A US attack on Syria will Prolong the War

The struggle in Syria began peacefully in spring of 2011, but after about half a year it turned violent when the regime deployed tanks and other heavy munitions against the protesters. Some of the latter took up weapons and turned to violence in revenge. Thereafter the struggle spiraled into a civil war, in which the regime showed itself perfectly willing to attack civilian city quarters and kill indiscriminately. The struggle has killed over 100,000 persons. As the regime became ever more brutal, the rebel fighters were increasingly radicalized. Now, among the more important groups is Jabhat al-Nusra or the Succor Front, a radical al-Qaeda affiliate.

President Obama’s plan to bomb Syria with cruise missiles will do nothing to hasten the end of the conflict. Instead, it will likely prolong it.

It should be remembered that the US couldn’t end the Iraqi civil war despite having over 100,000 boots on the ground in that country. It is highly unlikely that Washington can end this one from 30,000 feet.

The hope for avoiding another decade of killing is that the governmental elite and the rebels get tired of fighting and prove willing to make a deal. It is probably too late for Syria to succeed at the kind of transition achieved in Yemen. There, the president stepped down and his vice president ran for his seat. At the same time, members of the opposition were given seats in the cabinet. That kind of cohabitation with the former enemy is easier if too much blood hasn’t bee shed.

The best solution for Syria would be if President Bashar al-Assad steps down and the Baath Party gave up its dictatorial tactics. At the same time, the rebels would have to forewswear al-Qaeda-type extremism.

Probably each side would have to feel that they could not gain any substantial benefit from further fighting, for negotiations to have prayer of success.

The prospect of a US missile strike is emboldening the rebels. They increasingly hope that the US will come in militarily with them.

the rebels don’t look at the proposed US missile strikes as a limited affair or as solely related to chemical weapons use. Aside from al-Qaeda, they see the US as an ally. Thus, they are complaining that Obama’s indecisiveness is emboldening Syrian President al-Assad. The US is now part of their strategic calculations and they see decisive American action as an asset.

Obviously, such euphoria at the prospect of US military intervention on the rebel side is incompatible with the kind of “pacted” transition political scientists favor. The rebels will have every incentive to hold out for ever more forceful outside Syria intervention in the coming years.

By striking Syria, Obama has all but guaranteed that a negotiated solution becomes impossible for years to come. In the absence of serious negotiations, the civil war will continue and likely get worse. The US should give serious thought to what the likely actual (as opposed to ideal) reaction in Syria will be to the landing of a few cruise missiles. The anti-regime elements will celebrate, convinced that it will all be over quickly if the US gets involved. The last thing they will want will be to negotiate with the regime.

57 Responses

  1. Juan, a few months into the unrest, former MI6 officer Cooke was already reporting Takfiri armed groups fighting inside Syria, and he evidence to back up his observations. At the time, nearly everyone else was sticking to the narrative you still provide here.

    By now it should be obvious to all that Crooke was right.

  2. Some simple realities about “modern” warfare that everyone seems to ignore …

    – Most command and control systems are designed to absorb heavy bombardment and continue to operate.

    – communication links are based on TCP/IP running over multi-path fibre networks. That is, the survivability of ARPAnet improved. Those that weren’t on the original ARPAnet (I was) do not seem to understand the redundancy built into the design so it could survive a massive war.

    – Missiles are extremely inexpensive, plentiful and reasonably accurate, but while military sites are hardened, civilian sites are not. As a result US missiles will destroy mostly non-military sites. It no longer takes a “rocket scientist” to make a rocket – all the technology is well documented and inexpensive. A reasonably accurate guidance system can be made with several US$35 Raspberry Pi modules and and a few other US$2 chips.

    – Everyone has an AK-47 (1947 technology) or equivalent so lots of humans will die. Per CJ Chiver’s book “The Gun” (a very good read) there are over 100 MILLION AK-47 type weapons on earth, with thousands more being made each and every day of the week. By now the total is probably closer to 150 million and increasing.

