Small Wars Journal

Cordesman on Syria and U.S. Options

U.S. Options in Syria: Obama’s Delays and the Dempsey Warnings by Anthony H. Cordesman, CSIS.

It is important to define one’s red lines. It is far more important to define the impact of crossing them and have clear options for doing so. At this point, no one can ignore the warning that the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey gave in a letter to Congressman Eliot Engel on August 19th, -- written just days just before the August 21st  reports that Assad might have used chemical weapons to produce serious casualties.

In his latest letter to Congress, General Dempsey stated that:

“Syria today is not about choosing between two sides, but rather about choosing between one among many sides choosing. 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… It is a deeply rooted, long-term conflict among multiple factions, and violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s rule ends…We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context…” ...

Read on.


101st Ranger

Mon, 08/26/2013 - 5:36pm

I am suggesting the possibility that the chemical attack in Syria was not launched by the State. For the last thirteen years, the United States has deployed men and women all over the world to counter terrorist organizations seeking to obtain and employ weapons of mass destruction. If the availability of WMD axiom holds, why is the administration ignoring the possibility that the chemical attack in Syria on 21 August could have been launched by the terrorists within the opposition? If this is simply not possible, than the GWOT is a concluded success.

Events in the last seven days are combining with domestic United States politics to drive the United States toward another strategic blunder. It is unfortunate that US policy is being driven by a minority of terrorists who hijacked a grass roots revolution from the oppressed people of Syria. In this scenario, no one wins.


Mon, 08/26/2013 - 8:25am

At this point I don't think it is about local interests ... this is about credibility. It will not be about taking the side of the rebels, it will be about punishing Assad for using chemical weapons with the uptimate goal not of removing Assad but of altering his future actions.

Maybe we need to better define our national interests in the region before we start exploring options for intervention. I think given the "success" of our efforts in the region to date, the interests at stake better be pretty critical. Though my heart bleeds for the victims in Syria, the realist in me questions if preventing the use of chemical weapons mandates military intervention.

That being said, perhaps there are legitimate national interests at stake. Limiting the spread or influence of Muslim extremists groups like some of those fighting the Assad regime might be one. Or limiting Iran's influence in the region. Or protecting our allies in the region.

I think the US Government could make the case for anyone of these things and develop a course of action to protect those interests. Conversely, the government could make the case for keeping an arms length. But the current course of easing into this conflict one reaction at a time will only result in an unclear path to a muddled conclusion.


Sat, 08/24/2013 - 5:20pm


... yes... yes... more meddling.... more of that stability operations voodoo that we do... so well... I want more comprehensive reform for the whole region and I want it yesterday... I want some groups to get what they want and I want other groups to get what they deserve...

There is no way that we could screw it up any worse... think of everything we've learned... Adventure learning is a process not a template... Now... if you are one of those folks who believes we screwed the pooch on the last go around... then all I can say to you is that we need just a little more time to get it right...

Don't be a quitter, Madhu... the world hates a quitter...

How is that for sarcasm :-)



Madhu (not verified)

Sun, 08/25/2013 - 12:47pm

In reply to by carl

You misunderstood my point. We would be allied with the Saudis again in any plan against Assad.

I'm tired of the US being hostage to the neuroses of KSA and their attitudes toward Iran and the Arab world.

You want to know why we cover for some in the Saudi "sunni" axis? The "get Iran" and "get Russia" crowds are so deeply embedded in DC culture (and I'm not suggesting it's all about lobbies, these are deeply held static ideas) that I'm afraid we will never be free to pursue a FP that places a primacy on what is best for the US. I understand that these people think they are doing that. I disagree.

If you think I've forgotten 9-11, then you've never read my comments around carefully have you? Why do you think I'm so unhappy with our double standards toward nuclear proliferators and terrorism sponsors as long as they are part of our old Cold War alliances?


Sun, 08/25/2013 - 11:58am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)


It is more accurate to say that rather than meddling , we responded. If people from across the sea had not attacked us on 9-11 we would not have gone to those places we went . Our responses may have been ill advised, foolish even, but they were responses. People seem to forget about 9-11.

American power ultimately depends upon money which depends upon the economy. That is declining relative to the rest of the world. The wars have only a marginal effect upon that decline.

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 08/24/2013 - 1:17pm

In reply to by McCallister


More meddling on top of the non-stop meddling that has resulted in the past decade or so weakening in American power and influence and making promises the US can't keep?

Has Cordesman been right about anything in the recent past? Isn't he the "I'm 48 percent sure it's a good idea to invade Iraq" guy? 48 percent is a number which makes it, you know, MATH! Political science math, the best math out there.

Oh, sorry, now I'm being cantankerous and cranky which is pretty much my norm around here ;)

We are so being gamed, it's a multipolar mess out there and everyone knows if you can only get your hook into the Americans....


Fri, 08/23/2013 - 10:05pm

.... what a historic opportunity to finally give the Kurds their due and to provide some semblance of protection for Arab Christians...until something else gets everybody all riled up.

I submit that the Alawite-Assad family after the elder Assad seized total control "protected" Christians and Kurds under the guide of socialist-revolutionary Baathism... One of the founding fathers of the Baath movement was Michel Aflaq – a Christian. I submit Michel Aflaq understood that militant Islam/Sunnism needed to be kept in check to safeguard Arab Christians...

I only glanced at the article so please forgive me that I don't understand fully Mr.Cordesman's comment that "Assad may ... rule its Sunni majority and Kurdish minority through a far worse pattern of repression that Syria has known since it gained independence" because it looks to me that both the Kurd and Arab-Christian communities are firmly in the Assad camp... especially since a victory by Sunni extremists would be detrimental to both the minority Kurd and minority Arab-Christian communities... I've read accounts of Christian villages attacked by Sunni extremists and its populations massacred.

Here is a very radial thought... the Syrian state is coming apart at the seams... There is opportunity in chaos and it's time to give the Kurds a shot at true statehood. Carve out the Kurdish territory and attach to Kurd territory in Iraq... Screw the Turks and in time as we expand.. screw the Persians and attach Iranian-Kurd territory as well... Guarantee the Kurds a homeland on the condition that they incorporate Arab-Christians.. i.e. protect and incorporate into patronage system. I'd venture to say that it is probably safer at present to be a Christian or Jew in the Kurdish territories than anywhere else in the region. It's time to stop worshipping at the altar of sacred state borders... If you can't keep your shit together, you lose your right to be called a nation-state or to have your borders respected.

What good is it to be the biggest dick on the block and not use that power to keep a promise...

How is that for cantankerous...