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The limits of a ‘limited strike’

The proposed attack on Syria is liable to spin out of contol and unlikely to mitigate the real threat: Iranian nukes

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has decided to approve a framework for the planned US limited campaign against Syria. It defined two main limits: First, a period of 60 days, with a provisional extension of 30 days. And second, Congressional prohibition on the use of ground troops in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry has objected to that prohibition but the committee has voted against the administration objection.

A 60-90 day bombing is not a strike, as Secretary Kerry called it, but more of a campaign, and is clearly viewed by the Syrians as a general war. By comparison, in the First Iraq War in 1991, throughout 39 days of aerial bombing, the US launched more than 110,000 sorties, about 55,000 fighter aircraft ones. During the Syrian planned campaign –planned to last about twice the time-span as in Iraq – the number of sorties, precision weapons and cruise missiles will be unimaginably more vast.

The meaning of such a massive counter-Syria campaign is quite simply the destruction of the Syrian governmental, military, economic, and social infrastructures. It means demolishing armed forces, command posts, communication infrastructure, fighting units, and killing many thousands of soldiers, officers and officials. The most grievous implication, however, is the annihilation of the Assad regime along with its ability to put down rebellions and survive. Thus the Administration’s goal, whether explicit or implicit, is not to punish President Assad and to deter him from further using chemical weapons or transferring these weapons to Hezbollah and other terror organizations, but to destroy Assad’s regime.

Demolishing President Assad poses another dilemma for Obama’s administration: the struggle in Syria is a zero sum game; weakening Assad means strengthening the rebels. Recently it has become clear that about half of the rebels and the areas they already control are Islamic extremists and criminals. Obama surely doesn’t want to support these groups and it is difficult or even impossible to support the moderate rebels alone.

The collapse of President Assad will, therefore, lead to chaos and increase the power of extreme Muslim groups such as al-Qaeda, International Jihad, Hezbollah, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. An outside observer should ask if these results serve US interests? Do the serve the interests of Syria’s neighbors? The answer is apparently negative because the extreme terror organizations will turn against their moderate neighbors – Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel, and the US as well. A brief comparison comes to a straightforward conclusion that the Islamic extremist rebels pose excessive threats to the interests of the free world (US and Israel in particular), and plausibly, weak Assad serves better these interests.

The Israeli government seems to be silently supporting a decisive American attack. No doubt, Syria has been Israel’s most bitter enemy since its birth. But the mutual border has been completely calm since the ceasefire in 1974 approximately 40 years ago, thanks to decisions of Assad and his father. Thus, it is in the State of Israel’s interests to preserve the Syrian-Israel border as peaceful as possible, while continuing to let Syria weaken itself by endless internal conflict. On the other hand, there are opposing interests such as breaking the “Axis of Evil” of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, and weakening Hezbollah’s status in Lebanon. These interests justify, to a certain extent, the goal of ruining Assad’s regime.

But first and foremost, Israel and the US must calculate the impact of the Syrian campaign upon the grave challenge that waits around the corner: a probable, perhaps unavoidable, campaign to wipe out the Iranian nuclear project. That issue dominates the Israeli deliberations and should play a major role in the US evaluation. In Israel, common logic supports an American decisive campaign in Syria that will serve to deter Iran from producing nuclear weapons. Other officials and analysts conclude that attacking Syria will not deter Iran and the US or Israel will inevitably face, sooner or later, an Iranian nuclear challenge that should be met almost immediately. They worry that if the Syrian campaign encounters some obstacles, the American administration will not permit itself an additional campaign so close to each other. Therefore the counter nuclear Iran campaign is much more important to the interests of the US, Israel, the moderate Muslim states and the free world.

There is no clear way to end a 90-day campaign; you need only one side to shoot the first bullet, but you need two sides to cease fire. The ambiguous situation and the uncertain influence of a campaign against Syria on the much important challenges of Iran, fragile US-Russian relations, and the future of the Middle East, are key deliberations in the pros and cons of attacking Syria. Avoiding a “limited” campaign that is inherently likely to overstep whatever limits Congress attempts to impose is certainly a competitive alternative. Factoring in the dangers of extremist ascendance and especially the need to prevent the Iranian nuclear threat, opting not to strike is currently the best available alternative.

About the Author
Colonel (res) Shmuel L Gordon has a PhD in International Relations and Strategic Studies from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and has written several books and hundreds of essays on national security, decision-making, strategy, air warfare, and counter-insurgency conflicts. He had a distinguished career in the Israeli Air Force as a fighter pilot and commander. He is the winner of Yitzhak Sade Prize for Defense Literature, the Karmon Prize for Research from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and And the Ben Gurion Prize for Security study from the General Histadrut.