    – IEDs are extremely effective and very, very inexpensive to make. The components can be purchased at any big-box store.

    The bottom line is the US has only two options:

    – ignore Syria and let the situation play out over time like all civil wars do, or

    – Get sucked down the rabbit hole and invade Syria with half a million troops who will get killed by everyone in Syria. Eventually those troops will be force to withdraw in humiliation and defeat.

    The US has simple choice – smart = ignore or stupid = rabbit hole.

    • Mr. Spyguy, I find your reply interesting and informative, until several facts must be noted and pointed out:

      When Iraq was invaded by coalition forces back in 2003, the United States invasion went relatively well, with minimal casualties on the U.S. side by comparison to previous wars in history, and considering only 4,805 coalition combatants were killed, over the 8-year period. Clearly, a United States ground invasion into Syria, a country much like Iraq in military capabilities, will not end much differently.

      As such, it should be stated, the effect of a US invasion would not be defeat in the traditional sense, or death in tolls as you believe they will be, but instead it may, may, end in a defeat for any form of unity between the sides and during the antebellum. Being so, I would believe your deduction is fallacious and your given result requires the premise of the inability of modern armed forces for their ability to wage modern armed warfare.

      Thank you for reading this, Spyguy, whenever that time may come. I would be happy and willing to discuss this further.

  3. American military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen or Libya have not resulted in establishing peace, human rights and democracy. On the contrary, all those countries are still reeling as the result of the military devastation that they have suffered at the hands of US forces.

    It is sad that the Republicans fought President Obama on practically everything during the past five years, but as soon as there is talk of war they all rush forward to support the president. It seems that war is the only issue that unites Republican and Democratic leaders. The only conclusion from this bizarre situation is that sadly American politicians have become addicted to war and bloodshed, and the talk of military operations gets the blood racing through their veins.

    The American public, which is overwhelming opposed to war, should stop yet another military adventure that causes more misery to the majority and only benefits the one per cent and the military industrial complex. Far from helping American credibility in the eyes of the world, this illegal war will further erode American credibility and will portray it as a country that is out of control and that can only communicate with the language of violence. This is contrary to American ideals.

    • >American military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, “Somalia, Yemen or Libya have not resulted in establishing peace, human rights and democracy. On the contrary, all those countries are still reeling as the result of the military devastation that they have suffered at the hands of US forces”

      Youve provided some mixed examples, the iraq war certainly worsened the situation.

      Libya and afghanistan however did the opposite,not intervening would allowed a worse fate to befall the citizens of these nations.

      The question is where syria will end up.

      One advantage found in the latter two countries mentioned is that the ruling party was overwhelmingly unpopular.

      It likely that assad may not have the support of over 50% of the population, but it seems that he would still have significant support nevertheless.

      This would make the intervention less likely to bring about a positive ending or turn of events.

  4. The comparison to Yemen is a stretch.
    Ali Abdullah Saleh was by 2011 dependent on CIA support for keeping his grip on power.
    The CIA gave him hundreds of millions of $$ to fight al-Qaeda in Yemen, and he pretended to do that.
    When US support was withdrawn, he had no choice but to step down.

    The USA has no such influence in Syria.

    Another key difference:
    in Yemen, the civil war and aftermath were all domestic.
    In Syria, the “civil war” was instigated by the US and Israel.
    Our CIA, NSC, DOS and WH are run by foreign policy amateurs.

  5. “It should be remembered that the US couldn’t end the Iraqi civil war despite having over 100,000 boots on the ground in that country. It is highly unlikely that Washington can end this one from 30,000 feet.”

    The above-cited quote is based on the faulty premise that the US purpose in lobbing cruise missiles at Syrian government targets is meant to “end the war.” It is not.

