Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Staying Out of Syria

It's interesting that Obama said there was a "red line" in sand concerning the use of chemical weapons. If Syria's President Assad crossed it, there would be serious consequences (presumably military action). Well, chemical weapons were used, but there's been no consequences. Now Obama is claiming there never was a "red line" (he had made the statement at a press conference on August 19, 2013). The only red line he said on September 4th was actually set by the international community. Not because there was chemical weapons uses, but because it doesn't appear the Syrian government forces were the ones which used them. You will also note that Obama said Assad would face these consequences, wherever those happened to be, but he didn't say what he'd do if it was determined that the rebels were the ones who used them. Curious. I wonder why that is.

Here's what we know. Chemical weapons were used, killing some 1429 people, including 426 children. The gas impacted a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus recently recaptured by Syrian troops from the rebels. Most of those killed or affected were pro-government. Also killed, but not widely reported by US media, were government troops. Thus far, no known rebels are believed to be among the dead. Reverse trajectory would appear to indicate the sarin gas, was delivered by rockets from an area controlled by rebels soldiers. The Russians, who've long been supporters of the Assad regime, has sold the country most of its military hard and software, including sarin and mustard gas.

Russian scientists have examined the gas residue and indicated that while it appears to be sarin, it does not appear to be either the compounds manufactured by the Russians, nor does it appear to be weapons grade. In fact, it looked to be homemade. UN inspectors have not verified the statements of the Russians per se, but have indicated that it's quality didn't appear to be weapons grade. Even Turkey, which has never exactly been a friend of Syria and would love nothing more than an excuse to strike Assad, also has been unable to establish sufficient proof to act militarily. Even our old ally, Great Britain, has declined to approve a military strike. Only France at this point seems willing to join the US in a possible military operation.

Internationally, the White House is worried about Obama's image as a world leader given the current global economic summit in St. Petersburg. To that, I have to say there isn't anything to worry about, it's still in the preverbal dumpster where it's been since the Benghazi debacle and cover-up. After all, here's someone who received a Nobel "Peace Prize" for essentially doing nothing (and in the process, tarnished forever the one time prestigious award); who has lacked any backbone in dealing with our principal enemies or for that matter, in standing behind our allies. Obama has failed to develop any type of comprehensive US foreign policy. He so lacks the backing of the American People, that he has to govern by Executive Order. Not exactly a role model for democratic leadership.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted on September 4th to approve a military strike by a margin of 10 to 7. Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), along with ranking member Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) voted in favor of the resolution. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), James Risch (R-Idaho), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) voted against the authorization, while Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) took the spineless way out by voting present.

American public opinion is largely opposed to any military strike, no matter how "narrow" or limited Obama promises it to be. According to a recent Reuters Poll, approximately 56% of Americans were not in favor of military action. According to an ABC /Washington Post poll, that number rises to 60% opposed. Congress, whose poll numbers hovers around the 14% mark, seems equally divided, knowing that the majority of the electorate are opposed while their largest purse holders---defense contractors, are pushing for a strike. The US military, interestingly enough, is also among those opposed to any type of punitive action against Syria. However, we being told that US intelligence, along with that of Germany and France (and Israel?), that there was some evidence approximately 3 to 5 days earlier that Syrian government troops were moving sarin stockpiles. But were they moving it to use or were they moving it away from forward rebels positions to avoid possible capture?

With US forces already over stretched, overcommitted, and facing possible budgetary cutbacks, could we see a possible munity by rank and file soldiers, sailors, and airmen? The Pentagon certainly doesn't appear happy with adding Syria to its "things to do" list, the generals and admirals will obey their orders, albeit with a lot of grumbling under their breath. As for the enlisted personnel, I have no doubt there will be individual grousing, I don't foresee any large scale refusal. Like soldiers, sailors, and airmen everywhere, they will do their jobs no matter their personal feelings.

