Small Wars Journal


Loose Talk on Intervention in Syria

Tue, 03/13/2012 - 2:13pm

Ryan Evans blogs at the Center for National Policy about the talk of intervention in Syria and the rigor yet to be applied, citing Col John Collins' (Ret) checklist for considering military intervention.  Evans argues that these points have yet to be fully explored and that any serious advocacy of intervention must answer these questions before we expend any blood and treasure on an ill-defined impulse.  Read more here.


There is a lot of loose talk on intervention in Syria. Various commentators, government officials – former and current, and analysts are calling for some sort of US military involvement in the blooming civil war between the Alawite Assad regime and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Recommendations range from arming the opposition to providing special operations and air support. Many of their arguments make a compelling moral case for intervention. Some even provide an operational framework for what military support for the FSA might look like. The trouble is, very few advocates of intervention have taken the time to: 

(a) Provide a strategic rationale for intervention based on US interests, 
(b) Identify what circumstances would merit a commitment that would place American military lives at risk, 
(c) Explain the criteria for disengagement if the conflict endures beyond our expectations, 
(d) Explain how the likely alternatives to Assad will be better for the United States.
(e) Explain what success looks like and what comes next .

The Responsibilities of Civilian Policy Advocates

Sun, 03/04/2012 - 11:05am

My views on the responsibility to protect concept and its advocates cavalier promotion of their cavalierly acronymed (R2P) construct previously boiled over into a debate on civil-military relations.  When I rhetorically asked on Twitter if they were ready to head down to the recruiting station to back up their convictions, I was accused of stepping afoul of the dictates of civilian control of the military.  I had no such intentions, as I subsequently stated.  Instead, I was asserting that R2Pers' moral certitudes were not backed up by a sufficient and sober counting of the costs.  Thinking of the "sacrifice" in the sterile terms that have accompanied a decade's worth of airport thank-yous and sporting events kickoffs is not the same as the heart-rending, gut-wrenching feeling of losing someone close to you; the flesh-tearing, life-changing pain of being maimed or killed by war; or the numbing, mind-altering experience of searching for parts of bodies, pulling dead children from rubble, and the like.  These are not a prerequisite for policy prescription, however the very terrible realities of war should not be glossed over in an attempt to sell lethal policy.  The advocates will state that these things are on-going in Syria, that they have contemplated them, and that we have a responsibility to stop it.  They will also state that the military has signed up for such things and that it must stand ready to make such sacrifices.

They also believe, against the weight of recent experience and longer historical example, that this will somehow be different.  That nifty technology will somehow make it easier, cleaner.  That aseptic corridors will be acceded to by a dictator determined not to find his end in a roadside ditch under the blows of his once-subjects, a gunshot, and the slow bleed, in great pain, during which he knows he is dying.  This image is undoubtedly seared into Assad's mind and that of his coterie.  But, surely, he will play fair with us.

All the more reason to take him out, they will say.  He is craven and cannot be allowed to continue this crime of epic proportions.  They do not see that their desire for a limited and humane intervention faces the vote of a determined enemy that will want to draw us into the quagmire, will want our precision-guided munitions to fall into the ambiguous targets of war, where cameras capture the wreckage of children, bright clothes smeared with blood and dusted with the gray remnants of a home collapsed upon them.  A father with tears in his eyes stands, hands pointing to the body, palms outward in helplessness.  Why, he asks, why do the Americans keep doing this?  Suicide bombers, IEDs, or missiles will cross lines on maps in op-eds and journal articles and we will call them cowards.  Meanwhile, drones or manned aircraft will loiter tens of thousands of feet above in impunity after the destruction of Syria's integrated air defense system with a bombing campaign that shocks all of the interventionists in its ferocity and breadth.  As the map lines blur, the bombs will fall silently, following the invisible beam of a laser.  They will fall into the ambiguity on the other side of the line and our moral certitude will shake, shudder, and eventually crumble as a civil war spreads in the murk.  We will look at the lines, now covered in dust, and bicker over what to do and how to do it.

