How US Grand Strategy in Syria led to the idea of Missile Strikes

Are there any grand strategy considerations behind the Obama administration’s desire to bomb Syria? Yes, though they rest on doubtful premises.

The increasing importance of al-Qaeda-linked radical Sunni fundamentalist groups to the civil war in the north of Syria has posed a dilemma for the Obama administration, which began calling for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad in late spring of 2011.

The US now doesn’t want the regime to fall relatively quickly as in Libya, because the al-Qaeda affiliates have become too powerful and could well take over Damascus. Highly undesirable. The US does not want that outcome, and neither do Israel or Saudi Arabia, the two pillars of US policy in the region.

So US policy is to join with Saudi Arabia and Jordan to encourage a second front at Deraa with anti-al-Qaeda fighters a la sons of Iraq and limiting access for heavy weapons to Jabhat al-Nusra at the northern front by intercepting them in Turkey. Turkey and Qatar are upset with this policy and both try to subvert it, undisturbed by the al-Qaeda tendencies of their allies.

So far the Sons of Syria haven’t exactly come together quickly, and this strategy is likely a multi-year effort. It also has the potential for provoking a Syria-Jordan War, since Jordan is clearly the base.

The chemical attack in Ghouta seems likely a military response to these Jordan-trained, Deraa-based guerrillas coming up into Rif Dimashq. The Obama administration’s plans for a missile strike in response to the chemical attack is part of the southern, “Sons of Syria” strategy comes because that strategy cannot succeed if the regime is allowed to use chemical weapons to level the playing field. The US will therefore threaten the Baath regime with a rapid Libya-like overthrow, with US air support given to the rebel cause, if Damascus goes on using chemicals. The US hopes that the Baath will be afraid of a Libya scenario and will therefore agree to fight fair, and then the US, Saudi Arabia and Jordan will continue with the ‘Sons of Syria’ strategy with the further fighting playing out with conventional weapons.

In the meantime, the radical Sunnis of the north will be left in place but starved of the resources needed to make further progress against the regime there. The US strike will not only punish the regime for chemical weapons use but also opportunistically attempt to degrade some regime capabilities, presumably especially those useful in the Deraa-Rif Dimashq front.

There are three big problems with the US intervention strategy:

1. There is enormous space for mission creep

2. The premise that the regime can be forced to fight the southern rebels fairly is not entirely plausible

3. The US-Jordan-Saudi rebel forces are Sunni and could well be radicalized by their fight with the Alawite army; the idea that people keep the ideology you pay them to have is simplistic.

As for mission creep, the Baath regime may believe that the threat of sustained US air intervention is a bluff, and may call that bluff by continuing to fight the ‘Sons of Syria’ with chem units. The US at that point would either have to go in hard or go home, and as Les Gelb admitted, it is impossible in Washington circles to advocate cutting one’s losses in the face of a failed gambit.

One way the incipient Washington strategy could succeed is if Russia and Iran can be enlisted in forcing the regime to stop using chemical weapons. It would not shorten the civil war, but it might avoid a US quagmire. The signs that President Obama will go back to the UN Security Council are positive, and might be a step toward this outcome.

97 Responses

  1. Thanks for the clear explanations of the different rebels’ ideologies.

    Personnally I think that the US is fighting to get the full dominance of this ressource rich region that is the extended Middle East. After the fall of Iraq, Syria and Iran are the only regimes still escaping this US dominance (the Egypt coup and the return of the military makes sure that Egypt will stay under US influence, more or less, their nationalism and pseudo nasserism notwithstanding).

    So I really doubt that Russia, Iran and China will not veto an UNSC authorization to strike Syria. That would open the door to US full dominance of the extended Middle East and why would Russia and China allow this at a time of shrinking oil ressources ? They can’t accept the possibility of US de facto monopolizing the oil distribution and deciding who get what and how much.

    Total dominance can’t remain uncontested for long.

    • Re that observation that total dominance can’t and won’t remain uncontested, see, eg, “history,” and on a smaller scale, the vain effort to create a perfect unchanging Kentucky bluegrass monoculture lawn around one’s McMansion. Salafis got nothing on crabgrass and dollar weed and suchlike, despite largely unconstrained chemical warfare and wholesale deportation, transplantation and as with the West Bank and Gaza, “settlements.”

  2. Why is it that the U.S. is having a strident debate about striking Syria, while Israel simply carries out hit after hit without provoking much international comment? If Al-Assad is already having his capabilities degraded by Israeli missile strikes—and these strikes have not deterred him from continuing to fight—why should U.S. strikes be any different? Furthermore, if Israel is carrying out strikes, why does the U.S. need to get involved? It appears that Israel is capable of targeting sensitive military / research sites and can hit Al-Assad by launching missiles/bombs from its submarines, fighter planes, and air bases. Since Israel has already been hitting Syria (and apparently isn’t hindered either by public approval or by international law), why haven’t they stepped up their attacks in response to the sarin gas? Also, why did the Israeli populace rush to buy gas masks at the thought of U.S. strikes when their nation is already at war with Syria? If Al-Assad doesn’t hit back when Israel bombs, why he is more likely to hit back if the U.S. bombs?

    The following strikes are described in articles at http://www.israelnationalnews.com and at http://www.nytimes.com as well as other major media.
    Friday, July 26, 2013 – Israel bombed Syrian military base near Quneitra.
    Friday, July 05, 2013 – Israel bombed the Syrian port of Latakia to destroy a suspected shipment of Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship missiles.
    May 05, 2013 – Israeli missile strikes hit the outskirts of Damascus, targeting the bases of the elite Republican Guard and storehouses of long-range missiles, in addition to the Jamraya Center for Scientific Research on Mount Qassioun that American officials have called the country’s main chemical weapons facility. Other targets were a paragliding airport in the al-Dimas area of Damascus and a site in Maysaloun. (Per photos below, they also hit a chicken farm.)
    link to dailymail.co.uk
    May 03, 2013 – Israel bombed advanced, long-range ground-to-ground missiles stored at a warehouse at Damascus International Airport.
    January 29, 2013 Israel bombs may have hit the following targets: a convoy of sophisticated Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles (per Israel) or the Jamraya Center for Scientific Research outside Damascus.
    November 12, 2012 Israel bombed mobile artillery units on the Syrian side of the Syrian/Israel border in the Golan Heights.