So, in the final analysis, what does Assad or the rebels gain out of all this? First, Assad. Let's first agree to accept that while he's somewhat Western oriented, Assad's rule, like that of his father's, is that of a dictatorship, although Assad is much more benevolent as Middle Eastern strong men go (and certainly more so than his father). This war has been going on for about 5 years and shows no signs of abating anytime soon. While the tide of war seems to ebb and flow to each side, the government is weaker but not near a collapse. The economy has been severely affected as one might expect, but it's still functioning. Assad's military remains strong and well supplied; his general staff appear to remain loyal and he remains popular with a majority of the people. Internationally, he still has credibility.

Publically, Assad claims not to fear either the US or Western powers. Privately, he has to be nervous. So, what's gained by using sarin gas on the Syrian People? Assad would lose credibility internationally, which would likely have an impact on his standing (maintaining one's "face" is very important in the Middle East) by increasing international pressure to negotiate a settlement on less than favorable terms. It could have a negative effect on trade as countries suspend further trading as long as either him or his government remains in power. This too could affect his borrowing credentials with the World Bank or IMF. A military strike could hurt his short term ability to wage war (like hitting air fields). It could turn public opinion (and support) against him at home. What does Assad gain by using chemical weapons? Nothing really. Since this is a wide scale civil war, his use of sarin on one small block in the sprawling city of Damascus make no tactical or strategic sense. No key rebels leaders were killed. It would have no effect in shorting the war. In short, Assad stand to lose more than he'd gain. But what about the rebels?

The rebels don't seem to have a shortage of manpower. Islamic extremists have shown an impressive willingness to travel and engage in foreign military campaigns. Religion has always be a powerful weapon. However, as with most guerrilla operations, supplies are always short. The nice thing about "martyrs" is that they are usually cost effective since they use very little in the way of resources and have a high effect ratio. However, the worse enemy of any guerilla operation is time, which is always on the side of the government. As it drags on, the government will only grow stronger. Therefore, in a war that's become essentially stalemated, what do the rebels gain by using chemical weapons?

First, it inspires fear. Fear is always a powerful motivator in reducing opposition (though it usually results in few converts or additional supporters). Secondly, it telescopes a powerful message that nothing is off limits; that one is willing win at all costs and humanity means nothing. A secondary message can often be seen as one of desperation, and a desperate enemy is an especially dangerous enemy. It also is a low cost weapon in terms of costs vs. effectiveness, which is important if preserving resources is now a factor for some reason. Look at the use of mustard gas by the Germans toward the end of WWI for example.

If the delivery can be done in such as way as to make your opponent appear to be the perpetrator , you can gain international support while condemning your opponent in the world court of public opinion, and with that, gain greater access to resources ,including medical supplies, cash, credit, volunteers, and even more importantly, legitimacy. If you're lucky, you might provoke either direct or indirect military action from sympathetic nations acting under international law (which you reject anyway) . This could damage your opponent sufficiently to mount a strong reprisal. Coupled with international pressure, this could hamper your opponents ability to respond by force of arms (plus it could affect the fighting capability of your opponent psychologically through the "fear factor" of the weapon being used again be it on them or their families). It could also turn domestic opinion in your favor, which could, again, increase your military effectiveness. Lastly, if it was determined that you, in fact, were the one to use chemical weapons, your international credibility would decline, but it would likely remain strong (or actually increase) among the more extreme elements who now see you as totally committed to the cause. Secondly, the likelihood of determining who issued the order and/or facing a possible war crimes tribunal is slim at best. So, the downside is slight.

When added up together, the government almost always has the advantage in a straight on civil war. However, it faces the greatest prospect of defeat brought on from outside groups should the war become too brutal, or not fought within the confines of international law. Rebels groups, on the other hand, have the most to lose by engaging government troops on their terms, while actually facing little negative consequences by stepping outside basic rules of conduct, especially if they can transfer any blame.

U.S. public opposes Syria intervention as Obama press Congress

Six in 10 oppose US- Only Strike on Syria

How Syria's Neighbors View a Possible Military Strike

Russia Say Study Suggest Syria Rebels Used Sarin

Russia Says it has evidence Syrian rebels used sarin gas

Turkey finds sarin gas in homes of Al Qaeda linked Syrian Islamists

Who really used sarin gas in Syria?

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