Saturday, September 7, 2013

9/7/13 RD Bulletin: Exclusive Look at the Escalating Situation in Syria

This week’s Reset Defense Bulletin will take a focused look at the escalating situation in Syria providing some perspective on the resolution to authorize military force as well as some of the latest news and commentary on the issue.

State of Play

It is important to recognize that the Obama administration has not yet made public the evidence it says corroborates its view that Assad intentionally used chemical weapons. The administration’s declassified dossier simply lists, but does not present in any useful detail, the types of evidence it claims are convincing. But even the number killed remains hotly contested. Winning Congressional assent for acts of war, not to mention public and international support for it, may require a fuller disclosure and a closer, more critical review of the facts and their sources. Colin Powell actually did a better job presenting the Bush administration's case in 2003.

The use of chemical weapons would indeed cross a normative “red line.” So would a unilateral use of “punitive” force by the United States. There is no legal basis for doing what the administration proposes to do. And both domestic and international support has never been weaker.  Congressional offices are reporting overwhelming constiuent opposition to a strike, even in conservative districts. How should we weigh these considerations?

There are untried non-military options worth considering. Would these effectively deter future chemical use by Assad? And, if not, what would be the broader effects, costs, and risks of America undertaking combat in another country? Opportunistic escalation of some sort by all Syrian combatants is virtually assured, worsening the human catastrophe already underway. Another certain casualty would be international cooperation on Syria. Russia and Iran are pivotal players, each able in different ways to affect the conflict and its resolution. A confrontational, exclusionary approach has already narrowed our policy options on Syria. War may further narrow them, while drawing us deeper into the imbroglio.  The President's words may have boxed us in, but not nearly as much as will cruise missiles.

Project on Defense Alternatives Perspective: Kerry for keeping option to use ground forces "in the event Syria imploded."

When President Obama sent his war authorization resolution over to Capitol Hill he said the purpose of the military action was to "hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out."

However, the wording of the resolution reveals a back story. The most prominent purpose it announces for U.S. military action in Syria is the prevention of "the transfer [of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction] to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors."

Recall that the United States is not a neutral party to this conflict with the intent of enforcing an international rule against the use of chemical weapons. Rather the U.S. is actively supporting rebel forces and calling for the ouster of Assad. Recall as well that most all observers count both 'good' and 'bad' armed groups among the disparate rebels.

It is likely that if the U.S. achieves it policy aim of removing Assad from power his government will fall in a manner more chaotic than the preferred Geneva-negotiated accord. In that event the security of Syria's chemical weapon stockpiles will be compromised and some will likely fall into the hands of 'bad' rebel elements, not to mention Hezbollah or free agent elements of the disintegrating Syrian armed forces, previously loyal to Assad.

What is most worrisome in the broad scope of this authorization is that it gives the President full permission to take ongoing military action against potential and actual proliferation agents in and beyond Syria. U.S. military operations could extend to Lebanon and even, by some considerable stretch of potential proliferation linkages, to Iran.

A punishment raid is one thing, but using armed force to attempt to prevent proliferation from Syria is very different sort of activity. In the event of a chaotic collapse of the Assad regime and the disintegration of the Syrian military U.S. air-strikes alone will not be able to stop proliferation of the chemical weapons. It will take many thousands of allied soldiers on the ground to make a reasonable attempt to prevent those weapons from getting into the hands of the armed 'bad' guys.

The value of the constitutionally-mandated involvement of Congress in the process of going to war is demonstrated by what has happened to Obama's proposed resolution once it arrived on Capitol Hill. The Chairman and the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee drafted a revised authorization resolution in consultation with other Senate leaders (and presumably the White House.) It makes three important changes that narrow the focus of the original resolution:

• limiting the extent of the authorization to 90 days;

• authorizing operations only in Syria; and

• it does "not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations."

The time and geographical limitations are of great importance. The likelihood of proliferation of chemical weapons to "bad" Syrian non-state elements and foreign agents is quite low within the 90 days of authorized military action and the resolution cannot be used during that time to legitimize strikes against targets in other states.

