The Astonishing Illogic of the Push to War in Syria

Yesterday afternoon, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard from three senior officials — Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chuck Hagel, the Secretary of Defense, and John Kerry, the Secretary of State — about why the Administration wants a Congressional authorization to use military force against Syria. It was utter nonsense (full transcript here).

At its most basic level, there is a clever bait and switch going on. As Chairman Menendez said in his opening statement:

What is before us is a request, and I quote, “to prevent or deter the use or proliferation of chemical or biological weapons within, to or from Syria and to protect the United States and its allies and partners against the threat posed by such weapons.” This is not a declaration of war but a declaration of our values to the world, a declaration that says we are willing to use our military power when necessary against anyone who dares turn such heinous weapons on innocent civilians anywhere in the world.

Keep that in mind — “to prevent or deter” the use of chembio weapons in or around Syria. Because almost immediately, it proved a near-meaningless phrase. In his own opening statement, Secretary Kerry said:

Since President Obama’s policy is that Assad must go, it is not insignificant that to deprive him of the capacity to use chemical weapons, or to degrade the capacity to use those chemical weapons, actually deprives him of a lethal weapon in this ongoing civil war, and that has an impact. That can help to stabilize the region, ultimately.

It’s already off the path of deterrence or prevention and straight into regime change and directly “degrading” certain capabilities (“degrade” is a euphemism for “destroy” — and was used 28 times during the hearing yesterday). Kerry continued:

The president’s — the president’s asking for a limited authority to degrade his current capacity and to deter him from using it again. He is not asking for permission from the Congress to go destroy the entire regime or to, you know, do a much more extensive kind of thing. That’s not what he’s asking.

So, Obama’s policy is to end the Assad regime, but he is not seeking permission to do that with these strikes, just to “degrade,” or destroy, or deter any future chemical weapons use (while those are not really interchangeable terms, we’ll leave that for now). What will this look like? Gen. Dempsey said it would specifically not look like a direct attack on the regime:

GEN. DEMPSEY: Sure. And I think the language about not to — not using American military power to tip the scale is — would be our direct action. In other words, this resolution is not asking for permission for the president to be able to use the United States’ Armed Forces to overthrow the regime.

On the other hand, back to the earlier questions about developing a moderate regime that has capabilities to be a stabilizing force inside of Syria, that’s the path — our military action, in this case, is very focused on the chemical weapons, but will have the added benefit of degrading — and it will also have the added benefit of supporting the diplomatic track.

When asked what the end game, Secretary Hagel described it this way:

And this is about getting to an end game. That end game is a diplomatic settlement. It is driving this toward what we believe, the president believes is the only way out of this, if for no other reason than what Secretary Kerry has noted: We do not want to see the country of Syria disintegrate, result in ungoverned space, which I think the consequences would be devastating for our partners, for our allies, the entire Middle East. Then we would all have to respond in some way. So I just add that on to answering your last question.

Let’s set aside the weird logic there — 1/3 of Syria’s population has fled, and vast swaths of the country are already under rebel and/or al Qaeda control, which is almost anyone’s definition of “disintegration” — and focus on a specific idea. Hagel says Obama’s end game is a “diplomatic settlement.” But just a few minutes earlier, Kerry had said such a thing is impossible (it’s a bit rambly I’m sorry):

This is a targeted action to deal with the problem of chemical weapons, but there is a separate track which the president has already committed the administration and the country to, which is that Assad must go, that he has lost all moral authority or capacity to ever govern Syria and that he is pursuing that — the president is pursuing that track by helping the opposition, by now having made the decision to lethally arm that opposition by upgrading the efforts for the opposition to be able to fight the fight — not the United States — the opposition — and to be able to come to a negotiated settlement, because the president is convinced, as I think everybody is, that there is no military solution, that ultimately, you want to get to Geneva, you want a negotiated settlement, and under the terms of Geneva One, there is an agreement which the Russians have signed onto, which calls for a transition government to be created with the mutual consent of the current regime and the opposition. And that transition government will establish the rules of the road for the Syrian people to choose their new government.

There is no way possible that by mutual consent, Assad is going to be part of that future.

So Assad won’t negotiate, but negotiations are the end goal, but they’re not trying to force negotiations through strikes.

Got that?

After saying that these strikes are meant to help the opposition, Kerry said something very curious:

SEC. KERRY: No, that is — no, that is actually basically not true. It’s basically incorrect. The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution, which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria. And that’s very critical.

In short, there is not a single expert, including those on the Syrian Emergency Task Force, who think the opposition is getting more moderate. In fact, all signs point to the moderate faction of the opposition completely fracturing as more groups are coopted by jihadists. This is heightened nonsense from the Senator.

But heightened nonsense seems to be the name of the game. No one really expects limited strikes to do much — not even those who support striking the Assad regime — and there is a broad sense that limited strikes will open the door to more broad strikes. Which will, in short order become regime change, almost by default (since how else can you ensure Assad never used chembio weapons again?).

Moreover, Assad thinks he can survive limited strikes and continue to fight, so the prospect doesn’t scare him. It is not a deterrent, in other words. He only responds to direct threats to his rule, but Obama’s point men went out of their way to say that they are not directly threatening his rule. So how could those strikes degrade or destroy his will to slaughter civilians?

It doesn’t.

The logic for striking Syria is as bizarre as it is unconvincing:

  • Assad used chemical weapons. This is bad.
  • We should make chemical weapons use unacceptable and impose punishment.
  • BUT, that punishment should not be regime change, because we don’t want Syria to “implode.”
  • AND, that punishment should be narrowly focused only on chemical weapons.
  • DESPITE our official policy of “Assad must go,” Assad will not be forced to go.
  • THEREFORE, strikes will be limited enough to only attack his chembio weapons, but not his actual capabilities, nor his regime, nor is it calibrated to directly help the rebels apart from removing a single weapon that hasn’t killed 99% of all casualties in the conflict.

If this makes any sense to you — logically, tactically, strategically, or operationally — I’m sure there’s a bridge for sale somewhere. So what is the point of this? It is a terribly empty gesture that serves vanishingly small purpose. I don’t get it. Even our own senior intel officers say Syria is going to get worse whether Assad stays or go — so why aren’t we focusing on how to prevent, mitigate, or manage that rather than all this empty nonsense? It’s like the White House is determined to only accept blame but not help. It’s madness.

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