Small Wars Journal

Gentile: Realities of a Syrian Intervention

Sat, 03/03/2012 - 9:37am

Writing at The National Interest, Gian Gentile warns those who would imagine that there is an easy way to repair the universe in Syria.

The idea that stopping the civil war in Syria and protecting its population can be done on the cheap—via drones policing enclaves and humanitarian corridors—is military dilettantism gone wild.

The epigraph of my book on Iraq contains the following quotes, which we might heed as well.

I have not lived so long without having had the experience of many wars, and I see those among you of the same age as myself, who will not fall into the common misfortune of longing for war from inexperience or from a belief in its advantage and its safety. . . . Let us never be elated by the fatal hope of the war being quickly ended by the devastation of their lands. I fear rather that we may leave it as a legacy to our children.

—Archidamus, Spartan king, 432 BC


Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy.

—Carl von Clausewitz, Prussian strategist, ca. 1830


The first lesson the student of international politics must learn and never forget  is that the complexities of international affairs make simple solutions and trustworthy prophecies impossible.

—Hans Morgenthau, professor of international relations


Categories: Syria - r2p - Gentile



Thu, 03/08/2012 - 5:48pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Granted the crucial advantages of sanctuary. But what she is proposing is taking a fixed geographical area from a reasonably good and still cohesive organized army and, if that can even be done, holding it against that organized army's counter attacks; and doing this using irregular troops or guerrillas. That has not often worked in history no matter how much air power is used to help out. That perhaps could be said to have worked in Libya but I got the idea that the Libyan army was so weak that it shouldn't be used as a parallel.

It is a very good thing if a neighboring country can be convinced to give sanctuary but short of that I am not sure is practicable to create one out of whole cloth.

Bill C.

Thu, 03/08/2012 - 4:10pm

In reply to by carl

Given the extremely well known, significant and often critical advantage provided to rebels by sanctuaries/safe havens, why not give Ms. Slaughter's proposals a closer look; this, while fully acknowledging that her version of this concept is novel in some and/or many of its aspects?

If not to be used in this instance, still might be considered for employment in other cases and might become -- over time and with certain tweeking -- a routinely used and valuable new tool in the tool box?

Employed successfully once, might have immediate and future deterrent value?

(Don't throw the baby out with the bath water so-to-speak.)


Thu, 03/08/2012 - 3:20pm

In reply to by Bill C.

She advocates setting up these sanctuaries inside Syria, not persuading contiguous sovereign countries to allow their territory to be used as sanctuaries; so what she is advocating is still taking and holding territory in Syria "defensively."

Using neighboring countries as sanctuaries only works if you are fighting the dumb Americans. The Syrians may not hesitate at all to strike into a neighboring country in order to go after rebels.

Anne-Marie Slaughter's proposal:

In other words, simply "safe-havens" which we might use -- in this case with the shoe being on the other foot -- to our and the rebels advantage?

Worked for the N. Viets/VC and for the Taliban; might work for us also given that, in this case, we support the rebels?

Thus, a reasonable, logical and worthwhile proposal?

Bill C.

Mon, 03/05/2012 - 11:12am

In reply to by Scott Kinner

Scottjk's point is dead-on and seems to answer the fundamental question: R2P (and/or BPC, "modernization," "state and societal transformation," etc., etc., etc.) to what (selfish) end?

Herein the answer may be: To achieve greater and safer access to, greater ability to utilize and greater ability to profit from all the resources (human and other), all the capabalities and all the potential that are presently being denied to the United States -- and to the rest of the more-modern/modernizing world -- due to the adverse political, economic and social make-up of these outlier states and societies.

Scott Kinner

Mon, 03/05/2012 - 8:28am

In reply to by Bill C.

And frankly, who does this "modernization" really support - the people being "modernized" or those already enjoying the "benefits" of modernization? No, let's not go down the simplistic road of "Iraq was about oil." But, on the other hand, let's not pretend that the difference between caring about a Rwanda genocide and caring about the Middle East is not about oil.

