To be clear from the outset, I’m hard pressed to think of anything about President Obama’s presidency that I find satisfying. So much so, that when he took Ohio in the first election, I walked outside to my yard which had been adorned with a large American flag since we built the house, said the pledge of allegiance with tears in my eyes, and lowered the flag. It may seem strange then, that I intend to outline a singular opportunity the president has to achieve true historic strategic and tactical greatness. Because I love America, I wish it to him.
President Obama needs to think like iconic military heroes William Tecumseh Sherman or Billy Mitchell, and he has set up the perfect scenario to do it.
Indisputably, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has proven himself ruthless in company with some of the great murderers in history. The death toll in the civil war has surpassed 100,000 by all counts, including at least 1,450 or so by lethal gas. While no one with a conscience can conceive of this level of death and destruction without wincing in disbelief, it is hard to make the case, Secretary Kerry’s emotional appeal notwithstanding, that Syria is in some way a threat to the safety and security of the United States. There is simply no conceivable way it is, without torturing the English language and making it an additional casualty of the war.
Syria is but a mask for far more insidious players, who by all measures are threats to the safety and security of the world. A freshly emboldened Russia is invested in Syria and has gone so far as to taunt the US against involvement. In February 2012 after the bombardment of Homs, both Russia and China, quite the rogue’s gallery, vetoed a UN resolution with the Arab League’s peace plan. Putin blocks sanctions against Assad and aims to protect its only naval base in the Middle East and robust arms trade with Syria.
But in Syria, even Russian and China important as they are, are relatively minor players. The big Kahuna of the conflict is Iran, and Syrian gassing of 400+ children notwithstanding, it is Iran, not Syria, that is the beast in this evil drama.
The Iranian security and intelligence services are actively aiding the Syrian military. The introduction by Iran of experienced and ruthless intelligence services, actual Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Quds Force, and law enforcement forces outside of the Iranian borders is an unprecedented projection of military influence to a foreign conflict. This bold initiative is a sign of very worrisome growing assertiveness.
An unleashed Iran is deeply concerning not only to Israel, which has in recent years been the target of rank anti-Jewish hatred such has not been heard since Hitler ascended the podium of the convention of the National Socialist (Nazi) party in Nuremberg in 1933, but it is dreadful for Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well. And of course, the US interests with respect to oil, the flow of goods, the specter of a regional nuclear arms race, the sponsorship by Iran of global terror and finally, the thought of an Iranian religious-fueled attack on US interests directly. American vulnerability on all of these fronts is the stuff of horror novels. The Old Soviet Union might have been evil, but it was a rational player. Iran is not rational. It is messianic and mystical and plays by a set of rules that embraces death as the mark of the holy. The west has no idea how to deal with such an existential threat. So Syria is bad for the Syrian population and rebels, but Iran is a threat to the civilized world.
Iran is not only the major critical player in Syria, but it is the major destabilizing force in the Middle East. Its nuclear ambitions, almost fully realized, make gassing a few thousand civilians trivial by comparison. It is hard to even write such a thing, but it is the truth.
In the face of these strategic facts, President Obama’s red line regarding poison gas seems misplaced as a marker in the sand. Certainly, poison gas is hideous and its use contravenes established norms of warfare, but so do tens of thousand of the other deaths in Syria. The purposeful targeting of civilians as a war aim in Syria has been going on for two years. The sudden morality play of the red line is neither logical nor strategically appropriate. Iranian nuclear hegemony is the big issue. Dead children in Syria, tragically and geopolitically, are not the main event. Convincing the United States Congress or the average informed American citizen that gassing Syrian civilians is a threat to the United States simply will not fly, nor is it true. The pulling of heartstrings by Senator Kerry on August 30th, was presidential but only if he were playing one in the movies. It was pure Hollywood. But that is not where critical strategic battles should be fought.
And this is where Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Billy Mitchell come in. These were military geniuses who recognized that true objectives are sometimes not the emotional or conventional ones. Sherman recognized in his December 1864 March to the Sea that in order to win the US Civil War he needed to think about his military targets from a completely out of the box perspective. In his mass movements, Sherman confounded military strategy and worked the psychology of southern vulnerability by marching in a 60 mile wide swath, destroying anything in his path that could be used to support the war effort. Mitchell was championing strategic air use when conventional wisdom was totally big naval ship focused. His daring promotion of air superiority got him court martialled and cashiered from the military, but history proved that he was right. In both cases, Sherman and Mitchell went for the less obvious but more important targets.
The heart says stop the slaughter in Syria, but the mind says stop Iran and you might accomplish both.
So here’s the plan; the president should direct the military to do what the world expects and move the massive power projections of naval might in Carrier Strike Groups 5 and 9 from Yokosuka, Japan and San Diego respectively, or perhaps 11 from San Diego, to the coast of Syria. In this giant run-up to attacking Syria, the full rhetoric of the US Army Military Information Support Operations (MISO) should be employed to explain the full brunt of the mighty hand of the US that will be used against Syria for the violations of human rights, Geneva conventions and all other norms of war. An attack force of marine expeditionary forces from Okinawa, of substance, including perhaps the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, should be put on alert and mobilized in a fantastic display of super-power might – and other than perhaps destroying or severely degrading the air capabilities of the Syrian Regime, this fantastic armada should do nothing.
That’s right, nothing.
It should all be just a fantastic feint, a trick to accomplish the complete distraction of the Syrians, which will give the Free Syrian Army a chance to even the fight, particularly if we throw into the mix the attack on Syrian air assets as General Keene (ret) properly encourages. But more than that, America should have no interest in mixing into the civil war. That opportunity existed two years ago, but may now be gone (other than providing arms, if it can be assured that they reach the Free Syrian Army rather than the Jihadists in the north).
Rather, during this public and even bombastic build-up, the real fight ought to be one of extraordinary stealth. Working with Israeli and British intelligence, an extensive list of targets in Iran ought to be compiled of every known scientific laboratory, airfield, possible nuclear site, military base, port and logistical warehouse.
While the world watches the build-up towards Syria, the missiles of the US navy from the flotilla assembled in the Persian Gulf to attack Syria ought to turn their turrets and missiles and aim squarely at Iran. But more importantly, the US Naval fleet of submarines, with its extraordinary submarine launched cruise missiles, ought to have secretly been placed in comfortable striking distance of Iran. The B-2 Bombers of the US Air Force, with their 10,000 mile range, would be brought in early to destroy the air defense capability of Iran, allowing the full brunt of the other US air assets to complete the destruction of Iran’s offensive capabilities.
It is Iran, not Syria that is squarely a strategic threat to the Unites States and its Gulf Region allies. It is imperative that the US destroys Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran lives in the theological Stone Age, and its army needs to be sent to the same place. That is a service to the world that the US is uniquely qualified to gift.
By employing this strategy, President Obama’s indecision will actually have created a historic opportunity for the perfect military feint against Syria for the real attack against Iran. The Free Syrian Army will be given advantage by the distracted Syrian regime, and will ultimately be able to help itself once the Iranian projections of power are eliminated. Syria will have lost its most important sponsor. The world at large will win, by the denuding of a true nuclear threat, which has the entire region on edge. America will win by performing a service to the world of inestimable value, which only America could perform. Barak Obama will secure his legacy as a brilliant commander and strategist.
And if he does, I may actually be forced to put up my flag again during his presidency.