemical weapons,” General Salim Idriss told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday. 
Idriss said his doctors gave the samples to “observers” of the civil war in Syria, but refused to name which groups.
Assad has crosse... Oh wait, it's not clear?
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday cast doubt on an Israeli general's conclusion that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against its own citizens. 
Any U.S. response to Syria will be based on American intelligence findings, Hagel said in his first public remarks since an Israeli official alleged Monday that the Syria government had used chemical weapons. 
"Suspicions are one thing," Hagel told reporters traveling with him. "Evidence is another." 
So we've set a "red line" that, should Assad cross, is supposed to prompted a more decisive U.S. response.  But is that red line even achievable?  And what are the ramifications of calling our bluff?
“It’s a hard call as to whether the administration is trying to avoid something, or if they just don’t have the evidence,” says Wayne White, a former State Department official with experience in Middle East intelligence. 
Obama has said repeatedly since last August that Syria’s use of chemical weapons is a US “red line” and would be a “game changer” for the US. But now some critics say the president’s caution suggests a moving or “fuzzy” red line. . . . 
But for others, the reason Obama is setting the bar high – in a situation where incontrovertible evidence could remain very difficult to come by – is because he has no desire to ratchet up US involvement in the Syrian conflict unless forced to. 
The danger of this approach, critics say, is that it encourages an increasingly desperate President Assad to test the limits of US reluctance – perhaps even with limited, hard-to-prove use of some chemical weapons. . . . 
If chemical weapons use is proven “there will have to be some response from the administration,” he adds, “but unless it’s indiscriminate use, I don’t see us doing something like a no-fly zone that could really make a difference.” 
Given Obama’s pattern to this point of gradually ramping up humanitarian aid and non-lethal material assistance to the rebels, the administration might bow to French and British pressure to approve providing the rebels with arms, White says. “But something like that, that might have made a difference 18 months ago, won’t be a game-changer now.”
Assuming the administration is still weighing the legitimacy of this intelligence, what would the response be?  As noted above, Obama could approve shipment of lethal assistance (i.e. guns) that he has been reluctant to do so far.  That might not prove decisive any more because the opposition is less united.  Moreover, the growing influence of al-Qaeda forces (for example, the al-nusra front formally declaring its support of al-Qaeda), a strong argument can be made that we would be arming jihadist forces by dumping weapons into Syria.  

To prevent supplying al-Qaeda with arms and to actually have some effect on the battlefield, the U.S. could execute targeted airstrikes.  It is widely believed that Israel conducted a successful strike inside Syria against a convoy of missiles heading to Hezbollah, for which it received heavy international condemnation.  In any event, a U.S. airstrike in Syria would probably have to deal with more concentrated (and therefore more deadly to our air forces) anti-aircraft weaponry.  Even if we could do it, what would we strike?  Given that our "red line" has been use of chemical weapons, we could target those.  And should they be located next to strategic equipment, all the better.

Regardless, everyone (the public but especially policymakers calling for more U.S. involvement) needs to realize that military action against Syria would entail the loss of lives and materiel.  First, they have a formidable air force.  Second, they have strategic allies (read Russia and Iran) who would love to tie down the U.S. military in another war in an Arab middle eastern state.  

It is clear, though, that pressure to "do more" will only increase as the number of Syrian refugees pushes north of 1 million, and the number of dead could approach 100,000.

Here's an interesting blog post about Senator McCain's roadmap:
No one should think that we have to destroy every air defense system or put tens of thousands of boots on the ground to make a difference in Syria. We have more limited options. We could, for example, organize an overt and large-scale operation to train and equip Syrian opposition forces. We could use our precision strike capabilities to target Assad's aircraft and Scud missile launchers on the ground, without our pilots having to fly into the teeth of Syria's air defenses. We could use similar weapons to selectively destroy artillery pieces and make their crews think twice about remaining at their posts. We could also use Patriot missile batteries outside of Syria to help protect safe zones inside of Syria.

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