To my larger point - "modernization" has just as much to do with resource development, ownership, and usage as it does with ideology, belief systems, and any particular group's vision of humanity's future. To pretend the control of resources is not an issue in the world is to ignore reality. It might be unpleasant to discuss issues like wealth distribution, but it is no more pleasant to pretend they don't exist and deal with the consequences later. The reason anyone "says" they are in a war is often very different from the real reason they are in the war. "I'm fighting the dirty Papists" is just so much "I want that bit of land." "I'm here to help" is just so much "I want to make sure that those rare earths keep coming for my IPad."

Maybe I am relatively alone in this, but I remain exceptionally cynical about the baseline reasons underlying R2P. Surveying Mankind's history of going to war out of altruism is very scant reading indeed - not a book, not a pamphlet, more like a flyer.

Bill C.

Mon, 03/05/2012 - 7:48am

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

"How are we to expect the same processes would be neat and happy elsewhere in the world?"

The proponents of these actions suggest that the military forces of the most powerful nations in the world will need to be re-tooled, re-organized, re-deployed, etc., specifically to help bring about the modernization -- along western lines -- of these outlier states and societies.

Does this fact not suggest that these proponents, also, both acknowledge and understand that this process will not be a "neat and happy" one, but, rather, will be THE great up-hill battle of the world in the 21st Century?

Peter J. Munson

Sun, 03/04/2012 - 2:52pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C.,
My next book addresses the "end of history" theology as you describe above. This theology forgets a millennium of western state formation and the messiness, corruption, and abject brutality that entailed. I'd love an easier road to the end of history as much as the next guy (and in the book I describe as Fukuyama does the extremely long intellectual legacy about the end of history), however I am far less sanguine than these proponents that we can short-circuit history with elections and intervention. The problem is that it took a lot of brutality, corruption, and other unsavory behavior to make all the disparate parts of the states of Europe into nations that spoke the same language and believed in the same myths. How are we to expect the same processes would be neat and happy elsewhere in the world?

R2P is part and parcel of our "end of history" worldview, however this worldview is ahistoric and utopian.

The underlying reasoning and logic of Anne-Marie Slaughter -- and those of her ilk -- would seem to be:

a. If one cannot get -- from the standing governments of outlier states and societies -- more rapid, more enthusiastic and more competent movement toward modernizing the state and society along western lines,

b. Then one must be prepared to achieve these things, instead, via any opportunities presented by populations or population groups.

This understanding dictating and directing how the military forces of the United States and its allies will be designed, configured, deployed and employed in the 21st Century.

Thus, our military forces must be designed, configured, deployed and employed so as to be able to -- as the situation requires:

a. Support and defend "friendly" governments against any populations or population groups who would oppose the modernization of their state and society along western lines (example: BPC) and

b. Support and defend potentially "friendly" populations and/or population groups against any governments who prove unwilling -- and/or unable -- to achieve these desired results (example: R2P).

Note here how the idea of R2P should not be seen as being a wild and/or unusual concept; one which comes from out of "left field" so-to-speak. Rather, as considered within the context offered above, it (R2P) -- much like BPC -- seems to be both consistent with and servicing of our foreign policy goals and objectives for this century.

Q: So why the need to transform outlier states and societies along western lines in the first place?

A: So as to eliminate what is believed to be (or what is touted to be) the "root cause" of all aberant behavior (genocide, war crimes, wars against humanity, insurgency and terrorism). This "root cause" being said to be: The lack of sufficiently western political, economic and social systems. This factor causing these outlier states and societies to (as the term "outlier" suggests) clash with and detract from -- rather than mesh with, benefit from and support -- certain of their own citizens and those states and societies of the more-modern world.

Ken White

Sun, 03/04/2012 - 6:08pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

Good article.

You're too kind. Seriously. Those folks are beyond disingenuous, they're dangerous.

Like you, I'm unsure I understand Hexsaw's comment but I do know the answer to his first paragraph thesis -- no serving military person will make those arguments when an administration is directing, not recommending, some form of military action. The arguments were likely made by the military folks in the process of deciding on courses of action and the tradition of civilian control means that once the decision is made, right or wrong, everyone salutes and moves out...