Regarding not authorizing the use of ground forces for "the purpose of combat operations", seasoned Congressional national security expert Winslow Wheeler notes that this provision would "not exclude ground forces introduced for other purposes (such as 'humanitarian' operations, peace keeping, or an 'emergency' to seize chemical weapons stocks)." In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Secretary of State John Kerry stated:

... in the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra or someone else and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us, the British, the French and others, to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don't want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country.

Kerry later sought to clarify his position saying, "...what I was doing was hypothesizing about a potential it might occur at some point in time, but not in this authorization." That may be true, but all must be aware that the authorized military actions may well contribute to the creating the conditions that will require the ground troops later on.

So it appears that in order to avoid taking options off the table the revised resolution still has a loop hole for other types and occasions of military intervention in Syria, including the use of U.S. ground forces. It simply doesn't explicitly authorize those military operations at this time. It will remain important for the American people to attend to future potentials Kerry referenced in his testimony and for Congress to assert its role in authorizing any future uses of U.S. Armed Forces in the Middle East.

Note: Legal scholar Garrett Epps thinks that the Senate may have ceded significant new constitutional authority in a ‘Whereas’ clause in the resolution. See his Atlantic article here.  Another legal scholar Stephen L. Carter reminds us of the sorry history of congressional war resolutions and of where real congressional war powers reside in a Bloomberg article here.
Charles Knight is a co-founder of the Project on Defense Alternatives and a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy.

News and Commentary

WBUR: The Cost Of Striking Syria: 4 Lessons From Iraq And AfghanistanLinda Bilmes
“The miscalculations in Iraq and Afghanistan hang in the air as we weigh up whether to attack Syria. Of course, no situation is ever quite the same, and in this case the president is not urging a full-fledged invasion, just air and naval attacks. But after more than a decade of inconclusive war in the region, comparisons are inevitable. As Mark Steyn put it in a recent piece for the National Review, ‘The 2003 dictator who gassed his own people was the leader of the Baath Party of Iraq. The 2013 dictator who gassed his own people is the leader of the Baath Party of Syria. Whole other ball of wax.’ The danger of being sucked into a ground war is one of the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. But there are equally important lessons about costs, which we would do well to heed.” (9/6/13)

Win Without War: Alternatives to the Use of Military Force in SyriaStephen Miles
“If confirmed, the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons requires a strong response by the United States and the international community. While Washington is currently debating the use of military force, numerous alternative responses should be explored. We recognize that the choice before Congress is a difficult one. However when it comes to the crisis in Syria, there simply are no good options, only bad ones. Our laws and our values dictate that military action should only be made after all viable alternatives are employed. The list below is meant to be an example of some of the many alternatives which have yet to be exhausted with regards to Syria and to demonstrate that the choice between military action and doing nothing is a false one.”  (9/6/13)

Lobe Log: US Credibility Requires More than Enforcing Red Lines on Syria - Robert E. Hunter
“President Obama and other US supporters of attacking Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons have based much of their argument on the issue of credibility. In particular, will other nations (and non-national elements, like terrorist groups) take seriously US declarations if we do not now follow through on preserving Obama’s ‘red line?’ This question relates to one of the most important elements of statecraft, especially for the United States, which presents itself as the “indispensable nation” and is seen by many others to be so. Further, if the US does not take the lead in trying to reestablish the prohibition on chemical weapons, no one else will do so.” (9/6/13)

Talking Points Memo: Could Syria Lead To Fiscal Armageddon Back Home?Sahil Kapur
“The congressional debate over whether to authorize President Barack Obama’s push to attack Syria is poised to bleed into at least next week, when Congress officially returns to session and faces tight deadlines to avert fiscal Armageddon this fall. When Congress reconvenes Monday, it has just nine working days to keep the government funded past Sept. 30, and an additional seven working days after that to ensure the country can continue to meet its debt service obligations beyond mid-October. Leaders in both chambers have promised Syria votes next week. A Senate committee has approved a resolution to strike Syria. Its House counterpart has held hearings, but the House Republican majority hasn’t yet drafted its own resolution, so nothing has advanced out of committee yet. All of which means the debate over military action will eat up part of the calendar next week.”  (9/6/13)

