Understanding the U.S Strikes Against Syria

By Ali Harfouch These last couple weeks have been tumultuous, from the United States marking it with a strong push for a seemingly inevitable strike in Syria, to a rapid and sudden shift in rhetoric after Russia put forth a more diplomatic option which involved the international monitoring of Syria’s chemical weapons. The implications of this sudden shift in policy and rhetoric will be examined in an upcoming article. However, as the option for a...
18th September 20137 min

These last couple weeks have been tumultuous, from the United States marking it with a strong push for a seemingly inevitable strike in Syria, to a rapid and sudden shift in rhetoric after Russia put forth a more diplomatic option which involved the international monitoring of Syria’s chemical weapons. The implications of this sudden shift in policy and rhetoric will be examined in an upcoming article. However, as the option for a military strike remains ‘on the table,’ it is important that an adequate understanding of the strike’s implications is examined.

Forecasting the potential regional and international ramifications of the forthcoming strikes on Syria requires that (1) the ‘strikes’ be contextualized within a wider context of U.S strategy towards the Middle East, and (2) the strategic significance of the ‘strikes’ be examined.
U.S National Interests: The Background Context to the Attack
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Barack Obama’s current military advisor, put it quite bluntly in a letter sent to Representative Eliot Engel on August 19: “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides,” he said. “It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.[1] The General’s concerns are reflective of those carried by policy-makers across the United States and Europe. One major obstacle stands in the way of a full-scale U.S led attack on the Syrian regime; the absence of a political, military or civilian faction in Syria which can both dominate Syria’s political vacuum and maintain U.S interests.  More so, the Islamicity and domineering presence of ‘radical’ military factions in Syria have not recognized the authority of the Western-backed Opposition Council and, consequently, it remains powerless in Syria.
Thus, the strikes in Syria will be, at best, disciplinary and unlikely to significantly damage Assad’s military infrastructure. Furthermore, the prolonged warnings which have preceded the attacks make it all the more clear that the move is not aimed at neutralizing Assad.
Surgical Strikes Alone are Punitive and Not Destructive
“Tactical actions in the absence of strategic objectives is usually pointless and often counterproductive”.[2] The tactical actions are futile, precisely because they are intended to be. A senior naval consultant and the architect of the ‘surgical strikes’ about to be employed against Syria explained, “I made it clear that this is a low cost option, but the broader issue is that low cost options don’t do any good unless they are tied to strategic priorities and objectives.”[2] In other words, surgical strikes are meant to be part of a larger, more grand military strike – they are in no way intended to be used as an option by themselves.
Accordingly, the forthcoming strikes have been under heavy criticism from military advisors and consultants, including Christopher Harmer from the Institute for the Study of War. Interestingly, he notes that the surgical strikes are unlikely to even neutralize Assad’s chemical depots or “cause more than a temporary degradation in regime operations”.[3] It can be concluded, from a purely empirical and strategic perspective, that the strikes do not aim at anything short of a symbolic and punitive maneuver.

Carrying out these strikes, in the absence of a clearly articulated and coherent U.S policy towards Syria, is another example of the blunders of Barack Obama and a tottering U.S foreign policy which is struggling to gain a foothold in a turbulent Middle East. With the events in Egypt unfolding, complications in Syria make the U.S’s ability to employ ‘soft power’ in the Arab-Muslim world all the more difficult, and forces it to instead resort to military coups (as in Egypt) or ineffective strikes (as the warnings against Syria). Britain’s withdrawal, despite being a long-time military ally of the U.S, further undermines the United States’ global standing, as does the hesitancy of its proxy allies, Jordan and Turkey, to provide support.
Options of the U.S in Syria
One option however remains optimal for the United States; a support of U.S backed rebels and a marginalization of the domineering ‘radical brigades’ through military action. According to several reports, a large number of handpicked rebels have been trained extensively by U.S special forces in neighboring Jordan. The same report goes on to claim that these rebels have made major advances in Syria and are inching closer to Damascus. A take over of the capital by U.S backed rebels, through massive Western-led military air support, similar to the scenario in Libya, is seemingly the only option which remains on the table for the United States.[4] Had this been an immediate option, however, the forthcoming ‘surgical strikes’ would have been far more wide-reaching. Furthermore, it goes without saying that such a plan is futile because of the minimal influence of U.S backed brigades, making it nearly impossible to garner support from the more active and rebellious regions in Syria which remain dominated by ‘radical’ Islamic factions.  

The uncertain outcomes of a ‘limited strike’ helps explain why Obama backpedaled and sought congressional approval. Before congress conjures, however, Obama has successfully won over the support from two key republican leaders in congress: Senator John McCain and Graham. Accordingly, a collective based decision to strike would would mean that Obama is not left facing the brunt of another foreign policy blunder alone.
Gains and Losses from the ‘Strike’
In conclusion, these attacks are likely to:

(1) Bolster and provide substance to Assad’s anti-imperial and conspiracy-based rhetoric, without any significant loss or setback on Assad’s part.

(2) Strengthen the Islamic opposition’s firm belief that the United States has no concern for the well-being of the Syrian population, and again, without any sustained losses suffered by the Islamic opposition.
(3) Further discredit the United States’ global standing as an effective policy-enforcer and as an influential actor in the Arab-Muslim world. Consequently, it will embolden the United States’ European rivals who have called for more wide-scale significant attacks.
(4) Weaken the Obama administration – internally – while it is still recovering foreign policy blunders in Egypt and continues to receive heat for its extralegal drone strikes. A cursory survey of U.S public opinion, attitudes in congress, and the disgruntled military elites in Washington points to a major disillusionment with Obama’s trajectory for Syria.

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