    I am not a supporter of US intervention in Syria because I see no US national interest that would be advanced by our intervention. Gassing one’s own people is horrible, but the US has neither a legal nor moral obligation to “right” every wrong when its own interest is not at stake.

    That said, President Obama and Administration officials have made it clear that any intervention would be a punitive strike. No doubt the US strike will try to degrade Assad’s military capability as well deliver a punitive blow. But it is clear to any observer that such a strike is not meant to, and willl not, “end the war.” This is not 1999, Syria is not Serbia, and there will not be a 78-day air campaign forcing Assad to the negotiating table.

    • No, but it will destroy Syria’s airforce and anti-air defences, thereby giving Israel an unhindered overflight of Syria to bomb Iran. The Kurds in Northern Iraq have already signalled their acquiescence.

      • “No, but it will destroy Syria’s airforce and anti-air defences, thereby giving Israel an unhindered overflight of Syria to bomb Iran. The Kurds in Northern Iraq have already signalled their acquiescence.”

        It is not at all clear that a US strike will destroy Syria’s air force and air defense system. Nevertheless, the question under consideration is will it “end the war?” The answer is, it will not.

  6. The Saudis have pumped way too much money into the jihadis. Even if Bashar were to step down and a moderate government created, the jihadis would continue the fight. I also think the Saudis don’t really control these people that well either. The Syrian coalition would strain and disintegrate and we’d be right back to where we started.

    The international community has known for sometime that the Saudis and Qataris have been funding these whackjobs yet turned a blind eye.

    I do think all the cards to solve this problem are in Bashar’s hands. Unfortunately, there is an entire welfare-like apparatus around him that would probably stab him in the back if he attempted the reforms needed. As much as generals and the like proclaim their love of country, most would be very upset if their jobs were suddenly made redundant.

  7. Is there really a prospect for a negotiated solution now or in the near future with the Asad regime as strong as it is currently? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Rather than negotiate, Asad resorted to using WMDs and before used Scud missiles to inflict mass civilian casualties and will use any mean that may give him a hope of survival. A military strike is crucial to achieve three main objectives:
    1- Punish Asad for violating international conventions against the use of chemical weapons and hopefully prevent such future attacks,
    2- tip the balance of power to the rebels which might be instrumental in spurring negotiations.
    3- Maintain America’s credibility, since President Obama declared that the use of Chemical weapons is a red line, he must take direct action.

    Finally, I keep reminding everybody that Syria’s real tragedy is the lack of a unified national opposition. As a result, extremist factions will continue to gain the upper hand and soon we will have another Afghanistan in our hands if we don’t already.

  8. I have to disagree Dr. Cole.

    By all measures, Obama’s goal is regime change. Anything else in my opinion is bunk.

    Once the US strikes, Assad wont last a week. The rebels will be in Damascus and Assad will arrive in Iran.

    This is a 2001 replay of Afghanistan.

  9. I do not see how the limited missile strikes, aimed at punishing Assad for using chemical weapons will either lengthen or shorten the civil war in Syria. Shortening the war is not the purpose of the strikes.

    The sole purpose of the strikes is to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons.

    No one has a clue as to how to shorten the war. And that diplomatic efforts have failed is not for lack of trying, recalling the efforts by Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi

    • “The sole purpose of the strikes is to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons.”

      Don’t be naive. When Israel dropped white phosphorus on Gazans in 2008, the US did not bomb the Israelis, let alone condemn them. How about the US bailing out Saddam for his use of chemical weapons against the Iranis? The Kurds (years later to be used against him when it became convenient)?

      The only reason the US is condemning Syria’s use of chemical weapons is because toppling the regime just happens to align with US/Israeli interests… giving them more leverage and authority in the region -the middle east to be in perpetual American/Israeli tutelage.

  10. Juan,

    How can you be so sanguine about the prospects for peace with Assad holding the upper hand in the conflict (by all accounts even your own) and growing increasingly confident in his ability to “liquidate” his opposition as today’s New York Times reports?