    Also, note that in December 2012, Israel asked Jordan for permission to hit some of Al-Assad’s chemical weapons, but Jordan refused to grant permission: link to theatlanticwire.com

    September 06, 2007 Israel bombed a site in Syria alleged to hold an underground nuclear reactor in Al-Kibar. The Syrians insisted that it was not. (Per an article “The Silent Strike” by David Makovsky in The New Yorker, in March 2007, the Mossad stole plans about the facility from the computer of Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission, by sneaking into his Vienna home. In September, they inserted commandos to assist with setting the laser guidance for the Israeli missiles and carried out the bombing.)
    link to newyorker.com

  3. ‘The chemical attack in Ghouta seems likely a military response to these Jordan-trained, Deraa-based guerrillas coming up into Rif Dimashq.’

    Seems likely? Obama should rush to start a war in defiance of International Law on what seems likely? Surely going to war requires definite proof and some evidence. The recordings of the conversations supplied by Israeli intelligence are an example – where are they? There is not even a transcript. Where are surveillance photographs of chemical units moving into position? And why are we so keen to assign responsibility we can’t even wait for the UN inspectors report – even when the team obligingly cut short that inspection under pressure fron the US?

    • “Seems likely? Obama should rush to start a war in defiance of International Law on what seems likely? Surely going to war requires definite proof and some evidence.”

      Except for the corrupting influence of power possessed by whatever administration is in the White House. The rule of law is merely a talking point and something for others to obey, not the rulers.

    • I think you’re misreading the passage.

      That the Assad forces launched a chemical warfare attack is not what “seems likely.” It is a a well-known fact, like the moon landing.

      What “seems likely,” according to Professor Cole, is the motive for this attack: the progress by the particular rebel force in question.

      • Your well-known fact doesn’t appear to be that well-known among a group of former intelligence officials with contacts among active intelligence officials.

        “Obama warned on Syrian intel: Exclusive: Despite the Obama administration’s supposedly “high confidence” regarding Syrian government guilt over the Aug. 21 chemical attack near Damascus, a dozen former U.S. military and intelligence officials are telling President Obama that they are picking up information that undercuts the Official Story.” – link to consortiumnews.com

        It may eventually prove true that the Assad regime intentionally fired a chemical weapon, but I wouldn’t bet on it, especially on the word of people who lied to get the US and its English poodle into the Iraq war.

      • If it is a “well known fact” that the Syrian government perpetrated that 21 August attack, wouldn’t there be some evidence ?

        As WH Chief of Staff McDonough answered on the Sunday morning talk shows,
        “I believe it, so you can just trust me;”
        and
        “This isn’t a court of law. I don’t have to prove anything. The President said so, so you should just accept whatever we decide.”

        Joe from Lo,
        it really isn’t a well-known fact.

        • You are relying on the weakest argument of those who oppose a Syrian strike. Leave aside whether it is a well-known fact or not. There are other reasons to oppose a strike that are far more credible than ‘Assad may not have done it.”

        • “Joe from Lo,
          it really isn’t a well-known fact.”

          It’s amazing what people can manage not to know, when they’re really determined.

          I hope that the people who get this VERY, VERY EASY question wrong will be every bit as discredited as the Iraq War pundits deserved to be for getting the question of Iraqi WMDs wrong.

          How about you, Brian? Do you hope that?

      • “That the Assad forces launched a chemical warfare attack is not what “seems likely.” It is a a well-known fact, like the moon landing.”

        It appears more than a few people are not aware of or convinced of your “well-known fact,” Joe.

        “Meanwhile, the case against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seemingly coming apart at the seams, as is seen in a comment by the chairman the House Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon, R-California, no peace-monger he: “They haven’t linked it [the evidence on the use of chemical agent] directly to Assad, in my estimation.”” link to consortiumnews.com

        • I hope that the people who get this VERY, VERY EASY question wrong will be every bit as discredited as the Iraq War pundits deserved to be for getting the question of Iraqi WMDs wrong.

          How about you,Bill?

          Do you hope that?

      • Not so very long ago, here in this very blogspace, Joe, whoever he is, was castigating and impeaching others for daring to use unsupported phrases in argument like “Everybody knows” and “it is a well-known fact” and “it is well established,” I guess like the Moon landing, which happened, so that means irrefutably that whatever Joe says also happened, or exists, according to his repeatedly repeated narrative. A “foolish consistency…”

        • And I continue to castigate people for trafficking in wholly-baseless conspiracy theories, such as the rebels gassing themselves.

          And I will continue to do so, and I hope very, very much that you (plural) will continue to associate yourself with this absurd fantasy.

    • “And why are we so keen to assign responsibility we can’t even wait for the UN inspectors report”

      Because the UN inspectors weren’t charged with determining who launched the attack.

  4. and what would u have us do in the meantime? nothing? again i say, do u really think that the jews stacked one atop another in the nazi camps were hoping the allies (johnny-come-lately’s tho they were) would wait to negotiate, as their loved one’s were tortured and burned elsewhere, their bodies piled hi in pits while the pope, roosevelt & churchill all worried about cutting up the pie of europe and firestorming those refugees fleeing, literally melting innocents? how, in good conscience, can we wait juan; what do you think turned my father & yours into bomb makers at sandia? just this sort of heinous psychopathology – even jesus said, ‘i came not to bring peace, but a sword’ and every so called non resistor throughout our history was the catalyst for often violent overthrow so, again, would you really have us wait? & if u were a syrian child whose family had just been so cruelly exterminated, what sort of radical do you think you might grow up to be and what would you then think of america?

    • Congratulations, Jeanette. You have just written the longest capital-letter-free sentence ever on this blog. How do you distinguish between Democrats and democrats and between Republicans and republicans? There is a difference, u no.

        • Basically, Jeanette, we talk different versions of the same language which helps to explain why I had so much trouble understanding what you wrote and gave it short shrift. I can understand texting in some instance where some laconic statement would suffice, but something like your example doesn’t work when it is necessary to make a clear, intelligible statement. You still haven’t responded to my question about Democrats and democrats, etc..

