Red Lines, Syria and Incompetence

 Well thought out red lines can be drawn, successfully.
Ill conceived red lines can easily make a bad situation much worse.
An article from Stratfor is republished following my initial comments.

My initial comments:

English: President Bashar al-Assad of Syria . ...

English: President Bashar al-Assad of Syria . Original background. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Great care needs to be taken to avoid drawing ill defined “red lines” which, if crossed, may result in solutions worse than the problem or in no significant action at all. The Obama Administration appears to have drawn its red line as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria with inadequate thought to the nature of any “something to be done if crossed” that would be viable militarily, economically, politically and with due regard to the probable consequences.

Sitting on the sidelines is not pleasant, particularly for a once mighty but now declining military power. Even when at our strongest, I doubt that we could have taken usefully successful action in the current circumstances.

However, getting involved in a serious conflict with achievement of ill-defined or impossible goals in mind can be much worse than sitting on the sidelines. Happy dreams of planting western style “democratic” government in Islamic lands where “freedom for all” is anathema are unrealizable; illusions of reality, based on the way we would like the world to be rather than on how it is, lead to disappointment and worse. We should have seen by now that the probability of useful success in Syria closely approaches zero.

Our most recent military effort that resulted in successfully planting Western style notions of democracy was in Japan, which the U.S. and to some extent her allies had only recently defeated severely in World War II. World War II against Japan was not begun with that goal in mind. Transformation of the quite homogeneous Japanese culture was stimulated economically by the Korean Conflict that began in June of 1950.  In consequence of U.S. – U.N. military efforts in Korea, millions of Japanese gained employment and many millions of dollars flowed into the Japanese economy. There seems to be little if any reason to hope for, much less to expect, any comparable circumstances in Syria.

Drawing a Syrian red line in such circumstances was ill advised because it has subjected – and it should have been expected that it would subject — the U.S. to creditable charges of dithering, ineffectual and otherwise incompetent bluster. Those charges have doubtless been heard – and credited with happiness if not relief – by the ruling powers in such rogue nations as North Korea and Iran, the former with an already at least modest arsenal of nuclear weapons and the latter nascently so. North Korea loves to bluster and its leaders may be sufficiently irrational to take their own bluster seriously — with dire consequences for them, their nation and for many others elsewhere. Iran’s blustering has thus far generally been limited to denying that it is seeking nuclear weaponry, with occasional threats to demolish Israel thrown in. If and when Iran does get such weapons, it will affect, adversely, whatever balance of power exists in the Middle East; the consequences will likely be worse than that.

The following article is republished here with the permission of Stratfor.

Redlines and the Problems of Intervention in Syria

By George Friedman

Founder and Chairman

The civil war in Syria, one of the few lasting legacies of the Arab Spring, has been under way for more than two years. There has been substantial outside intervention in the war. The Iranians in particular, and the Russians to a lesser extent, have supported the Alawites under Bashar al Assad. The Saudis and some of the Gulf States have supported the Sunni insurgents in various ways. The Americans, Europeans and Israelis, however, have for the most part avoided involvement.

Last week the possibility of intervention increased. The Americans and Europeans have had no appetite for intervention after their experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. At the same time, they have not wanted to be in a position where intervention was simply ruled out. Therefore, they identified a redline that, if crossed, would force them to reconsider intervention: the use of chemical weapons.

There were two reasons for this particular boundary. The first was that the United States and European states have a systemic aversion to the possession and usage of weapons of mass destruction in other countries. They see this ultimately as a threat to them, particularly if such weapons are in the hands of non-state users. But there was a more particular reason in Syria. No one thought that al Assad was reckless enough to use chemical weapons because they felt that his entire strategy depended on avoiding U.S. and European intervention, and that therefore he would never cross the redline. This was comforting to the Americans and Europeans because it allowed them to appear decisive while avoiding the risk of having to do anything.

