Military experts cautious about effectiveness of a U.S. attack on Syria

James Rosen | Tribune Media

Just a few weeks ago, the nation’s top military officer was telling Congress it would cost $1 billion a month to take out Syria’s chemical weapons program in an extensive military operation entailing thousands of U.S. troops and the establishment of a no-fly zone over the embattled Middle East country.

Now, with the United States appearing close to launching a retaliatory attack for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s alleged use of nerve gas last week, defense and diplomatic analysts are cautioning that the expected “surgical” strike will likely be symbolic and fall far short of eliminating Syria’s chemical capabilities.

As he decides how to respond to the apparent crossing of a “red line” that he drew, President Barack Obama is treading a fine line between delivering an unmistakable message and becoming involved in a Middle East conflict that a budget-strapped United States can ill afford, and that war-weary Americans want no part of.

“It’s an attempt to do a light version of a military response to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime,” Stephen Long, a professor of international studies at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said Wednesday. “The question is, ‘Why would we do this?’ We obviously can’t condone the use of chemical weapons, but a limited strike in response doesn’t really change the situation on the ground. And it could elicit a response by the Assad regime and possibly by Iran. It doesn’t really get us anywhere.”

Obama, though, is hemmed in by a host of fiscal and political constraints.

Already facing an October showdown with Republicans over raising the federal debt ceiling, he is unlikely to seek more money for an expensive new engagement in Syria. After more than a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most Americans oppose U.S. involvement in Syria, recent polls show, even to respond to a chemical weapons attack.

The Pentagon’s budget has been dropping for two years after record growth following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and forced cuts this year have slashed billions more under a congressionally imposed system called sequestration.

Starting at the top with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Obama’s military commanders have described the high costs and large risks of entering a two-year-old civil war in Syria that could spread beyond its borders to engulf other countries in the region.

The phrase heard around the Pentagon’s vast corridors in recent days is “deter and degrade” – but, significantly, not “destroy” – as military commanders weigh the options available to Obama.

“Securing (Syria’s) chemical weapons versus deterring and degrading its use of chemical weapons are very different,” a senior defense official, who asked that he not be identified in order to speak candidly, told McClatchy. “Securing chemical weapons is a much broader military task than a limited strike that deters the use of chemical weapons and fundamentally sends a signal to Syria, Iran or anyone else.”

Such a focused U.S. response would likely be carried out via a strike by Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from one or more of the four U.S. Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off Syria’s cost, according to interviews with multiple government and non-government sources.

Pentagon officials have tried to rebut reports that the U.S. attack will be staggered over several days, suggesting there will be a single attack or burst of attacks within a shorter period of time.

That would be a far cry from the “shock and awe” display U.S. military commanders employed in the March 2003 air assault on Iraq ordered by President George W. Bush. It could even be more restrained than the Tomahawk missile attack that Obama directed against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in March 2011.

But those strikes were aimed at dislodging Gadhafi and Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, while Obama administration officials have stressed that there is no immediate talk of regime change in Syria.

“The administration is trying to thread the needle,” said Richard Haass, a former senior State Department official who now heads the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Some analysts wonder whether a symbolic “spanking” – in one expert’s words – would really deter Assad from launching a follow-on chemical weapons attack or rather just up the ante, causing him to become more aggressive against the rebels in his country’s ongoing civil war.

“I’m not sure that we have any good options,” said retired Army Col. Kenneth Allard, a military commentator who ran simulated war games based in Syria as dean of the National War College at Fort McNair in the 1980s. “I think we will apply the therapeutic use of force, not the effective use of force. People doubt whether we’re really serious. Right now they doubt Mr. Obama.”

Obama has been getting warning signs about deeper Syria involvement from his top military advisers for weeks, and it’s not clear that last week’s chemical weapons attack outside Damascus has changed their assessment.

Strike on Syria: What can we expect?

Dempsey told Congress in testimony and letters that the rebels fighting Assad aren’t ready to assume power. Among a handful of military options, he described an ambitious plan to control Syria’s chemical weapons that he said could cost more than $1 billion a month to implement.

“At a minimum, this option would call for a no-fly zone, as well as air and missile strikes involving hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines and other enablers,” Dempsey said. “Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites.”

Jon Alterman, a former senior State Department official and director of Middle East studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Dempsey and other military leaders have received clear cautionary signals from Obama, many lawmakers and the American public that steer clear of such a sweeping strategy.

“There is often a reluctance in the military to use force, especially when they fear that the real objectives are political and not military,” Alterman said. “There’s also the long hangover of the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war. The attitude of the Pentagon’s civilian bosses seems to be that we’re getting out of wars in the Middle East, not getting into them.”

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By James Rosen
McClatchy Washington Bureau