Tomahawk Signaling in Syria

Unless President Obama blinks/”bottles it”/pays attention to r/Politics somewhere over the next couple of days, America plus others are likely to begin openly bombing something in Syria. Who or what they’ll hit, no-one can say. The internet is alive with competing theories of what’s good, what’s bad, and what it would be plain stupid for America to destroy. The (immediate) “why” is somewhat clearer: most evidence points to Assad’s government doing another hop, skip and jump over the “don’t use chemical weapons” red line that is encoded in customary and treaty international law, as well as being verbally pointed out just over a year ago by Obama himself. The pictures are somewhat shocking, as is the somewhat flagrant disregard for international opinion by the embattled Syrian government. Yet the prospect of America bombing a fourth (mostly) muslim country halfway around the world since 9/11 is worrisome. As is the prospect of America being drawn into Syria’s civil war, with its myriad factions and little prospect of a quick ending. The American public appears unconvinced at the talk from their politicians, with just 9% supporting intervention.

Within the melee of hypothetical commentary, I’ve been engaged in quite a good back-and-forth debate with Rex Brynen and Tom Wein over what American goals should be. Personally, I see a “win” for America as a demonstration of force against something the regime values, which can be separated from the civil war as much as possible, so that Russia doesn’t take offence, and the regime can’t use the (inevitable) continuation of the civil war as evidence that it didn’t affect them. For that reason, my hypothetical target of choice would be the Syrian navy, since destroying an entire arm of the military would be a good deterrent to other states thinking of using chemical weapons use, plus it would be pretty clear that it isn’t intended to affect the course of the civil war, unless the Free Syrian Army was thinking of floating a navy at some point. Rex disagreed, pointing out that any attack would naturally be associated with overarching goals in Syria (the civil war ending in some form of regime change) and the US might as well take the opportunity to affect the course of the war. It should be noted that I think both myself and Rex see “win” in the relative sense that America is at the point where it’s using $0.5-1.5 million missiles to achieve something. When events get to that point, there is no “good” scenario, as the Guardian handily pointed out in cartoon form. Either way, it’s pretty clear that limited air strikes will not stop the civil war from continuing so the signal-value of military action is likely to be important.

I’m still mulling over the two takes. Personally I see signalling to other states not to use chemical weapons as more important than engaging with the civil war, since I think it’s difficult to do the latter “well” in any sense of the word, without getting involved in a politically unsustainable military engagement. It raises good questions of strategic communication – my take on the issue relies on the rest of the world seeing the strikes as unrelated to the war. Is it possible to do that? On a wider level, would a Syrian ‘Desert Fox’ be anything other than a prelude to a larger military engagement by America? The last question that keeps bouncing around my head is why people like Obama refuse to use the language of coercion and reprisal, when this is what such acts clearly entail. Tony Blair  has once more waded into the arena that nobody (including, I think, the people itching to detonate missiles in Syria) invited him into with precisely the same language that raises red flags after Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s somewhat odd that what (I think) would serve Obama and America is the message – “We will send cruise missiles at anyone that uses chemical weapons on civilians.”  - yet they can’t even think of using language like that. I’m sure Tecumseh Sherman would be turning in his grave at the quasi-humanitarian excuses for killing. Any KoW readers that wish to wade in, feel free. I’m sure the topic will stay current for weeks.

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6 thoughts on “Tomahawk Signaling in Syria

  1. Cincinnatus jr. says:

    I think ANY military involvement by the US in Syria (on whatever “side,”there happens to be) is folly in the extreme. It seems our MAster has forgotten His own words:

    “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”

    As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.” and,

    “Question: In what circumstances, if any, would the president have constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use-of-force authorization from Congress? (Specifically, what about the strategic bombing of suspected nuclear sites — a situation that does not involve stopping an IMMINENT threat?)

    Obama: [I] The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.

    As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.”

    and this by His then Secretary of Defense:

    “Question: In what circumstances, if any, would the president have constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use-of-force authorization from Congress? (Specifically, what about the strategic bombing of suspected nuclear sites — a situation that does not involve stopping an IMMINENT threat?) Obama: The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation. As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.”

    According to opinion polls yesterday (www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/08/26/new-poll-syria-intervention-even-less-popular-than-congress/]New poll: Syria intervention even less popular than Congress) this ill-advised course of action has the lowest support of the American people of any military op by the US since Vietnam. If the US acts militarily now it will be purely to save face due to the intemperate remark by an wholly inept president and administration.

    It is also telling and troubling that this mindless current run-up to military force has neither a specific US national security interest to be protected nor, perhaps even more importantly, a specific end state as its goal. Have we not learned anything from our last two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that there can be no "winner" in any military intervention of the type the US would undertake in that region of the world?

    • I’d agree that the likely result has no specific end state, nor, for that matter, is the Obama administration particularly clear on the specific national security interest. However, I do think that deterring states from using chemical weapons is in America’s national interest, whereas the vague goals of stopping/winning the war in Syria aren’t clearly so. That said, it’s unlikely that their military action will work out in the way they hope it does.

    • Cincinnatus Jr. says:

      Agreed. Anything short of eliminating the Syrian air force at a minimum will be but a pin prick that will show only impotence to our Islamic enemies.

    • David Betz says:

      Jack, what happens if we give Assad a bit of a thumping for using chemical weapons and he turns around and uses them again? Do we escalate? How far? How fast?

      If we hammer the regime a bit and tip the balance toward the human-heart-munching rebels who look likely to take over the arsenal do we intervene again? How much?

      The best thing to do is to stay away.

  2. Pingback: Syria, Signaling, and Operation Infinite Reach

  3. This article highlights the main problem of the US striving to become a hegemon. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. However, since this is a civil war- as you pointed out, I think it is best that they don’t.

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