    I think Assad himself is closer to the mark”

    “In an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro published on Monday, Mr. Assad said, “In the beginning, the solution should have been found through a dialogue from which political measures would have been born.”

    That is no longer the case, he said, repeating his constant refrain that 90 percent of the opposition fighters are terrorists affiliated with Al Qaeda. “The only way to cope with them is to liquidate them,” he said. “Only then will we be able to discuss political measures.”
    [New York Times]

    I don’t see how the action now under consideration will alter that calculus but he may well think twice before liquidating anyone

  11. US apathy will guarantee a long life for the Assad dictatorship, and his heirs, a dynasty of petty tyrants. Why bother with death squads and shelling, when nerve gas is readily available and a proven winner with impunity from foreign action? Ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from Syria would be so much easier and efficient.

  12. “By striking Syria, Obama has all but guaranteed that a negotiated solution becomes impossible for years to come.”

    I tend to agree with your assessment, but in the hearings yesterday Kerry asserted that the purpose of the strike is to advance a negotiated settlement, and went so far as to say that without the strike a negotiated settlement is impossible.

  13. Fallows has been looking at the scenarios of mission creep for a couple of days. Wouldn’t at all surprise me if it happened.

  14. Prolongation etc could be the result of a strike, but not as likely an outcome if Assad is determined to hang on . He was getting the upper hand recently and was indeed, emboldened by new help. To tip things more against him could get things to move more clearly one way or the other. Instead of just asking “how long”, also ask “who would win” considering Assad’s presumable lack of interest (or is that so?) in a Yemen style negotiation. Of course there is the problem of the different rebel factions, what they want, and will they turn to fighting each other. In any case, simply asking whether doing X “will shorten or prolong” the conflict is worth asking as one question, but by itself is inadequate.

  15. I would like to hear your opinion on the drought conditions which caused hundreds of thousands of Syria’s farmers to abandon their fields and flee to the cities. Do you believe that these impoverished former farmers ignited the civil war? Was climate change a major cause of this sad drama?

  16. Let me get this straight. The NSA violates every American’s rights in the name of fighting Al Qaeda; however, if we bomb Syria we are essentially Al Qaeda’s air force. Isn’t it an act of terror to support Al Qaeda militarily?

  17. Given the Tribalism in Syria with Islamic Fundamentalism thrown in, it seems that Assad and his Alawite tribemates would need to have their own territory (in their historical area by the Mediterranean Coast) in order for him to step down. The transition would be messy (India & Pakistan in 1947?) but given the blood shed already, the groups need to be separated.

    • Neither of your premises is true. Syria is not particularly tribal. And a series of statelets are not viable. Nearly half the country is minorities of one sort or another who mostly get along. The hard line Baathi Alawites and the hard line Sunnis are at the poles, and if they become less salient the country will come back together.

      • OK–not tribal like in Jordan but the Alawites on one side and the hard-line Sunnis on the other have the firepower. Those two, along with the others (Christians, Kurds, secular, etc) could benefit from separation. Are the World War I boundries forever?

      • The hypocrisy of the West is stunning.
        I think the utter chaos in Libya today should be a warning that if you only have one diplomatic tool (a hammer), everything is going to end up broken. Bombing Syria will only cause the killing of a lot more innocents.

  18. If Professor Cole ever wrote a word about a negotiated settlement being plausible, before today when it is used as an argument against the anti-chemical warfare strikes, I certainly don’t recall seeing it.

    • I don’t and didn’t think it plausible in the short to medium term. In the long term it is a possibility. I am saying that that long term is now being put off even further.

  19. Professor Cole:
    Could you define al-Qaeda for your readers.
    It seems to have gone from Afghanistan to all over the place but almost inconsequential to an entity you reference more frequently these days as if we should know its essence.
    Thank you for curating so much information for me and others.

