Ali Harfouch from Lebanon discusses the strategic objectives of the US if they decide to attack Syria.
These last couple of weeks have been tumultuous, from the US marking it with a strong push for a seemingly inevitable military strike in Syria, to a rapid and sudden shift in rhetoric after Russia put forth a more diplomatic option which involved the international monitoring of Syria’s chemical weapons. However, as the option for a military strike remains “on the table”, it is important that an adequate understanding of US led military intervention is examined.
Forecasting the potential regional and international ramifications of the forthcoming strikes on Syria requires that the “strikes” be contextualised within a wider context of US strategy in the Middle East, and the strategic significance of the “strikes” be examined.
US national interests: The background context to the attack
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Barack Obama’s current military advisor, put it quite bluntly in a letter sent to Representative Eliot Engel on August 19: “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides,” he said. “It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favour. Today, they are not”. The General’s concerns are reflective of those carried by policy-makers across the US and Europe.
One major obstacle stands in the way of a full-scale US led attack on the Syrian regime; the absence of a political, military or civilian faction in Syria which can both dominate Syria’s political vacuum and maintain US interests. More so, the Islamic sentiment and domineering presence of “radical” military factions in Syria have not recognised the authority of the Western-backed Syrian National Council (SNC) and, consequently, it remains powerless in Syria.
Thus, the strikes in Syria will be, at best, disciplinary and unlikely to significantly damage Bashar Al-Assad’s military infrastructure. Furthermore, the prolonged warnings which have preceded the attacks make it all the more clear that the move is not aimed at neutralising Assad.
“Tactical actions in the absence of strategic objectives are usually pointless and often counterproductive”. The tactical actions are futile, precisely because they are intended to be. A senior naval consultant and the architect of the “surgical strikes” about to be employed against Syria explained, “I made it clear that this is a low cost option, but the broader issue is that low cost options don’t do any good unless they are tied to strategic priorities and objectives.” In other words, surgical strikes are meant to be part of a larger, grander military strike – they are in no way intended to be used as an option by themselves.
Accordingly, the forthcoming strikes have been under heavy criticism from military advisors and consultants, including Christopher Harmer from the Institute for the Study of War. Interestingly, he notes that the surgical strikes are unlikely to even neutralise Assad’s chemical depots or “cause more than a temporary degradation in regime operations”. It can be concluded, from a purely empirical and strategic perspective that the strikes do not aim at anything short of a symbolic and punitive manoeuvre.
Carrying out these strikes, in the absence of a clearly articulated and coherent US policy towards Syria, is another example of the blunders of Barack Obama and a tottering US foreign policy which is struggling to gain a foothold in a turbulent Middle East. With the events in Egypt unfolding, a complication in Syria makes the US’s ability to employ “soft power” in the Arab-Muslim world all the more difficult, and forces it to instead resort to military coups (as in Egypt) or ineffective strikes (as the warnings against Syria). Britain’s withdrawal, despite being a long-time military ally of the US further undermines the America’s global standing, as does the hesitancy of its proxy allies, Jordan and Turkey to provide support.
US options in Syria
One option however remains optimal for the US. To support US backed rebels and a marginalisation of the domineering “radical brigades” through military action. According to several reports, a large number of handpicked rebels have been trained extensively by US Special Forces in neighbouring Jordan. The same report goes on to claim that these rebels have made major advances in Syria and are inching closer to Damascus. A takeover of the capital by US backed rebels, through massive Western-led military air support, similar to the scenario in Libya, is seemingly the only option which remains on the table for the US. Had this been an immediate option, however the forthcoming “surgical strikes” would have been far more wide-reaching.
Furthermore, it goes without saying that such a plan is futile because of the minimal influence of US backed brigades, making it nearly impossible to garner support from the more active and rebellious regions in Syria which remain dominated by Islamic brigades.
The uncertain outcomes of a “limited strike” help explain why Obama backpedalled and sought congressional approval. Before congress conjures, Obama has successfully won over the support from two key republican leaders in congress: Senator John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Accordingly, a collective based decision to strike would mean that Obama is not left facing the brunt of another foreign policy blunder alone.
Gains and losses from the “strike”
In conclusion, these attacks are likely to:
(1) Bolster and provide substance to Assad’s anti-imperial and conspiracy-based rhetoric, without any significant loss or setback on Assad’s part.
(2) Strengthen the Islamic opposition’s firm belief that the US has no concern for the well-being of the Syrian population, and again, without any sustained losses suffered by the Islamic opposition.
(3) Further discredit US global standing as an effective policy-enforcer and as an influential actor in the Arab-Muslim world. Consequently, it will embolden the American-European rivals who have called for more wide-scale significant attacks.
(4) Weaken the Obama administration – internally – while it’s still recovering foreign policy blunders in Egypt and continues to receive heat for its illegal drone strikes. A cursory survey of US public opinion, attitudes in congress, and the disgruntled military elites in Washington points to a major disillusionment with Obama’s trajectory for Syria.
Ali Harfouch writes for the Revolution Observer