Mission accomplished’ in Syria is possible
I understand what President Donald Trump was trying to express in his now-famous “Mission Accomplished” tweet on Saturday.
And in fairness, in the military we often do use that expression to convey the successful completion of a discrete tactical task.
But he should have understood the echoes of President George W. Bush’s appearance under a now-infamous banner on a carrier deck after the invasion of Iraq.
That turned out to be anything but a mission accomplished.
And, unfortunately, the weekend’s airstrikes didn’t come near accomplishing the broader strategic mission ahead of us in Syria.
What the strikes, conducted jointly with two other close allies, France and Britain, did do was damage the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons research, production and storage facilities.
They were executed flawlessly at the tactical level, and kudos to the operational forces involved, especially the planners at US Central Command in Tampa, Florida, Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis’s old command.
But here is what it did not do: totally destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles; knock out Bashar al-Assad’s ability to produce more nerve agents or rebuild the capability to do so; reduce the regime’s ability to transport the chemical weapons by road, rail or air; degrade or destroy the means of delivery (Syria’s 250-plane air force); or knock out the Government’s command and control system.
All of those actions would have been permissible under international law.
But the US wisely decided to conduct a more measured attack — although it was roughly double the level of last year’s strike that used only Tomahawk missiles.
By opting for a relatively constrained assault, Mattis and the President chose a course of action that allows further escalation if necessary, had a minimal risk to US personnel, avoided direct confrontation with Russia or Iran, and minimised collateral damage to Syrian forces.
But the question hangs in the air like the smoke over the impact zones on Saturday morning: what if Assad doesn’t stop? What would the next strike look like, and what are the additional risks?
Operationally, the next logical step in the ladder of escalation would include the following elements:
• A diplomatic campaign to enlist many more allied participants (Nato being the obvious core group, but potentially including Sunni Arab states and maybe Australia).
• Pre-positioning at least one and possibly two US aircraft carriers in the eastern Mediterranean or Arabian Gulf.
• A major cyberattack to knock out portions of the Syrian electric grid and command and control stations.
• An opening salvo of missiles to destroy Syrian air defences.
• Manned aircraft from bases across the Middle East, Europe and the US conducting a multiday campaign with dozens of targets.
• Major intelligence assets — CIA and Special Forces on the ground — focused on the region for battle damage assessment and enabling precision targeting. This scenario would be much riskier than what we saw this weekend for several reasons.
First, it would put allied aircrews in range of Syrian and Russian air defences, potentially leading to prisoners of war and casualties.
Second, it would increase the number of nations involved on the allied side, complicating operations considerably.
Third, it would bring to a full halt the (very imperfect) peace negotiations under way.
Fourth and most dangerously, it would probably bring the US and Russia into a direct military confrontation — it would be very difficult to avoid some level of Russian collateral damage if the coalition chose to go after Syrian aeroplanes, as they are increasingly intertwined with the Russians.
The US has a handful of strategic objectives in Syria. At the top of the list is continuing to seize territory from the so-called Islamic State and reduce the terrorists’ reach and threat to America.
Second is to enforce the important international norm against using weapons of mass destruction.
Third, the region faces a real threat from Iranian expansionism and for the US to disengage would put at risk partners such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States.
At the humanitarian level, we should also be doing what we can, over time, to reduce the sheer human misery of Syria where 500,000 are dead and well over 10 million have been pushed out of their homes. These are real and important strategic objectives.
One hopes Assad got the message and will refrain from using chemical weapons on his own people. But, as the saying goes, hope is not a strategy.
An actual strategy would see the US remain engaged in Syria with up to 5,000 troops. Currently there are around 2,000 — which is a far, far cry from the 150,000 under my command in Afghanistan just a few years ago.
The allies would also push on Russia’s economic weaknesses — Moscow doesn’t have the money to rebuild Syria under Assad — to force real negotiations, under United Nations auspices, on a diplomatic resolution.
A good model is the Balkans of 20 years ago, when Russia eventually became part of the solution.
The US has to find the balance in Syria between limited hard power (small numbers of ground troops, Special Forces, offensive cyber, long-range precision strikes) and soft power (diplomacy, economic incentives, coalition-building to share costs, strategic messaging).
A pair of well-executed airstrikes is a long, long way from “mission accomplished”. We’ve got more work to do in Syria.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg columnist. He is a retired US Navy admiral and former military commander of Nato, and dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University
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