Actors in Syria and in the region will tell us that they never wanted us there in the first place.  People scarred by war, their earliest memories marked by the smell of seared hair and flesh, burning plastic and rubber, the wails of mothers and sisters, a father, a grandfather, a brother transformed forever into a wrecked corpse, will march to the charge of another invasion, another occupation.  These will be the ones that survived by the lessons learned in a decade of war.  We will stand, the lines now vanished, trampled by the movement of patrols into the ambiguity, not wanting to press beyond our conception of a limited intervention, but unable to leave.  The R2Pers will not be in the midst of this.  They will be writing from their study, incredulous that military and civilian officials could have botched such a simple mission once again.  Wondering why we hadn't learned all the lessons of the better wars we could throw.

Surely, it cannot be as bad as all that, you might say.  True.  It may not be as bad as I say, but it will surely be more messy than the glib op-ed that Anne-Marie Slaughter threw together for the New York Times last week.  CNN reports that the military is looking at using as many as 75,000 troops just to secure potential Syrian chemical weapons sites.  The realities of a Syrian intervention are far messy than Dr. Slaughter is willing to countenance in her infantile fantasy masquerading as policy prescription.  Therein lies the rub.  Dr. Slaughter is a respected policy elite and people take her ideas seriously.  Therefore, she has a responsibility to be honest and open in her advocacy with regard to the risks and complexities of her proposal.  Dr. Slaughter tweeted a few weeks ago that those outside of government could partake in one-sided advocacy, leaving policy-makers in government to sort out the details.  This is the height of irresponsibility.  Essentially, she is saying that people like her are free to sell the American people on a policy in NYT op-eds without fully disclosing the costs and complexities, leaving the unhappy recipients in government with the task of dealing with the unstated costs and risks, while public debate shaped by dishonest people like her has closed off some of their policy options.

Slaughter states that simply arming the opposition would lead to destabilizing civil war. However, arming the Free Syrian Army to create "no-kill zones," that is enabling the FSA to control swathes of territory just within the sovereign borders of Syria would somehow bring an end to the butchery.  Not mentioned is how the FSA would take or hold this territory against the likely violent disagreement of the regime.  We are talking about battle here.  Not potshots against regime forces, but the taking and holding of territory.  This is not just glossed over in the Slaughter plan, but completely ignored.  She speaks blithely of the use of special forces to enable the FSA, and how they could enable the FSA to cordon population centers and rid them of snipers.  What you don't see here is the bloody battle and likely airstrikes needed to push the bulk of the regime forces away from these population centers to be cordoned.  Nor does it discuss the brutal and psychologically exhausting game of counter-sniper operations.

Slaughter next discusses locating tank and artillery units.  What she does not discuss is what is to be done once they are located.  Will they be showered with leaflets?  Or will she expect us to neutralize them?  That is a clean term.  It involves using aircraft, which means destroying an extremely capable integrated air defense system (IADS).  While there has been commentary to the contrary, this is much different than slipping through once or twice on raids as the Israelis have done.  Rest assured, any use of air in Syria will require an elaborate take-down of the IADS that will shock the bleeding hearts in our midst.  Even with the use of new technology to electronically disable the system temporarily, any attacker will use bombs to take them out permanently.  Also, no matter how precise the weapons, whether used against IADS, tanks, or artillery, the amount of explosive and shards of metal required to destroy such targets creates a deadly bloom that extends well beyond their intended target.  When missiles, artillery pieces, or tanks are located in and amongst civilian structures, collateral damage (as described above far more messily) will occur.

Slaughter asserts that all of this will be done only defensively and only against those that "dare" to attack the haughtily termed no kill zones.  Defensively is not defined here.  Does defense include taking out the IADS?  Does defense include taking out artillery in range of the no-kill zones?  Does defense include taking territory inside Syria to establish no-kill zones?  Does defense include counterattacking against Syrian forces that mass in preparation to push these "foreign fighters" (as they will be termed) out of their territory?  Does defense include pushing farther into Syrian territory when these no-kill zones fail to stop the killing beyond their neat lines?