That's as it should be. The problem is that, to paraphrase something you wrote in the article, the civilian policy wonk's moral certitudes are not backed up by a sufficient and sober counting of the costs. Most are at least somewhat disposed to be dismissive of military people and that leads to discounting the costs to the forces. That syndrome also leads to the policy makers too often accepting political or academic reputations and media attractiveness over sound military advice. One would think the nominal in and not in government cheerleaders and the policy folks would be at least a bit concerned about other costs -- but then, it's not their money...

They could also be expected to know or at least vaguely comprehend that the costs to the civilian population and economy of nations where we intervene are likely to be significant -- however, those are the people being saved and costs to them are deemed acceptable for the greater good.

Egos run amok.

Add in the political intrusion of highly partisan politics short of an existential situation and that civilian control thing, the military assessment gets buried and those in the services have little option but to go forth and do something. Something. Not necessarily a great thing but some thing...


Sun, 03/04/2012 - 11:29am

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

Peter, this is a serious question. How much of the knowledge people like Ms. Slaughter have about these kinds of things comes from popular culture and ads, say things like movies, press releases and articles in Popular Science? I thought of this when she mentioned countersniper weapons and especially when she mentioned the drone helos. Those are bits of tech wizardry that are featured prominatly in movies and tech articles but aren't actually out there yet. I am asking because if all somebody read were the pop culture stories, they would think the things Ms. Slaughter apparently thinks.

Peter J. Munson

Sat, 03/03/2012 - 11:20pm

In reply to by carl

The "Slaughter Plan" is so idiotic as to seem to be a joke. Unfortunately, it is not.

I think Gian is being too easy on Ms. Slaughter's plan. It confused me completely. It's heart is a pretense of being strictly defensive and establishing perimeters called no-kill zones. Anybody who kills in the no-kill zone will be killed but only defensively. And there will be no revenge killings in the no-kill zones. Then once all that is done, the no-kill zones will be expanded. How a perimeter is to be expanded defensively isn't explained. It also calls for use of drone helicopters for supply explaining that this was done in Afghanistan, but not understanding that that was only an experiment that even if still oncgoing only involved handful of drone helos. And it calls for all sorts of spec ops forces to be used, none of which are American.

The foremost object of her plan seemed to be a desire to be viewed as completely defensive so as to avoid the moral opprobrium of being offensive.

Does anybody have any idea of what she means by "countersniper weapons"?

Scott Kinner

Sat, 03/03/2012 - 10:51pm

In reply to by Bill C.

While I disagree a bit with Bill regarding the "altruism" of Western influence and what I take as an allusion to Fukuyama's "End of History" (we'll all get along if everyone is in a Western style democracy) as a worthy goal, I must agree with his opening statement - R2P to what end?

I've seen the "if you broke it you own it" concept batted back and forth on SWJ, usually to its detriment. But like many such things, there is some truth buried in those words, especially when combined with Bill's basic point.

You cannot "protect" without, fundamentally, taking a side. While it is possible to protect both sides from each other, peace enforcement demonstrates to us that rarely is that happy situation realized. Normally, someone is being protected from someone else, and the protecting force becomes associated with a side. This is often called "mission creep." What started out as peacekeeping ends up as something else (Beirut 1983). What started out as humanitarian assistance, becomes something else (Somalia 1993).

So, really, in order to even take on R2P, you have to already assume R2I - the "right to intervene." You can see where this goes on the other end of the process - assuming the "right to intervene," you action the "right to protect," and are left, with, as a result, the "right to impose" a solution. In fact, now that you are stuck in the middle of protecting, you have no choice but to impose some sort of solution that alleviates the need to protect any longer. In order to declare "protection" over and allow you to leave...therefore:

R2I - R2P - R2I or maybe R2IPI?