ThinkProgress: U.N. Pleads For More Aid To Address Syrian Refugee CrisisBen Armbruster
“The United Nations refugee agency and four countries that border Syria on Wednesday urged the international community to provide greater assistance for the refugee crisis that is engulfing the region because of Syria’s civil war. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) announced this week that more than 2 million Syrians have fled the fighting (more than 1 million are children) and that around 90 percent of those left Syria in the last 12 months. But the real number is likely much higher as it only accounts for those who have registered with the Agency or are awaiting registration. There are around 4.5 million displaced inside Syria.” (9/5/13)

New York Times: Pentagon Is Ordered to Expand Potential Targets in Syria With a Focus on ForcesDavid Sanger, Eric Schmidt
“President Obama has directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria in response to intelligence suggesting that the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been moving troops and equipment used to employ chemical weapons while Congress debates whether to authorize military action. Mr. Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the “degrade” part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria — to “deter and degrade” Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces before Mr. Obama delayed action on Saturday to seek Congressional approval of his plan.”  (9/5/13)

Foreign Affairs: Pick Your Poison: America Has Many Options in Syria, None are GoodRichard Betts
“The reason that U.S. President Barack Obama passed the buck on authorizing a military strike on Syria to Congress is not because getting congressional approval is the constitutional thing to do. It always has been, although presidents have regularly denied it. Rather, Obama passed the buck to Congress because it was the only way out of the dilemma that he imposed on himself when he declared the use of chemical weapons to be a red line, without having thought through whether or how to go to war if the line was crossed.” (9/5/13)

Yes! Magazine: Six Alternatives to Military StrikesSarah van Gelder
“The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's approval of military force in Syria makes military strikes against that country more likely. But key questions remain unanswered. Will military strikes help ordinary Syrians or harm them? Will more violence deter the use of chemical weapons and other war crimes in Syria and elsewhere, or exacerbate the problem? Have all other possibilities been exhausted, or are there peaceful solutions that haven't been tried? A quick review of the options suggests there are at least six strategies that could hold wrongdoers to account, deter war crimes of all sorts, and build peace.”  (9/5/13)

U S. News and World Report: Don’t Bomb Us Back to the Fiscal Stone Age. – Ryan Alexander
“Whether one supports or opposes intervention in Syria, it is important to recognize that whatever military action is taken, it will have a price tag. That certainly shouldn't be the sole or even major determinant of what course Congress takes, but it should be considered. How high that price tag might rise is impossible for anyone outside government to assess at this time. Even if the extent of U.S. military action is limited to cruise missile strikes against likely targets: command and control facilities, intelligence assets, and Syria's means to deliver chemical weapons, each Tomahawk cruise missile costs at least $1.6 million. (For comparison, the U.S. used more than 175 Tomahawk missiles in Libya in 2011.) If ‘mission creep’ takes hold and the senators’ preferred goal of training and arming the Syrian opposition is embraced, the cost goes much higher. If the reaction of Syria and others draws us into a larger conflict, the cost could skyrocket.”  (9/4/13)

CNN: Don’t Use Syria to Pump Up Pentagon SpendingWilliam Hartung
“The Congress and the nation have a week to debate whether the United States should launch a military attack on Syria. But regardless of where one stands on the war, we shouldn't let fuzzy math on the part of advocates of intervention railroad us into spending more on the Pentagon than is necessary to defend the country and its interests.”  (9/4/13)

Boston Globe: Crossing the line: Why are chemical weapons considered beyond the pale? - Farah Stockman
“You might be wondering why it is OK for Syrian President Bashar Assad to kill 100,000 people with guns and bombs, but it’s absolutely outrageous for him to kill 1,400 people with poison gas. Is death really better when one is getting blown to smithereens by a cluster bomb, rather than suffocating from sarin? At least toxic gas doesn’t leave entire cities in ruins. Bridges and buildings are spared. And unlike a blast of artillery fire, nerve gas has an antidote. So why are chemical weapons considered beyond the pale?”  (9/4/13)