However, in recent weeks, first the United Kingdom and France and then Israel and the United States asserted that the al Assad regime had used chemical weapons. No one could point to an incidence of massive deaths in Syria, and the evidence of usage was vague enough that no one was required to act immediately.

In Iraq, it turned out there was not a nuclear program or the clandestine chemical and biological weapons programs that intelligence had indicated. Had there been, the U.S. invasion might have had more international support, but it is doubtful it would have had a better outcome. The United States would have still forced the Sunnis into a desperate position, the Iranians would have still supported Shiite militias and the Kurds would have still tried to use the chaos to build an autonomous Kurdish region. The conflict would have still been fought and its final outcome would not have looked very different from how it does now.

What the United States learned in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is that it is relatively easy for a conventional force to destroy a government. It is much harder  — if not impossible — to use the same force to impose a new type of government. The government that follows might be in some moral sense better than what preceded it — it is difficult to imagine a more vile regime than Saddam Hussein’s — but the regime that replaces it will first be called chaos, followed by another regime that survives to the extent that it holds the United States at arm’s length. Therefore, redline or not, few want to get involved in another intervention pivoting on weapons of mass destruction.

Interventionist Arguments and Illusions

However, there are those who want to intervene for moral reasons. In Syria, there is the same moral issue that there was in Iraq. The existing regime is corrupt and vicious. It should not be forgotten that the al Assad regime conducted a massacre in the city of Hama in 1982 in which tens of thousands of Sunnis were killed for opposing the regime. The regime carried out constant violations of human rights and endless brutality. There was nothing new in this, and the world was able to act fairly indifferent to the events, since it was still possible to create media blackouts in those days. Syria’s patron, the Soviet Union, protected it, and challenging the Syrian regime would be a challenge to the Soviet Union. It was a fight that few wanted to wage because the risks were seen as too high.

The situation is different today. Syria’s major patron is Iran, which had (until its reversal in Syria) been moving toward a reshaping of the balance of power in the region. Thus, from the point of view of the American right, an intervention is morally required to confront evil regimes. There are those on the left who also want intervention. In the 1980s, the primary concern of the left was the threat of nuclear war, and they saw any intervention as destabilizing a precarious balance. That concern is gone, and advocacy for military intervention to protect human rights is a significant if not universal theme on the left.

The difference between right-wing and left-wing interventionists is the illusions they harbor. In spite of experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, right-wing interventionists continue to believe that the United States and Europe have the power not only to depose regimes but also to pacify the affected countries and create Western-style democracies. The left believes that there is such a thing as a neutral intervention — one in which the United States and Europe intervene to end a particular evil, and with that evil gone, the country will now freely select a Western-style constitutional democracy. Where the right-wing interventionists cannot absorb the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, the left-wing interventionists cannot absorb the lessons of Libya.

Everyone loved the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. What was not to like? The Evil Empire was collapsing for the right; respect for human rights was universally embraced for the left. But Eastern Europe was occupied by Josef Stalin in 1945 following domination and occupation by Adolf Hitler. Eastern Europeans had never truly embraced either, and for the most part loathed both. The collapse freed them to be what they by nature were. What was lurking under the surface had always been there, suppressed but still the native political culture and aspiration.

That is not what was under the surface in Afghanistan or Iraq. These countries were not Europe and did not want to be. One of the reasons that Hussein was despised was that he was secular — that he violated fundamental norms of Islam both in his personal life and in the way he governed the country. There were many who benefited from his regime and supported him, but if you lopped off the regime, what was left was a Muslim country wanting to return to its political culture, much as Eastern Europe returned to its.

In Syria, there are two main factions fighting. The al Assad regime is Alawite, a heterodox offshoot of Shi’ism. But its more important characteristic is that it is a secular regime, not guided by either liberal democracy or Islam but with withering roots in secular Arab Socialism. Lop it off and what is left is not another secular movement, this time liberal and democratic, but the underlying Muslim forces that had been suppressed but never eradicated. A New York Times article this week pointed out that there are no organized secular forces in areas held by the Sunni insurgents. The religious forces are in control. In Syria, secularism belonged to the Baath Party and the Alawites, and it was brutal. But get rid of it, and you do not get liberal democracy.