    • it is just a franchise term for radical Sunnis who believe in using terrorism to accomplish various goals, including imposition of Taliban-style ‘sharia’ governance and weakening the industrial democracies.

  20. have you heard the latest ?

    Obama is now saying that it was his stunt double, not him, who set the red line.

  21. This is resembling more and more like American Idol-Syria Bombing Campaign edition. If a ‘surgical’ strike does occur, and as of today Congress is acting like it will support such a campaign, what will be the outcome? How can it be ASSURED innocent lives wont be lost? The point of the bombing is to protest the loss of innocent life but now you risk killing more innocent people to avenge the killing of the other innocent people??

    Please, someone wear the grownup pants in our government offices.

    Two of the many negative results (and I emphasize ‘many’) are the fact both the United Nations and the State Department have been turned into salaried paper-pushers. Why not let them do their job — finally?? Don’t underestimate the importance they could play. A bombing campaign is an old, tired Clinton and Bush tactic. You bomb, then what? You bomb again. Then what? And looking at Iraq and Afghanistan, we know how well THAT went.

    Where are the results?? Diplomacy needs to be dusted off the shelf. There needs to be committed effort to end this problem in Syria

    • Kyzl, The purpose of bombing isn’t to protest anything. It is to make the regime pay a price for its crimes and make them think twice before repeating them.

      • Soooo bombing, hitting and killing innocent people to retaliate for killing innocent people is gonna fix everything??

        Let’s be honest, ‘smart’ bombs arent and no one can control where these bombs will fall

        • “Soooo bombing, hitting and killing innocent people to retaliate for killing innocent people is gonna fix everything??”

          And you’re complaining that it’s the other side taking a facile, shallow view of the situation.

      • The purpose of bombing is (a) to register USA’s superior moral sensibilities and (b) to give a hand-up to munitions manufacturers. How can a military strike hurt the regime (other than to force regime change, which has been expressly ruled out)? How can damage avoid the collateral? It would be far better to punish the regime’s leaders by assuring them their places before the ICC. But that would require Obama to face trial for his own war crimes …

  22. The US didn’t completely end the Iraqi civil war, but it was able to throttle it down considerably by judicious payments. Of course the administration pretended it was due to military action, the “surge”. I wonder whether anyone in the Obama administration is smart enough to think of doing things this way – if it’s possible. This is how Britain managed its 19th century empire and had considerable influence on international politics, despite a relatively small land military.

    If the rebellion succeeds, at some point the US will have to try to decide which faction(s) to support.

  23. Professor Cole,

    Thanks for another well informed article. I have just read a piece by John B. Judis at the New Republic.

    link to newrepublic.com

    After listening to four hours of testimony by the administration to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Judis thinks he has divined the true intentions of the Obama administration. They consist of the following three points:

    “—The administration is not just contemplating a single punitive strike against Syria’s Bashar al Assad for using chemical weapons; it is planning a repeatable military campaign that would strike again if he were to use these weapons again.
    —The military campaign would also have the “collateral” or “downstream” result of weakening Assad militarily and politically. It would cause defections and significantly weaken the Assad government.
    —The goal of the military campaign, combined with aid to the opposition, would not be to defeat Assad. Instead, the war would be ended by an international negotiation in which Russians would play a very important role. Such a deal would eliminate any role in Syria’s future for jihadist elements, but it might include a role for allies of Assad, if not for Assad himself.”
    I’m curious as to what you think of this. Specifically, might this be the administration’s plan? And does the plan have any chance of success? Perhaps you already answered that in the following paragraph from your piece:
    “It should be remembered that the US couldn’t end the Iraqi civil war despite having over 100,000 boots on the ground in that country. It is highly unlikely that Washington can end this one from 30,000 feet.”
    The whole thing strikes me as utterly insane, but I don’t have a particularly strong background in either the Middle East or what goes on during Senate hearings. I would appreciate the opinion of someone who does.