Truthout: How Intelligence Was Twisted to Support an Attack on Syria - Gareth Porter
“Secretary of State John Kerry assured the public that the Obama administration's summary of the intelligence on which it is basing the case for military action to punish the Assad regime for an alleged use of chemical weapons was put together with an acute awareness of the fiasco of the 2002 Iraq WMD intelligence estimate.  Nevertheless, the unclassified summary of the intelligence assessment made public August 30, 2013, utilizes misleading language evocative of the infamous Iraq estimate’s deceptive phrasing. The summary cites signals, geospatial and human source intelligence that purportedly show that the Syrian government prepared, carried out and ‘confirmed’ a chemical weapons attack on August 21. And it claims visual evidence ‘consistent with’ a nerve gas attack. But a careful examination of those claims reveals a series of convolutedly worded characterizations of the intelligence that don't really mean what they appear to say at first glance.  The document displays multiple indications that the integrity of the assessment process was seriously compromised by using language that distorted the intelligence in ways that would justify an attack on Syria.” (9/3/13)

Huffington Post: With the Greatest Respect Mr President "Keep Calm and Pursue Diplomacy"Michael Kay
“Reversing his decision not to strike Syria unilaterally, the President has taken the political gamble of placing the decision, for now, with the Legislative Branch. Members of Congress will convene the week commencing September 9 to express their views on what the consequences of US military action in Syria might mean for America's National Security, self-interests, and the secondary effects of regional stability and humanitarian suffering in Syria. Regardless of justification, the ultimate principle of military action in any shape or form should be to achieve a political objective, goal or aim. As Clausewitz, the famous Prussian military strategist and author of 'On War,' denounced: ‘No one starts a war-- or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so -- without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by the war and how he intends to conduct it.’”  (9/3/13)

Foreign Policy: Intervention on the CheapGordon Adams
“Obama has been saying for years that nonproliferation rules are important to him -- even creating norms about their use that are of dubious validity under current treaties and international law, as is the case with chemical weapons. It is the credibility of that commitment which is at stake, not his support for the Syrian rebels. This is why I expect any strike to be limited in impact and duration. One can argue about whether Iran will be deterred from its nuclear program by a strike on Damascus over a weapon that some think shouldn't even be in the same class as nuclear weapons. But this seems to be the president's purpose: It is a limited, demonstrative strike, not something intended to change the balance of forces in Syria.”  (9/3/13)

McClatchy: To some, US case for Syrian gas attack, strike has too many holesHannah Allam, Mark Seibel
“The Obama administration’s public case for attacking Syria is riddled with inconsistencies and hinges mainly on circumstantial evidence, undermining U.S. efforts this week to build support at home and abroad for a punitive strike against Bashar Assad’s regime. The case Secretary of State John Kerry laid out last Friday contained claims that were disputed by the United Nations, inconsistent in some details with British and French intelligence reports or lacking sufficient transparency for international chemical weapons experts to accept at face value.” (9/2/13)

San Francisco Chronicle: U.S. strike on Syria would break international law - George Bisharat
“A U.S. military attack on Syria without both congressional and United Nations Security Council approval would be illegal under U.S. and international law, respectively. Congressional approval is required by the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which codified constitutional principles of the separation of powers and our system of checks and balances. Per one constitutional scholar: ‘The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.’ The author? Barack Obama, as presidential candidate in 2007.”  (9/2/13)

International Crisis Group: Syria Statement
“Assuming the U.S. Congress authorises them, Washington (together with some allies) soon will launch military strikes against Syrian regime targets. If so, it will have taken such action for reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people. The administration has cited the need to punish, deter and prevent use of chemical weapons - a defensible goal, though Syrians have suffered from far deadlier mass atrocities during the course of the conflict without this prompting much collective action in their defence. The administration also refers to the need, given President Obama's asserted ‘redline’ against use of chemical weapons, to protect Washington's credibility - again an understandable objective though unlikely to resonate much with Syrians. Quite apart from talk of outrage, deterrence and restoring U.S. credibility, the priority must be the welfare of the Syrian people. Whether or not military strikes are ordered, this only can be achieved through imposition of a sustained ceasefire and widely accepted political transition.”  (9/1/13)

IHS Jane’s 360: Syrian military allegedly used makeshift rockets in chemical attack - Jeremy Binnie
“There has been speculation that Syria's military used an unusual and crudely manufactured rocket in the apparent chemical weapons (CWs) attack carried out in the Damascus area on 21 August. The remnants of this type of rocket have been seen several times in videos and photographs published on the internet earlier this year, but there has been a surge in the amount of imagery featuring the munition in the wake of 21 August incident. The weapons are broadly similar in layout to what the US military calls improvised rocket-assisted mortars (IRAMs),in that they consist of a comparatively slender rocket motor fitted to a warhead of a far larger calibre. Iranian-backed insurgents operating in Iraq made their IRAMs by attaching stubby 107 mm rocket motors to cylinders filled with high explosive to increase their payloads at the expense of range and accuracy.”  (8/30/13)