This is what many observers missed in the Arab Spring. They thought that under the surface of the oppressive Hosni Mubarak regime, which was secular and brutal, was a secular liberal democratic force. Such a force was present in Egypt, more than in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya, but still did not represent the clear alternative to Mubarak. The alternative — not as clearly as elsewhere, but still the alternative — was the Muslim Brotherhood, and no secular alternative was viable without the Egyptian army.

The Difficulties of an Intervention

There are tremendous military challenges to dealing with Syria. Immaculate interventions will not work. A surgical strike on chemical facilities is a nice idea, but the intelligence on locations is never perfect, Syria has an air defense system that cannot be destroyed without substantial civilian casualties, and blowing up buildings containing chemical weapons could release the chemicals before they burn. Sending troops deep into Syria would not be a matter of making a few trips by helicopter. The country is an armed camp, and destroying or seizing stockpiles of chemical weapons is complicated and requires manpower. To destroy the stockpiles, you must first secure ports, airports and roads to get to them, and then you have to defend the roads, of which there are many.

Eradicating chemical weapons from Syria — assuming that they are all in al Assad’s territory — would require occupying that territory, and the precise outlines of that territory change from day to day. It is also likely, given the dynamism of a civil war, that some chemical weapons would fall into the hands of the Sunni insurgents. There are no airstrikes or surgical raids by special operations troops that would solve the problem. Like Iraq, the United States would have to occupy the country.

If al Assad and the leadership are removed, his followers — a substantial minority — will continue to resist, much as the Sunnis did in Iraq. They have gained much from the al Assad regime and, in their minds, they face disaster if the Sunnis win. The Sunnis have much brutality to repay. On the Sunni side, there may be a secular liberal democratic group, but if so it is poorly organized and control is in the hands of Islamists and other more radical Islamists, some with ties to al Qaeda. The civil war will continue unless the United States intervenes on behalf of the Islamists, uses its power to crush the Alawites and hands power to the Islamists. A variant of this happened in Iraq when the United States sought to crush the Sunnis but did not want to give power to the Shia. The result was that everyone turned on the Americans.

That will be the result of a neutral intervention or an intervention designed to create a constitutional democracy. Those who intervene will find themselves trapped between the reality of Syria and the assorted fantasies that occasionally drive U.S. and European foreign policy. No great harm will come in any strategic sense. The United States and Europe have huge populations and enormous wealth. They can, in that sense, afford such interventions. But the United States cannot afford continual defeats as a result of intervening in countries of marginal national interest, where it sets for itself irrational political goals for the war. In some sense, power has to do with perception, and not learning from mistakes undermines power.

Many things are beyond the military power of the United States. Creating constitutional democracies by invasion is one of those things. There will be those who say intervention is to stop the bloodshed, not to impose Western values. Others will say intervention that does not impose Western values is pointless. Both miss the point. You cannot stop a civil war by adding another faction to the war unless that faction brings overwhelming power to bear. The United States has a great deal of power, but not overwhelming power, and overwhelming power’s use means overwhelming casualties. And you cannot transform the political culture of a country from the outside unless you are prepared to devastate it as was done with Germany and Japan.

The United States, with its European allies, does not have the force needed to end Syria’s bloodshed. If it tried, it would merely be held responsible for the bloodshed without achieving any strategic goal. There are places to go to war, but they should be few and of supreme importance. The bloodshed in Syria is not more important to the United States than it is to the Syrians.