I would argue that the fundamental mistake is the assumption that we possess the "right to intervene." But, knowing that may not necessarily be everyone's view, I think the next mistake is assuming that merely because you possess a right you must act on it - I have the "right to intervene" so therefore I must use it. This is a view that seems to be held by many...

Ken White

Sat, 03/03/2012 - 6:44pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C.:<blockquote>"This, I believe, is the thinking."</blockquote>That seems to be a correct statement and that apparently is the 'thinking' (or what passes for it) of many. Regrettably, it is terribly flawed thinking because all those good intentions get subsumed by ineptitude (which we could correct but likely will not) and excessive violence over extended periods as opposed to even more violence very briefly applied; far less harm to all involved in the long term.

The 'thinking' hinges on everyone involved behaving 'properly.' They won't...

Let us ask ourselves this question: R2P to what end?

To leave the country in the exact same position that we found it and, thus, with the exact same underlying problem that, we believe, gives rise to such things as -- not only genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity -- but also insurgency and terrorism? If such is the case (we intend to make no fundamental changes to the regime, etc.), then a much less entailed response seems reasonable.

If, however, the intervention is designed to address the underlying "root cause" of these problems, which, we believe, is the lack of more-western-like political, economy and social systems (the achievement of which, we believe, many of these abused populations may be, directly or indirectly, striving for), then a more comprehensive and complete intervention would seem to be required.

(Failure to address the underlying "root cause" problem in these cases suggesting that, until such time as we -- or they -- do address these matters in a more comprehensive and complete way, then these difficulties should be expected to continue to plague and adversely effect these regions and, potentially, the world as a whole.)

This, I believe, is the thinking.

Ken White

Sun, 03/04/2012 - 5:43pm

In reply to by Stan Wiechnik

We aren't that far apart, I think we differ on just one large issue. I'm an optimist but years in the so-called belly of the beast taught me to be a bit of a cynic and that these are problems:<blockquote>"As long as we understand the difference between limited support to an ally and taking control of the operation in order to solve another society's problems by liberalizing it we should be Okay."</blockquote>I agree -- my deep suspicion is that those factors will be problematic becausewe will not really understand (too often guilty of that...) or will deliberately disregard that difference (and that...), that we will insist on maintaining more control than we should and that, in essence, our egos will overrule our common sense. It should be noted in fairness to the worker bees in all agencies, that sort of mismanagement comes from on high, the SES and Flag types...

Those factors are systemic problems, partly induced by our cultures (military specific, governmentally specific and national generally) and partly by the fact that our derived budgetary / governmental process relies on crises and overseas efforts to distract the electorate from White House and Congressional foolishness as well as Pentagon bureaucratic madness. Our interventions are too often far more predicated on domestic politics than on the realities of the international situation.

Shorter Ken: We could do it fairly well but history shows we more than likely will not, ergo, best to avoid the effort unless there is literally <u>no</u> other choice.

Stan Wiechnik

Sun, 03/04/2012 - 11:56am

In reply to by Ken White

You and I are not as far apart as you seem to think. Limited military operations for a limited military purpose can work. Open ended military commitments to solve other peoples socio/political problems don't work. Just as long as you can explain to the policy makers how to recognize the difference we should be OK. If we start believing that there is no difference between the two because of Iraq and Afghanistan then we missed the boat.

That said, there are parts of the Slaughter plan I don't have any problems with. If Turkey or Jordan want to commit forces that is fine with me. The problem is on their doorstep. If we want to assist Turkey with intelligence or technical support because they are our ally that is acceptable too. As long as we understand the difference between limited support to an ally and taking control of the operation in order to solve another society's problems by liberalizing it we should be Okay.

Ken White

Sat, 03/03/2012 - 11:14pm

In reply to by Stan Wiechnik

Stan Wiechnik:

Heh. Thank you for reinforcing my point. The strategic raids that were Grenada and Panama worked -- we made no attempt or pretense of nation building, providing COIN or humanitarian assistance and all that jazz. Go in ready for bear. Get it done. Leave. Works for me.