  24. It may embolden the rebels, but it may shock the Baath Party elite to their senses and bring them to the negotiating table. The strike is designed to send a different message though, being that if you gas and kill civilians you will suffer. To do that it must hit them wherever it hurts the most. That might be better done by siezing their assets and closing their banks which I think you stated elsewhere.

  25. As a “mere” bombing is ineffective, we have to conclude regime change is the goal here. Assad’s departure, if it happens, will not bring peace, the rebel factions will fight each other and the remnants of the regime. The interests of their foreign sponsors trump those of the Syrian people, none support democracy and some would do anything to sabotage it. A sad mess and an ominous warning to states who have not built deterrence, as well as the craddle of more efficient factors, if Lebanon is any guide.

  26. Professor Cole
    I thought that the main problem was that Assad, and more importantly the other Alewhites around him who may actually be running things, see this as a life or death struggle. That they see no possible life as they know if they are not in charge. Any compromise would mean their having to accept the status of , at best, a very marginalized and persecuted minority, at least in their eyes. So compromise is simply not possible to them. It is life or death and no holds barred. Am I wrong? Or how far off the mark is this view?

  27. One other question. I thought the original “intercept” that confirmed the use of chemical weapons was a senior Syrian Army official berating a local commander fo sing the chemical weapons. If so , it confirmed the use of chemical weapons, but also showed that (at least in the quantity used) it was contrary to Assad’s policy. Which would make striking Assad questionable at best. All mention or discussion of that intercept seems to have disappeared.

    • What I’m hoping will happen is that Obama will get a limited go ahead, but use this argument (that it was an out-of-control commander) to give Assad another chance “but if there is another attack, then we will attack”. This is still bullying by the US. But, at least it provides a chance to still avoid an attack.

    • That “intercept” was recorded in a studio.
      The same studio that made the recordings that Colin Powell played at the UN in 2003.

  28. I don’t think we have enough data to answer the question of whether strikes would shorten or lengthen the civil war. If Assad is clearly strong enough to prevail, then strikes which would incrementally at least weaken him would lengthen it. But, if the ground truth favors the rebels, then the opposite conclusion holds. I saw an article in Der Spiegel which claims the (conventional-wisdom?) that Assad has the upper hand is illusory. If that is the case, the CW attack can be seen as an act of desperation by a government with little to lose. [Note, I am implicitly assuming a negotiated settle is impossible given the non-unified nature of the rebels.]

    So having knowledge of ground truth is essential to predict the effect on the duration of the conflict.

    Of course duration isn’t the only metric of human cost. What happens once one side prevails -if that indeed is how it ends? Post conflict Syria is likely to be a chaotic, and probably violent place even after the outcome is determined.
    Is there any way to know with reasonable probability, what course of action will minimize suffering?

    • In my humble opinion, looking at all the wars and military adventures the US has conducted (especially the last 10 years though one should never forget Vietnam ) doing nothing is the best route if minimizing human suffering is the goal. The whole minimizing human suffering is not a US military strong point.

  29. There is evidence of the use of Sarin gas.

    There is no evidence of who used it.
    If there was, it would have been leaked, and that’s what we would be prattling on about.

  30. “The best solution for Syria would be if Bashar al-Assad steps down……..”

    There has been speculation – in Israel especially – that Syrian National Coalition vice-president Suheir Atassi, an attorney and feminist originally from Homs, might be the successor to Assad in the event he resigns.

    Atassi is a secularist whose father was one of the founders of the Syrian Baath Party. This would make her the first female Arab head of state anywhere.

    Some believe that a secularist head of state may be needed in Syria to avoid sectarian fights for power in a post-Assad regime. George Sabra is the current chairman of the Syrian National Council – he is an Orthodox Christian who had been seated as a member of the central committee of the Syrian Communist Party in 1985 – and his secularist character was a key consideration for his leadership position in the Syrian National Council, not to mention his prominent position within the Qatari-based Syrian National Coalition.

Comments are closed.