Redlines and the Problems of Intervention in Syria is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

My further comments:

President Obama’s current position as to the red line is that we don’t know for sure whether it was crossed or, if so, by whom. That fallback position may be satisfactory for a short while. However, we are likely in the near future to have actionable and reasonably certain answers to both questions. If the answers are “yes” and “the Syrian government did it,” is there another fallback position? Perhaps the red line can be redefined as a broad pink stripe, so defined as to be as flexible as necessary no matter what may happen. The impacts on the credibility of the United States of drawing such lines are likely to be quite adverse.

This article by Luis Hershou contends that military action by the United States is fast approaching.

Obama is now faced with having to take action against the use of deadly gas by Assad forces.

At this stage – and even later – it is fair to assume that no massive American  ground operation will occur.  Instead, special forces for dealing with the WMD depots there will be used.

It’s also a fair assumption that the US Air Force will be soon felt in the skies above Syria.

I doubt that we are headed in the direction suggested in that article, but it is certainly possible.

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About danmillerinpanama

I was graduated from Yale University in 1963 with a B.A. in economics and from the University of Virginia School of law, where I was the notes editor of the Virginia Law Review in 1966. Following four years of active duty with the Army JAG Corps, with two tours in Korea, I entered private practice in Washington, D.C. specializing in communications law. I retired in 1996 to sail with my wife, Jeanie, on our sailboat Namaste to and in the Caribbean. In 2002, we settled in the Republic of Panama and live in a very rural area up in the mountains. I have contributed to Pajamas Media and Pajamas Tatler. In addition to my own blog, Dan Miller in Panama, I an an editor of Warsclerotic and contribute to China Daily Mail when I have something to write about North Korea.
This entry was posted in 2016 Obama's America, Chemical weapons, Cultural differences, Democracy, Economics, Foreign aid, History, Ideology, Iran, Islamists, Israel, Japan, Kim Dynasty, Korea, Korean Conflict, Meddling, Middle East, Military, Muslim Brotherhood, North Korea, North Korea's nukes, North Korean missiles, Nuclear weapons, Obama, Peace, Politics, Regime change, Retaliation by North Korea, Sanctions, Stimulus, Stratfor, Syria, U.S. Military, United States and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Red Lines, Syria and Incompetence

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  10. Ruvy says:

    Just a reminder for you, Dan. About 4 years ago, I laid on the table a plan for ISRAEL TO NUKE TEHRAN AND OTHER IMPORTANT IRANIAN BASES. While most everyone at Blogcritics hooted and hollered like so many stuck pigs at my words then, you now see WHY I said what I did. I STAND BY MY WORD. WE, ISRAEL, NEED TO NUKE THE BASTARDS. SCREW AMERICA! It’s going down the toilet anyway.

    Another little item for you, this dragged up from military history. IN 202 BCE, a Roman legate stood in front of the Seleucid Greek-Syrian army in the Gaza Strip (where it had advanced to), took his sandal off and DREW A LINE IN THE SAND. “Cross this line,” he said, “and you will be at war with the Roman Senate.”

    If you don’t back up “lines in the sand” with credible military force, they are merely lines in the sand. That line drawn by the Roman legate is the present border between Egypt and Israel, and before it was the line separating Egypt from Mandate Palestine, and before it from Turkey, and before that the internal provincial borders of Egypt and Israel within the Turkish Empire.

    Just something to mull over while you smoke your pipe and look at the mountains outside your finca.

    Regards to your wife,
    Ruvy

    • Thanks, Ruvy. It strikes me as almost self-evident that before announcing that a “red line’ has been drawn it’s a good idea to know what that means.

      As to the Iranian nukes, this excerpt from a Yes, Prime Minister story about an impending invasion of St. George’s Island seems appropriate. It recites Foreign Office statements in their usual chronological order.

      Stage one: We say that nothing is going to happen.
      Stage two: We say that something may be going to happen, but we should do nothing about it.
      Stage three: We say that maybe we should do something about it, but there’s nothing we can do.
      Stage four: We say that maybe there was something we could have done but it’s too late now.

      We seem to be approaching stage four.

      Saludos, Dan

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