    • The Allies didn’t fight Nazi Germany to save Jews from extermination any more, and even less so, than the North fought the South in the American Civil War in order to free the slaves. Both were welcome side benefits and occasionally effective strategies or justifications. And if you wete a Syrian child whose family was tortured and murdered by Al Nusra, et al, or Israeli or US missiles, what sort of radical might you grow up to be? I don’t ask in order to negate your question. Just to encourage us all to consider the humanity of all potential victims in this war.

      • “And if you wete a Syrian child whose family was tortured and murdered by Al Nusra, et al, or Israeli or US missiles, …”

        Except in this case US missiles will be precision-guided and will only kill the bad guys – no collateral damage among the good ones.

      • The Allies didn’t fight Nazi Germany to save Jews from extermination any more, and even less so, than the North fought the South in the American Civil War in order to free the slaves. Both were welcome side benefits and occasionally effective strategies or justifications.

        Wouldn’t the conclusion one could draw from these observations be that that speculations about motives are less important than the actual issues at stake, and likely outcomes?

        You might add, the Vietnamese didn’t invade Cambodia and overthrow the Khmer Rouge for reasons of selfless humanitarianism, and yet doing so was no less of a boon for humanity. If overthrowing the KR was a good thing, then the motivation of the Vietnamese government doesn’t make it any less good.

        • ” Wouldn’t the conclusion one could draw from these observations be that that speculations about motives are less important than the actual issues at stake, and likely outcomes?”
          Yes, by all means let us consider the actual issues and likely outcomes instead of assuming that a military strike will actually save lives.

    • Jeanette,
      should we wait and find out who used those chem weapons,
      or should we just strike at the party to the conflict that our elites hate ?

        • Jeanette,
          if you have evidence, please share.
          If all you have is certainty, but no evidence, then what you have is not enough to persuade me.

          If all you really have is trust in certain politicians who have certainty and have promised you they are telling the truth, please reasess.

  5. Professor, your posts are 95% worthy of praise and well worthwhile reading. This post however, is not one of your best. in fact it boarders on the ludicrous. You seem to have accepted the ravings of Kerry and the mischief put out by the so called intelligence people as fact. It is not a fact and there is absolutely no real proof at the present time that Assad used these weapons. As for strategy, there is clearly no strategy other than saving Obama’s face. You know, that silly phrase, “the red line” As for your idea of a fair fight, what do you think the terrorists and cannibal now operating in Syria are, Some kind of chivalrous knights of old England. The terrorists and additional factions now in Syria and gathering on the out side are like vultures waiting their turn to feed off the carcass that Syria is rapidly becoming.

    • The truth is either one, or the other. Either the Assad regime launched the chemical warfare attacks, or the rebels did.

      It is my sincere hope that the people who get this vital question wrong are every bit as discredited in the future as the Iraq War Pundits, who got the question of Iraqi WMDs so very wrong, deserved to be.

      • “It is my sincere hope that the people who get this vital question wrong are every bit as discredited in the future as the Iraq War Pundits, who got the question of Iraqi WMDs so very wrong, deserved to be.”

        That’s interesting, because most of the people pushing for this war on Syria are the same people who got it horribly wrong on Iraq. If this war comes off and proves, as it most likely will, to be another crime against humanity the criminals will probably suffer nothing worse than temporary discredit. That is one of the advantages of being militarily and economically powerful in a nation sleepwalking consumers.

        • I take issue with your last sentence. It looks to me like the American people have absorbed an object lesson that makes the majority firmly against a strike in Syria. They are hardly sleepwalkers. Remarkably, a lot of the opposition is simply that a strike won’t deter other countries from using chemical weapons. This can all be cynicism of a war-weary nation, but it could be signaling a deep crack in how both Dems and Repubs sell the militarization of American foreign policy. It’s like the boy who cried wolf but nonetheless left of trail of disaster that was his own doin.

        • That’s interesting, because most of the people pushing for this war on Syria are the same people who got it horribly wrong on Iraq.

          You mean like Barack Obama?

          I can’t help but notice that you didn’t agree with me about hoping the people who get this wrong being discredited.

          Why would that be, Bill? Wouldn’t you want people who perpetrate a Big Lie to be discredited?

      • Joe,
        thnx for acknowledging that there is still an open question about who did this.
        But it is no longer “one or the other.”
        As presented here, there are at least 3 different parties who had motive, opportunity and means to conduct the 21 August chem weapon attacks. We are setting rebel against rebel.

        Here Dr Cole is introducing the idea that we are now creating “good” rebels to take the place of the Frankenstein “bad” rebels we organized 3 years ago, but now disown.

        That raises the possibility that the chem weapon strikes were perpetrated by our former Frankenstein rebels against our Sons of Syria rebels.

        By the way, our initial “Free Syrian Army” that Eric Prince put together 3 years ago,
        with CIA/MOSSAD funding and leadership,
        consisting of non-Syrian takfiri Mercenaries,
        trained at the very same facilities in Jordan that the new “good” rebels are training at,
        these guys don’t need our money, C4ISR or Intel anymore.
        They get all they need from Qatar, Turkey and elsewhere.

        Not only are we not going to send the FSA the weapons we promised, but we are cutting them off from all support.

        Since the first set of “rebels” we fabricated turned out to put their own interests ahead of the CIA’s, we are fabricating a new set worthy of our support – until they get their feet on the ground and also turn against us.

        This “proxy war” stuff is more complicated than 40 years ago.

        • Brian,

          I am not acknowledging anything of the sort.

          Your conspiracy theory is ridiculous nonsense, the equivalent of the Reagan CIA blaming Saddam’s chemical strike against the Kurds on Iran.

          This is not a remotely open question. Whether you are a propaganda victim or a victimizer, you are spreading nonsense.

        • “I take issue with your last sentence. It looks to me like the American people have absorbed an object lesson that makes the majority firmly against a strike in Syria. They are hardly sleepwalkers.”