The others all worked less well, mostly as a result of mixing armed force and idealistic silliness. Haiti was a hybrid, we went in armed and converted to quasi humanitarian. Clinton hit it lucky on that one. We did stay a little while but conned Canada into covering for us so we could get out fairly quickly.

Libya was an aberration; like the aberrations that were the Cold War and Desert Storm, few lessons to be learned. You may throw in Kosovo if you wish but IMO that was a Richard Holbrooke and Wesley Clark engineered debacle (which Rick Sanchez made worse -- he seems to be good at that...) and while it was indeed an intervention and not at all humanitarian -- we got conned -- it has not ended at all well. Won't do so, either.

Note all those were, as you say, small force and relatively quick. None were made with the real intention of taking sides in an internal dispute except for Kosovo. Are we still there? May be ArNG but they're US troops, no matter how few. ;)

I guess you can say we 'managed' all of those -- managed probably being a good choice of words -- but none of them was a sparkling military or diplomatic success and all showed major flaws in our capabilities, training -- and tolerance for risk. Those flaws are one reason I'm opposed to interventions; unless those things are fixed, our <i>ability</i> to intervene will remain significantly constrained and we will continue to do as much harm as good.

In all those with the possible exception of Panama, the cost:benefit ratio did not really justify the effort. I'm not opposed to the use of force -- all for it, in fact -- but it needs to be used wisely and it should not be applied to situations wherein its use will cause more problems than will be solved. That means, by definition, that it must be used quite sparingly and that it should NOT be used for so-called humanitarian purposes. That just does not work at all well...

Stan Wiechnik

Sat, 03/03/2012 - 9:56pm

In reply to by Ken White

I wouldn't use the word "always", we managed Panama, Grenada, Haiti, and Libya without 14 BCTs and an MEB and a ten year commitment to rebuild the country in our own image. You might even throw in Kosovo. It can be done as long as their is a consensus to allow it to be done. Everything does not have to turn into Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ken White

Sat, 03/03/2012 - 6:36pm

In reply to by Stan Wiechnik

Stan Wiechnik:

I know -- and my point was that such 'low key' interventions all too often end up with 14 BCTs and an MEB or thereabouts and more because of the ineptitude of and the constant change of decision authority in Washington. It is not the intent or the initial design / concept -- it is the unintended consequence that <u>always</u> ensues when one deliberately applies force.

Funny you mention NEO. As I wrote; "...<i>committing armed forces to 'nation building' or assisting other nations with their insurgency(ies), civil war(s), for "forced democratization" or most any other purpose are armed interventions in the affairs of others regardless of motivation.</i>

<i>'Limited humanitarian interventions' other than pure unarmed aid and life saving assistance are armed interventions"</i>

To quibble, a NEO is a life saving assistance effort and is not an intervention in the normal sense. Such ops are generally not deliberate applications of force and <i>they do not choose sides</i> -- they aren't designed to impose our will on others or assist them in imposing their will. They are humanitarian efforts where force may be necessary as opposed to an intervention specifically designed to employ force. Normally an effort to extract US citizens and occasionally others, it offers a generally clearly defined goal that provides a generally easily identified end state -- us gone.

It is or should be clear in the minds of all that the US is not there to stay and application of force was not the <u>reason</u> for the intrusion as it would be in armed interventions. Those are the big hookers, the reason for and the length of our stay. No one likes a visit from the Gorilla particularly when his 'assistance' has a spotty record of rationale, length and performance.

That is the reason we should develop a better capability for strategic raids. One can use the GPF for those if we train them right and we can do that even though we do not now do so. For the FID and such, better to use SF if necessary -- and only if really necessary. Right off the top of my head and after four such interventions on three continents, I cannot recall one that was even a good idea, much less necessary.

Stan Wiechnik

Sat, 03/03/2012 - 3:53pm

Ken White,

I don't think you and I are as far apart as you might think. I am also not in favor of military intervention in the affairs of others without a compelling national interest. My point was simply that once that decision is made it will not always require 14 BCTs and a MEB for the next ten years to conduct every type of mission. If that is the plan I can't wait to see the next NEO.