Slaughter then goes completely off the rails of credibility when she states that Turkey and the Arab League should help the opposition more actively through the use of remotely piloted helicopters, both for logistical missions and to "attack" Syrian air defenses and mortars (she leaves out artillery here, not sure why) that can range the no-kill zones.  First, we see here that even Slaughter cannot sort out her charade of a purely defensive operation.  How is an attack purely defensive?  Second, if Slaughter was informed to an extent just one step above dangerous ignorance of military affairs, she would realize that her call for the Turks and Arab League to use remotely piloted helicopters for logistical and attack missions is roughly equivalent to a call to use sharks with lasers on their heads to do the same.  She cites American use of remotely piloted helicopters in Afghanistan.  True.  The U.S. has used two prototype remotely piloted helicopters to perform logistical missions in Afghanistan.  These are prototypes, however.  They have not been used in an attack role.  Using drone helicopters in an attack role against sophisticated air defenses or artillery positions is so far off even for America right now that she may as well have advocated using teleporters and phaser guns.  To imagine that the Arab League and Turkey can obtain and use such technology operationally in any meaningful numbers is so ludicrous as to be a lie.  I don't expect Slaughter to be a military expert, but stepping back from the technological aspects I do expect her to understand that concerted action by the Arab League, even in the most circumscribed situation, is not immediately forthcoming.  Advanced military operations using breakthrough technology is completely out of the realm of credible policy prescription.

Thus, the last few paragraphs of Slaughter's vapid essay indicate that it is completely out of touch with reality.  She states that it is up to the Arab League and Turkey to adopt a plan of action.  That simply is not going to happen in any form similar to what she advocates.  The only way that such a plan will be implemented is if the U.S. twists arms and stands ready to do all the heavy lifting.  In reality, then, Slaughter's neat plan will degenerate into the U.S. sticking its nose into yet another quagmire.

I do not believe that only those with military experience are qualified to advocate military intervention.  Nor do I object to the primacy of civilian control over the military.  I do object to policy advocation so simplistic and incorrect as to be deliberately misleading.  War and military force is a brutal and imprecise instrument.  It is ugly, destructive, wasteful, and stupid.  It makes no clean cuts, creates no neat solutions.  Sometimes it is the only option and sometimes the terrible horrors of war are required to prevent catastrophe.  We must be brutally honest and circumspect, however, in our advocacy of policy.  If the benefits truly outweigh the costs, let us discuss and air the best estimates and make an informed decision.  Advocacy like that of Anne-Marie Slaughter, however, is so disingenuous and so powerful with the pulpit that she commands as to be its own sort of evil.  It is an evil that I hope she corrects.

Tyler Hicks on Anthony Shadid's Last Mission

Sat, 03/03/2012 - 6:40pm

Tyler Hicks' missive on Anthony Shadid's last mission has drawn attention and many tweets for the one sentence R2Pers will use to make their case: "The Free Syrian Army is much more organized than the rebel fighters in Libya."  What this misses is the fact that the forces of the Syrian regime are far more intact than they were in Libya.  Qaddafis officials and his military quickly defected in large numbers.  The same has not been the case in Syria.  There is much more to read the article for, however.


The pace down was faster and easier than coming up a week earlier, and this time our bags were carried by horses instead of on our backs. But then I could hear that Anthony’s breathing became strained, and within a mile he was asking to rest. He will get through this as he did on the much more strenuous hike in, I thought, and with one of my arms around his waist, and the other holding his forearm, we continued to walk.

Soon after, Anthony stopped and leaned against a large boulder, and unlike the first time, when he had merely labored for breath, now he collapsed onto the ground. I called out his name, but he was already unconscious and his breathing had stopped completely. I performed CPR for half an hour while begging the smugglers to find a doctor. I hoped for a miracle. ... Finally, a small covered truck drove quietly within sight of us and we carried Anthony, whose death I could still not come to terms with, into the back, where I climbed in with him.

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


Syria and R2P

Sat, 02/04/2012 - 6:48pm

I would very much like to receive some articles for the journal on "responsibility to protect" and the growing catastrophe in Syria.  If you have ideas, please submit them to

There is a growing clamor for an intervention in Syria from the likes of Anne Marie Slaughter and Steven A. Cook.

At my blog, I question the rosy thinking of those that support a responsibility to protect intervention in Syria:

I absolutely believe that in an ideal, linear, and rose colored world, we have a responsibility to stop the horrific loss of life in Syria.  However, in the real world, the dimensions of what is required to conduct even the "limited" intervention suggested by R2P fans is far greater than what they imagine. ... We all want peace, but it has eluded us since the dawn of time.  If we truly want to intervene, we must make an informed decision that counts the likely costs, rather than relying on facile assumptions and acronym imperatives to drive policy.  If an intervention is to be successful, it must be based on realistic assumptions and get a realistic investment from the get-go.