          Brian: You’re looking at the short term. The majority of Americans are notorious for political memories that fail to extend beyond the short term. They have a bad memory problem with history as do some tribal societies. The difference is that some tribal societies dwell on and stew over events that happened centuries ago while many Americans forget political events that happened more than a few weeks ago. Politicians and pundits know that and it explains why they talk so much rubbish at times. Their latest indignation is over the use of chemical weapons because they know the mass of sleepwalkers will have forgotten American use of Agent Orange and napalm in Vietnam and the callous use of mace by thugs in several police departments that had people reeling much like some of the non-fatal victims in the recent videos from Syria. Then there is the use of white phosphorous used by Israel and approved of by the White House and Congress. While they aren’t chemical weapons, depleted uranium made in the USA and scattered around Iraq has similar devastating effects.

        • Joe,
          I think you lack imagination.
          And a grasp of history regarding CIA disinformation.

          But I admire your strong faith.
          Faith is believing something for which there is no evidence.
          I’m a lousy Catholic due to my weak faith. I envy you.

        • I’m quite aware of both, thanks.

          That is not a golden ticket for you to make up whatever baseless fantasies you consider convenient at any particular moment.

          Imagination. Great, you go with imagination. I’m sure that will bring you exactly where you want, as long as you don’t want truth all that much.

  6. I wonder, I genuinely wonder; do the clowns, Kerry and Obama, realize how utterly ridiculous they appear to anybody with an operational brain?
    When they insist to talk about “secret” evidence, they cannot show, that proves Assad used chemical weapons, beyond a doubt?
    The play acting going on would shame an 8th grader off the stage.
    Infants all; my pet theory is; Americans do not mature after their senior year of high school; which would go a long way towards explaining this inane and immature charade called coalition building.
    Gods be good, where is Klatu…

    • “Americans do not mature after their senior year of high school; which would go a long way towards explaining this inane and immature charade called coalition building.”

      I read recently that the average American’s knowledge of history is based on what he or she learned in fifth grade. Despite our Founding Fathers being mostly racists, slave owners, and elitists, these little children advance into sixth grade and beyond into adulthood with the concept, despite all the wars and misery they create, our leaders are really good people at heart and whatever America does is okay.

  7. It’s good to see that there is at least one person in the anti-strike faction who is willing to acknowledge that the Syrian Arab Spring faction of the rebellion are not Skeery Al Qaeda Mooslems. On this, as on knocking down the idiotic “false flag” conspiracy theory, you have set a standard for integrity that the rest of the anti-strike partisans would do well to emulate.

    I havet to take issue with the term “second front,” though. The front currently around the south of Damascus, contested by the Syrian forces that grew out of the Arab Spring protests, is both the first and the primary front in the war. It’s not as though they are trying to start something new in a war that has mainly been fought in the north between NF/AQI and the Assad forces. That fight is the sideshow here.

  8. The optimism about choking off supplies to al Nusra as long as Turkey is protecting them is foolish. Not even the Reyhanli explosions have caused Ankara to adjust their willingness to let them operate freely (if observed).

  9. It is unlikely that Russia or Iran has any interest in stopping the use of chemical weapons in Syria because each wants to see a hobbled and humiliated US, so the US has no other immediately discernible option but to back away. If there is a joint stealth operation going on as we write, I hope it is successful in disarming any Syrians of chemical weapons.

    • “It is unlikely that Russia or Iran has any interest in stopping the use of chemical weapons in Syria …”

      News reports are saying that the Russian foreign minister has proposed that Assad place his chemical weapons under international control.

      • Please please please let this be true.

        If the Russians have been playing “good cop” this whole time, and the good-cop-bad-cop routine works, the global-security issue of chemical warfare’s return can be handled without military strikes.

        Let’s hope the Russian’s aren’t merely “proposing” this as a pose for international consumption, but are actually using their leverage to make this happen.

  10. The hope of ‘quarantining’ Jabhat al-Nusra (or any other group) is a pure delusion in a region awash with weapons and porous borders. (Though, alas, america does love its illusions.)

    Care to wager that before this has played out, virtually all the arbitrary, post-WWI European boundaries drawn across the region will have vanished?

    The chaos and bloodshed in such a scenario will make humanitarian and diplomatic interventions far more necessary than military interventions. Pity america is unprepared for either.

  11. So, essentially we’re “Mo”, threatening to knock-together the heads of the other two miscreant stooges?

  12. Dr. Jeffrey Sachs this morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe indicated that the U.S. has been involved in Syria for about two years, and it isn’t going as well as planned (“what could go wrong”). So there is need for escalation in the name of humanitarianism. Thus, it is being sold as the Goldilocks intervention, not too hard, not too soft, but just right.

    • Of course it has. It’s been arming the “good rebels” (Not the PYD, the hopeless FSA that gets their lunches eaten by the AQ crowd) through the CIA, whether or not the WH has gotten around to admitting it.

      • the hopeless FSA that gets their lunches eaten by the AQ crowd

        Your information is a little out of date.

        link to jpost.com

        Guerrilla fighters trained by the West began moving towards Damascus in mid-August, French newspaper Le Figaro reported on Thursday.

        Le Figaro reported that this is the reason behind the Assad regime’s alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus on Wednesday morning, as UN inspectors were allowed into the country to investigate allegations of WMD use.

        While this was going on, the NF “best fighters in the rebellion” were getting unceremoniously driven out of Homs by the government.

        • For what it’s worth, on the quality and strength and tactics of some of the players in this latest or at least currently topmost horror brought to us by the proponents and beneficiaries of the continuation of the Great Game:

          After the Islamist-led rebel alliance took the town, the Syrian regime responded by sending in aircraft to attack the rebel positions. This is the ever-disastrous pattern to the Syria conflict: rebels take a town doing its best to mind its own business, and the regime comes to the defense of the town and destroys it in the process. I spoke yesterday with a Syrian Christian who traveled near Ma’loula during the time of the attack. Like many Christians in the country, he has no love for the oppression of the regime, but remains somewhat “pro-regime” in relation to the conflict, since the threat of Islamists showing up and taking over his town outweighs his dislike of the regime. I asked him, “Regardless of the fact that these rebels invaded uninvited, would it not be better for the regime to just leave them alone, rather than conducting an airstrike on one of the most historical places in the country?” He responded sadly: “They don’t care. They will destroy anyplace the rebels are to be found.” He reminded me of other historical treasures that have been damaged through the regime’s response to rebel incursions, such as occurred in Palmyra, and recently at the Qal’at al-Hosn (Crac des Chevaliers), a magnificent Crusader castle and important tourist attraction that the regime bombed after rebels set up base inside. For someone who has defended the regime’s side during the conflict, his attitude of exasperation toward the scale of their responses was telling. Still, residents of Ma’loula have expressed gratitude for the military reinforcements sent in to expel the unwanted rebels. Many in Syria still prefer the devil they know to the one they don’t—though they’re getting to know the latter all the same.