Pol-Mil FSO

Sat, 03/03/2012 - 12:34pm

I differ with COL Gentile on his anti-COIN arguments but I think he is right on the mark with his Syria commentary.

Bill C.

Sat, 03/03/2012 - 12:29pm

In our great initiative and mission of the 21st Century, which is -- to transform (toward market-democracy) and incorporate (into the global economy) outlier states and societies; this, so that these outlier states and societies might come to cause the modern world fewer problems and come to offer the modern world more utility and usefulness instead -- the idea seems to be to allign, configure and employ/deploy our military forces significantly to help achieve these ends.

These ideas, when combined with complementary thinking which suggests that events such as those that are occuring in the Middle East today are not to so much problems as they are magnificent and incredible opportunities; these two factors (mission and opportunity) seem to explain our concept for using military forces (along R2P and/or other lines) today.

The only thing that seems to have changed, of late, is the idea of (1) using the GPF for these purposes (2) as we did in the recent cases of Iraq and Afghanistan.

All other possibilities for the use of military force to help achieve the ends noted above -- such as "building partner capacity," Anne-Marie Slaughters' version of R2P concepts noted above, and/or more and greater use of such forces as are under the command of Adm McRaven -- all these such ideas (to be used in the service of outlier state and societal transformation) seem to still be on the table.

Ken White

Sat, 03/03/2012 - 1:14pm

In reply to by Stan Wiechnik

Stan Wiechnik:

Spades are indeed spades -- and committing armed forces to 'nation building' or assisting other nations with their insurgency(ies), civil war(s), for "forced democratization" or most any other purpose are armed interventions in the affairs of others regardless of motivation.

"Limited humanitarian interventions" other than pure unarmed aid and life saving assistance are armed interventions and those are historically proven to produce more problems than solutions and provide cost:benefit ratios that are abysmal. Humanitarian assistance is one thing; intervention is quite another. To suggest intervention by combat forces for 'humanitarian' reasons is literally an oxymoron.

I believe your statement that Iraq, for example, was ill conceived based on untested social theory is perhaps incorrect. I think it was well conceived, very poorly executed (mostly by the US Army) and due to that, converted into an exercise in poorly designed political theory. There wasn't much social about it...

Regardless, the lessons of that intervention and of many others by ourselves and by other nations is that those implemented with a nominally humanitarian guise or for any other reason almost always tend to take far more Troops, time and money than are likely to be available and generally add to rather than decrease violence and harm to the local populace. That last is an extremely important consideration that is overlooked or not mentioned by many, including Dr. Slaughter and her ilk, who support intervention...

In the case of Syria (or almost any other situation which I can envision), I have no problem helping others a reasonable goal or a better life (to include <i>very</i> limited military support using trained and for the purpose designed forces) but intervention with major forces is an extremely poor and quite problematic way to do that.

So, like you, I am not in favor of intervening in Syria. Unlike you, I've seen intervention fail in too many other places to support it <u>anywhere</u> unless there is absolutely no other option -- and that is almost never going to be the case.

Stan Wiechnik

Sat, 03/03/2012 - 12:39pm

First off, I am not in favor of intervening in Syria. What I am against is comparing every humanitarian operation, insurgency, or civil war that we may get involved in with Iraq and Afghanistan. COL Gentile writes:

"Ending the internal conflict in Syria and producing a peaceful aftermath would entail a long-term American commitment to armed nation building. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should have made this clear. Armed nation building isn't done in eight or eleven years but eighty or a hundred years beyond."

Lets call a spade a spade - the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan were not "armed nation building" they were forced democratization, or even more accurately, forced liberalization. The policy end state was pretty clear going in, at least in Iraq. It was an ill-conceived idea based on untested social theory. The policy end state here may be different and therefore involve a more limited response.

Now I don't know what the subtext of MS Slaughter's suggestions are, and they my well involve an interest in seeing Syria transform into a liberal democracy, but I think it unwise to compare limited humanitarian interventions to full blown forced democratization.