          From a recent article in Syria Comment, ”
          Jabhat al-Nusra and Other Islamists Briefly Capture Historic Christian Town of Ma’loula,” at link to joshualandis.com

          One might ask what Anonymous Joe is selling.

        • Or one might consider the facts, even when they are terribly inconvenient for what JT McPhee wants to believe.

          BTW, among the many things you haven’t bothered to learn about this conflict is that American policy has been designed around weakening the very Islamist factions you (momentarily) feign concern about.

  13. Mr Cole should consider some additional facts:
    – He assumes that the Syrian army is all Alawiite army and there is no proof that’s the case, even last week the FSA announced the defection of another Sunni general from the Syrian regular army. So there are many Sunni generals still defecting, in fact more and more more Muslim Syrian (Sunni usually do not call themselves sunni’s) who are joining Assad’s side to fight for the preservation of their country. It’s nice to have a democracy, but would do with democracy if you no longer have a country. The regime side has a number of volunteer citizen legions in addition to the army.
    – It ignores the natural revulsion of people in Syria and elsewhere in the ME and North Africa to the Muslim Brotherhood and it more radical incarnation the Salafist with all their branches be it Al Qaeda, Al Nusra, Ansar ‘this & that’, or ISIS. It’s all the same intolerant fascist ideology in muslim garb. The popular demonstrations against the MB in Egypt and Tunisia of how fast the popularity of these movement can evaporate once people get to know the actors and the impossibility of the Islamist utopia. Libya is going through the same trials and tribulations and people are increasingly unhappy with the MB and its militia the Libya Shield and the Salafist and their militias.
    – Mr. Cole assumes that Qatar is seeking the same objectives as Turkey which is not true. Qatar strategy is essentially to reduce world wide supply of Liquified Natural Gas to guarantee high prices. Qatar wants a war and sanctions on Iran to protect its most important resource Natural gas from the North fields which it shares with by Iran, thanks to sanctions only Qatar is able to benefit from this resource. Causing problems for LNG competitors like Algeria and Libya and even Russia are all good objectives for Qatar.
    – Turkey problem in Syria is the Kurdish awakening in North Syria. So fighting the Kurds with Al Nusra is a number one objective for Turkey.

      • You think that divide, that distaste, is bad, you ought to learn what the members of the Second Baptist Church think about the members of the Third Baptist Church. link to cybersalt.org

        Welcome to humanity’s end-game…

  14. “So US policy is to join with Saudi Arabia and Jordan to encourage a second front at Deraa with anti-al-Qaeda fighters a la sons of Iraq and limiting access for heavy weapons to Jabhat al-Nusra at the northern front by intercepting them in Turkey.”

    If a couple of drunks in a bar get into a fight it will most likely be resolved in a short period of time with one party being victorious. If several other drunks pile in and change it to a brawl then it’s a new story with carnage all over the joint.

    • one advantage is that the southern border of Syria can be moved far north.
      well, that’s an advantage to one of the belligerent parties.

  15. Prof. Cole,

    1. Where did you get this information from?

    2. Why would Turkey/Qatar be “undisturbed by the Al-qaeda tendencies of their allies” and subvert an anti-qaeda policy? Can you elaborate please? I don’t see how that makes any sense.

    3. How can Syria go to war with Jordan in midst of a civil war? Assuming they are able to, would Jordan (my country has a tiny army) be able to fight? I would guess not. Would that mean that Israel might intervene and fight the war on Jordan’s behalf? Jordan after all is one of their last few friends in the region still standing on both feet, barely.

  16. With so many conflicting national and religious motives in play in the Middle East arena, it is unlikely that the people of the US will have the stomach to enter into anything other than moderate humanitarian service there now and in the future. This reluctance hamstrings the Administration and reveals why dealing with dictators as the face of a conflict has proved so much easier for the US in the past. Bush-Cheney tried to deal with the ME as the US version of a monolithic dictator,albeit by deceit. The US and other established and emerging democracies are just not good at speaking with a single voice or acting on behalf of a single set of interests.

    • “The US and other established and emerging democracies …”

      If the Obama administration orders the Pentagon to attack Syria in violation of the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions and other international laws and over the objections of a vast majority of Americans, then you can forget about listing the US among the world’s democracies.

  17. The countries that form the Sunni bloc, Saudi Arabia (act
    like pro-US moderates, at the end still fundamentalist
    Wahhabis), Qatar (regional monarchy playing both sides of the fence, be it with the US or the Taliban), Jordan (same
    prejudiced alarmist sectarian sentiments as most Sunnis on a
    Shia crescent, yet plagued with Salafists itself) and Turkey
    (despite secularism, its Sunni Islamist AKP never hid its
    Salafist fascination), mucked up the revolution with their past and current support and sympathies to Sunni/Salafi/Wahhabi extremist groups as well as hypocritical authoritarianism and brutalities against other sect/ethnic uprisings. You’d hope Turkey would have had the most sense, but apparently they see no wrong in unleashing Al Nusra on Syrian Kurds.

    They prejudiced global opinion against the opposition (even dulling my own support against Assad, to now fearing them more instead), who were mostly made up of local Syrian Sunnis, and some Syrian non-Sunnis, legitimately standing up for their humanitarian rights in a revolution against a sick brutal regime (So it doesn’t excuse Iran for siding with Assad’s govt. They could have helped facilitate another leader or group early on with a good Alawite-Shia minority power share, despite a hostile Sunni regional opposition).

    Supporting sectarian Sunni extremists like Al Qaeda violent
    ideologues will come back to bite and haunt not just them, but everyone else globally. Not that outside support wasn’t needed for Syrians, but currently there is a reality and crisis of ideological radicalization among the Sunni community, who are more susceptible compared to other communities, particularly when it comes to conflicts with sectarian overtones, which threatens non-Sunni communities, such as Christians or Alawites (clearly the Shabihah militant types have shown their twisted side, but chances of them wanting a global ideological rule 10 years down the line or persisting on taking down imperialists is unlikely).

    The US really can’t sort this out, whose own past dubious actions, 80’s to 2000’s Afghanistan and Iraq, weigh it down. Do not know why Canada is cheerleading them into a war which may make things worse for all parties concerned, when Canada itself is staying out, despite its anti-Assad stance viewed via an Israel centric policy, but identifies Sunni Islamist
    extremists of the Wahhabi/Salafi kind as its number one threat.

  18. Just a semantic note:

    What you are describing is properly termed “strategy” not “grand strategy.” Grand strategy consists of overarching frameworks, e.g. from the QDR2006:

    “The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, our Nation has fought a global war against violent extremists who use terrorism as their weapon of choice, and who seek to destroy our free way of life.”

    • I was presuming people knew that the Syria policy I outlined is intended to block Iran’s land bridge to the Levant and Israel’s borders, which is the grand strategy.

  19. Professor Cole,

    Interesting analysis. I would just add to it that if you were to look at your guess at the “US Grand Strategy” from Saudi perspective you must conclude that unlike US time is not on their side. They are paying for the rebels and the longer it goes on the rebels or their supporters in Saudi Arabia could morph into a new Bin Ladin that would challenge the King (like Bin Ladin did). Furthermore, I think they have learned the lesson of Qatar. Middle East is too dynamic and if they can’t achieve their immediate goal of removing Assad, who knows where US would be in few months. Take for example, what if another Benghazi incident, or a nasty Al Queda inspired operation in Europe happens.

    I think in the Saudi calculus a false flag chemical incident is what they need to expedite the removal of Assad.

    • It seems such a “false flag” attack would serve their purposes.

      Who could they get to pull it off ?

  20. “There are three big problems with the US intervention strategy”

    Actually the biggest problem is Syria may actually be able to sink a US capital ship or shoot down a considerable number of aircraft using Russian military equipment.

    The next biggest problem is how to conduct a war with the Russian Navy present. Is firing missiles over the Russian Navy’s head really a good idea? What happen if the Russian navy relays the position of US ships to Syria and Syria is able to hit those ships with missiles, WWIII?

    I really do not understand why something going very wrong for the US military is not being discussed in mainstream news sources. As far as I can tell this the only naval battle the US has fought since WWII and a NATO nation since the Falklands war (in which British capital ships were sunk)

    • You are overlooking
      — the Battle of the Gulf of Tonkin, August 1964,
      in which the US Navy prevailed; and
      Operation Earnest Will, 1987-88, in which not a single capital ship was lost.

      Maybe I should throw in Operation Ocean Shield, 2008 – present. We have not yet lost a single capital ship to barefoot Somali teenagers armed with machetes.

      This illustrates why we need 13 active aircraft carriers and their supporting task forces: to prevail over enemies in rowboats.

      • I used to work with a former sailor who was in the Gulf of Tonkin when the North supposedly struck a US ship. He said they found out about the ‘attack ‘ weeks later. It never happened.

      • “This illustrates why we need 13 active aircraft carriers and their supporting task forces: to prevail over enemies in rowboats.”

        Perhaps if we didn’t constantly make enemies around the world we could get by with less than half of our military forces. On the other hand, if we built fleets of hospital ships and aircraft and sent them around the world treating the poor and the sick we might create a new generation of friends instead of another of enemies. At a much lower cost.

      • Gulf of Tonkin — even the reported and discredited version showed warships versus torpedo boats, hardly a significant “naval battle.” Unbiased view? See link to usni.org What a former President had to say:

        It is a solemn responsibility to have to order even limited military action by forces whose overall strength is as vast and as awesome as those of the United States of America, but it is my considered conviction, shared throughout your Government, that firmness in the right is indispensable today for peace; that firmness will always be measured. Its mission is peace.

        link to millercenter.org

        And let us not forget the lessons taught by one Lt. Gen. Paul van Riper, USMC (Ret.), during a relatively recent simulation of naval, etc. war in the Persian Gulf, in which the Evil Red Force under his command sank most of the Great Force Projecting US Capital And Other Ships and did such other havoc that the Pentagram had to stop the Games, re-spool, and basically force a happier (for the MIIC) outcome: link to fabiusmaximus.com $250 million, 13,500 players, 18 Navy ships sunk, the Blue Force routed, and in the real world there is no “do-over.” See, e.g., Iraq and Afghanistan. Fog of war, my backside — one ought to watch where one steps, and not take reassurances from ergonomic-chair “battlespace manager warfighters” and their Policy Cheerleaders that “We got it right NOW, $7 trillion later.”

        Of course inconsiderable Arabs, old in war and politics, would never ‘get it right’ like that… link to fabiusmaximus.com

        Obligatory plug for another Gen., Smedley Butler: “‘War’ is nothing but a racket.”

    • A “red herring” is used in training foxhounds.

      Red herrings are smoked and emit a pungent odor that can distract a foxhound from the hunted fox, who has a far weaker odor.

      The foxhound trainer uses red herrings to teach the dogs to ignore the more powerful scent of the red herring and continue to follow the smell of the hunted fox.

  21. An interesting view of the McDonough mission to sell the war on Syria:

    “An obvious choice would have been National Security Adviser Susan Rice, but her reputation for truthfulness got seriously tarnished after she made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows on Sept. 16, 2012, and stuck to inaccurate talking points about the attack on the U.S. “mission” in Benghazi, Libya.”

    and

    “A second likely candidate would have been Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, but he has admitted to telling “clearly erroneous” things in sworn testimony to Congress regarding the collection of phone data on American citizens.” link to consortiumnews.com

    The Obama administration appears to be running out of credible salespersons, and it is questionable that the salesman-in-chief will be able to do the job.

  22. “The Obama administration appears to be running out of credible salespersons, and it is questionable that the salesman-in-chief will be able to do the job.”

    Given this commentary by the estimable Gareth Porter, come Tuesday evening’s grand presentation, Obama’s speech writers will have a formidable challenge making gold out of lead.

    “Obama’s Syrian case shows cracks: New cracks have appeared in the Obama administration’s case for bombing Syria. Though the White House’s four-page white paper has been palmed off as a U.S. intelligence assessment, it now appears to have been a political document that cherry-picked evidence” – link to consortiumnews.com

  23. When it comes to chemical weapons it appears Uncle Sam speaks with a forked tongue:

    Comment is free

    Obama’s rogue state tramples over every law it demands others uphold

    For 67 years the US has pursued its own interests at the expense of global justice – no wonder people are sceptical now
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    George Monbiot
    George Monbiot
    The Guardian, Monday 9 September 2013 15.30 EDT
    Jump to comments (475)

    US fire white phosphorous at Taliban
    US troops fire a white phosphorous mortar towards a Taliban position on 3 April 2009 in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Photograph: John Moore/Getty

    You could almost pity these people. For 67 years successive US governments have resisted calls to reform the UN security council. They’ve defended a system which grants five nations a veto over world affairs, reducing all others to impotent spectators. They have abused the powers and trust with which they have been vested. They have collaborated with the other four permanent members (the UK, Russia, China and France) in a colonial carve-up, through which these nations can pursue their own corrupt interests at the expense of peace and global justice.

    Eighty-three times the US has exercised its veto. On 42 of these occasions it has done so to prevent Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians being censured. On the last occasion, 130 nations supported the resolution but Barack Obama spiked it. Though veto powers have been used less often since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the US has exercised them 14 times in the interim (in 13 cases to shield Israel), while Russia has used them nine times. Increasingly the permanent members have used the threat of a veto to prevent a resolution being discussed. They have bullied the rest of the world into silence.

    Through this tyrannical dispensation – created at a time when other nations were either broken or voiceless – the great warmongers of the past 60 years remain responsible for global peace. The biggest weapons traders are tasked with global disarmament. Those who trample international law control the administration of justice.

    But now, as the veto powers of two permanent members (Russia and China) obstruct its attempt to pour petrol on another Middle Eastern fire, the US suddenly decides that the system is illegitimate. Obama says: “If we end up using the UN security council not as a means of enforcing international norms and international law, but rather as a barrier … then I think people rightly are going to be pretty skeptical about the system.” Well, yes.

    Never have Obama or his predecessors attempted a serious reform of this system. Never have they sought to replace a corrupt global oligarchy with a democratic body. Never do they lament this injustice – until they object to the outcome. The same goes for every aspect of global governance.

    Obama warned last week that Syria’s use of poisoned gas “threatens to unravel the international norm against chemical weapons embraced by 189 nations”. Unravelling the international norm is the US president’s job.

    “In 1997 the US agreed to decommission the 31,000 tonnes of sarin, VX, mustard gas and other agents it possessed within 10 years. In 2007 it requested the maximum extension of the deadline permitted by the Chemical Weapons Convention – five years. Again it failed to keep its promise, and in 2012 it claimed they would be gone by 2021. Russia yesterday urged Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control. Perhaps it should press the US to do the same.” link to theguardian.com

    No surprise there.

    • “Through this tyrannical dispensation – created at a time when other nations were either broken or voiceless – the great warmongers of the past 60 years remain responsible for global peace.”

      The “great warmongers of the past 60 years”? “Created at a time when other nations were either broken or voiceless”?

      Well now, the current Perm Five in the UNSC were in fact the liberators of those countries suffering under the Fascist tyranny of the 1930s and 1940s. Other nations were either “broken” or rendered “voiceless” because they had been made so by the aggression, vicious occupation, and tyranny of Nazi Germany and its allies, and Japan. It was the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, and China, who fought against and eventually prevailed against such tyranny. And although some may not appreciate the sacrifices made in this effort, there are those who do.

      To suggest that the Perm Five in the UNSC are “war mongers” is to completely ignore history. It is, in fact, a totally ahistorical argument that hardly deserves a response. Nevertheless, one who has written in a comment above that, “Despite our Founding Fathers being mostly racists, slave owners, and elitists, these little children advance into sixth grade and beyond into adulthood with the concept, despite all the wars and misery they create, our leaders are really good people at heart and whatever America does is okay,” can hardly be expected to appreciate the sacrifices made by the allies in World War II.

      In short, this is the absolutists’ argument that the United States and its allies have never done anything worthy of respect and praise.

      • ” … can hardly be expected to appreciate the sacrifices made by the allies in World War II.

        “In short, this is the absolutists’ argument that the United States and its allies have never done anything worthy of respect and praise.”

        Your capacity for getting it wrong is truly remarkable, Bill-no-last-name. I was taken to Britain just before the outbreak of WWII and lived there through the entire war, so I was very appreciative of what the American forces did then and later with the Marshall Plan. I have always considered the Peace Corps one of American’s great achievements. The problem with those events for me was that I developed a one-sided view of America as the always-good-guy for much too long and failed to recognize the bad guys who frequently ran the show. I haven’t flipped, as you would probably like to believe, so that I now only see the evil that exists in America. Basically, I see the United States as being similar to most human societies as a nation with the best and worst of people with most people somewhere in between. Just as I found it essential to get a cancer out of my body, I see it as equally important to get rid of the cancers destroying the American body politic.

    • Thousands of US chem weapon artillery rounds, missiles and aerial bombs have been destroyed. Millions remain. Most are unusable.

      The good people of Pueblo, Colorado, objected to demilitarization by incineration, so Bechtel is testing a demil technology based on dilution with water.
      800,000 rounds sit in igloos 40 miles from my home.
      Every now and then they detect a leaker. I worry about the smell of freshly mown hay (that’s how mustard gas smells in low concentrations.)
      Don’t think I’ll visit the farms downstream of the Pueblo Depot to pick chili peppers anymore.

      Speaking of US chem warfare,
      notwithstanding the photo above,
      I think the last acknowledged use was in 2007,when we administered superdoses of the Malaria medicine Lariam to the last men transferred to Gitmo. As an added benefit to the known psychoactive effects, including suicide ideation, Lariam supposedly loosens tongues in interrogations.

      At least, if you can believe Jason Leopold. I do.

      But when Syria uses chem weapons, its wrong.

      • CORRECTION:
        Mustard gas smells like garlic or mustard.
        Phosgene smells like new mown hay.

  24. Juan,

    Ed Luttwak laid out the rather calculating strategy for dealing with Syria in a recent NYT op-ed. Cold indeed, Luttwak saw the President’s strategy as based on the precept that if either Assad or the radical jihadi opposition prevails, US interests suffer.

    While I believe there is more to the President’s thinking, it seems that his strategy may have yielded dividends in the event

    I am speaking of course of today’s dramatic turn of events, an opening we’d have never seen absent the credible use of force.

    Even if the President had lost the Congressional vote to the odd fellows alliance of neo-isolationist tea partiers and left wing Democrats, Syria and Russia should not doubt that the President would respond to a second chemical strike without pause or hesitation.

    • The opposition to this contemplated attack on Syria includes more groups than just “the odd fellows alliance of neo-isolationist tea partiers and left wing Democrats.” That helps to explain why a significant majority of the American people who are not “neo-isolationist tea partiers and left wing Democrats” are opposed to the war.

    • I am sure that President Assad must have seen videos of Libyan leader Muammar Khadafy’s final moments after being removed from a drain pipe – and that it was NATO (including the Americans) that made those memorable moments possible.

      The spectre of U.S. aerial support of rebels no doubt has played a factor in Assad’s decision to begin heeding American concerns over his chemical weapons stockpile. Assad wants to retain power and U.S. intervention could be fatal to his interests. Assad does not want to be the next Khadafy.

      Assad has already seen his brother seriously wounded and his brother-in-law killed in a bombing during the rebellion. American involvement would tip the balance of power in favor of the rebels and could result in the toppling of his regime.

    • John M,

      if supporting and defending the Constitution,
      and the values in the Declaration of Independence,
      make me a neo-isolationist,
      then I wear your smear proudly.

    • JM,

      Of course it is the THREAT of the use of force that affected events; the actual use of force signals a failure of leadership and diplomacy.

      The US has been using force against the Syrian government for 3 years now, through a proxy Mercenary army. That hasn’t been very effective.

      =

      I expect the Tuesday night address to the nation will be postponed, pending actual diplomacy by parties looking for a non-kinetic solution. That doesn’t appear to include the Obama Administration.
      I don’t expect the Congress to vote on this, after all.

    • I “love” how John Mccutchen characterizes opposition to war on Syria as “neo-isolationist tea partiers and left wing Democrats”. According to this type of attitude, any rational opposition to MORE WAR is from backwater, fringe, marginalized wing nuts.

      I think Mr. Mccutchen should look at the polls on the war issue. More than 80% of the American people in some polls are against the Syria strike/war.

      Well allow me some hyperbole: those who support another war are neo-conservative and neo-libral Project for a New American Century dick Cheney lover.

  25. Professor Cole has recently come under criticism from readers, because he believes the chemical attack came from troops loyal to Assad. They have brought up the possibility that the rebels could have been the instigators. While I share their doubts, I would have to say that there is only a one in ten chance this scenario of events on the ground could be taken seriously. I say there is a one in ten chance, because I served as a medical corpsman in Vietnam. And that’s my estimate, totally subjective from my limited perspective, of how many grunts were wounded by friendly fire. So the odds are on Professor Cole’s stand.

    • I am responding out of respect for the corpsman george. As a CC my orders to my men were the corpsman will always be the last man standing.
      I would simply like to say, after being subjected to immoral treatment after coming home from VN that no man or woman that puts on the uniform of the United States to protect all walks of life within it’s confines should not be rendered to put his life on the line for a bunch of milksops who find fault while hiding behind their mother’s skirts.
      I do agree with the fact that in order to maintain a modicum of respect in this world that a solution to the use of chemical weapons needs to be reaffirmed. Other than that I feel quite strongly that If the residents of these muslim countries choose to kill each other, let us not hinder them in any way.

  26. This post has been up a while, maybe too late to add but…Obama grasps at Putin’s straw. If Putin convinces Assad to the chem-weps and let the UN take ‘em away, Obama bends the story so that now the imminent attack has somehow evaporated and there won’t even be a congressional vote so he can pursue some diplomacy. A vote that was looking like he was going to lose anyway. Diplomacy which he always could have had it he really wanted it. A tomorrow which without Putin would have been grim. Putin as Obama savior. Hell to pay for Obama if Assad says no, nothing for Putin to pay, but Putin now as the deal maker that Obama couldn’t be. Obama as the perfect example of how to immobilize yourself by shooting both your feet. Well at least the chances of attack are down, even if Assad says no.

  27. “the idea that people keep the ideology you pay them to have is simplistic” – but is true to American internal political experience.

  28. “US Grand Strategy”? What is the evidence that such a thing exists? The events of the last few weeks seem to indicate the opposite.

  29. “I can’t help but notice that you didn’t agree with me about hoping the people who get this wrong being discredited.

    “Why would that be, Bill? Wouldn’t you want people who perpetrate a Big Lie to be discredited?”

    What are you talking about, Joe, when you refer to discrediting of people who got it wrong on Iraq? What do you mean by discredit? Bush and Cheney were re-elected after it became obvious the war was a disaster. Most of the politicians in Congress who voted for the war were re-elected. That’s discredited? From the senate one of the more rabid promoters of the war became the Republican party’s candidate for president. That’s discredited? On the Democratic side one became vice president and two became secretaries of state. That’s discredited? If Iraq had won the war and applied the same principles against US leadership that the allies applied against the German leadership in Nuremberg, many of those people would have been dangling at the end of a rope a long time ago instead of being on the receiving end of compliments. Many of the pundits supporting the crime against humanity in Iraq are now invited on talk shows to promote aggression against Syria. CNN had two of the worst on last night – Wolfowitz and Lieberman.

    • Pay more attention to the words I use, Bill. I wrote “the Iraq War Pundits, who got the question of Iraqi WMDs so very wrong, deserved to be.

      And I notice that you STILL won’t answer the question.

      I’m starting to doubt your sincerity in pushing this conspiracy theory. You know who won’t say he hopes liars are discredited, don’t you?

  30. “That’s interesting, because most of the people pushing for this war on Syria are the same people who got it horribly wrong on Iraq.

    “You mean like Barack Obama?”

    Pay more attention to the words I use, Joe. I said “most of the people” not “all of the people” because I was aware Obama was not one of the promoters.

  31. surely your post, Juan Cole, was a satire.

    please, i hope it was a satire.

    because otherwise, it is insane.

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