Foreign Policy: An Imaginative, Creative Way to Deal with the Syrian Crisis - Stephen Walt
“It's still not clear what positive objectives a limited use of force would accomplish. It won't tip the balance inside Syria or drive Bashar al-Assad from power. It's not even clear that punitive strikes would do much to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use, as any leader contemplating the use of these weapons in the future is probably going to be in pretty dire straits and might not care if some foreign power might retaliate. Moreover, the American people are clearly not interested in getting into this war, and Obama and the Dems could pay a big price if retaliation goes awry in any way. Indeed, as Conor Friedersdorf writes in a brilliant piece on the Atlantic's website, this is another elite-driven intervention led by inside-the-Beltway politicos who are addicted to using American power even when vital U.S. interests aren't at stake.” (8/29/13)

Reuters: In Syria, try banks before bombs - Sonni Efron
“Aggressive sanctions could be more effective than bombing in hastening the end of the Syrian civil war by imposing substantial financial costs on those who are propping up Assad — without enraging the Arab street. Iran probably won’t abandon Assad. But if Russia is forced to choose between its banks and a regime that has become a global pariah, Moscow could opt to stop arming the Syrian government. This banks-before-bombs strategy would require buy-in from the European Union and diplomatic heft. But it wouldn’t require a United Nations Security Council resolution against Syria — which Russia already said it would veto. It would also send an immediate message about the civilized world’s resolve to punish chemical weapons use, without invoking or precluding military action.”   (8/29/13)

The Guardian: Could a pre-emptive sanctions tool increase pressure on Syria?Kimberly Ann Elliot
“The basic idea for pre-emptive contract sanctions is a simple one. In the face of repression and severe human rights abuses, the United Nations, a regional body, or an ad hoc coalition of concerned countries, such as the Friends of Syria, would declare that the designated regime is illegitimate and that commercial contracts entered into after the date of the declaration will not be binding on a legitimate successor government. It would furthermore direct that these contracts will not be enforceable in the courts of those issuing the declaration and that there will be no retaliation against a future government that chooses to repudiate contracts signed after the date of the declaration.”   (8/28/13)

Huffington Post: On Bombing Syria - George Kenney
“Let's say, hypothetically, that the Syrian regime did, in fact, use chemical weapons. Because the international community as a whole has a profound vested interest in banning the use of chemical weapons it would not, then, be completely unreasonable to exact a price from the Assad regime in the form of air strikes against government targets. But such an action could only be taken in the certain knowledge that by increasing the tempo of the civil war in Syria we would dramatically increase the suffering of millions of innocent Syrian civilians. Given such a high bar we face two questions: Do we know indeed, for a fact, that the Syrian regime was responsible and, only after that has been determined in the affirmative, can we ask — and we must ask — whether it is morally defensible to put abstract interests of the international community ahead of the concrete welfare of the Syrian people.”  (8/27/13)

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: The suspected Syrian chemical attacks: What now?
“The Bulletin asked an array of chemical weapons and national security experts to assess the situation in Syria and suggest ways in which the United States and the international community might proceed, in light of what would—if proven true—be the most extensive use of chemical weapons in the Syrian uprising and a major breach of international law. Given the confused situation in Syria, it is perhaps unsurprising that these experts agreed on one thing: A proper response will require verification of the chemical weapons used, and the people who used them.”  (8/22/13)

The Atlantic: How an Insular Beltway Elite Makes Wars of Choice More Likely - Conor Friedersdorf
“Intervention in Syria is extremely, undeniably unpopular. ‘Americans strongly oppose U.S. intervention and believe Washington should stay out of the conflict even if reports that Syria's government used deadly chemicals to attack civilians are confirmed,’ Lesley Wroughton of Reuters reported August 24. ‘About 60 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should not intervene in Syria's civil war, while just 9 percent thought President Barack Obama should act.’ And if there were proof that Bashar al-Assad's forces used chemical weapons? Even then, just one in four Americans favors intervention. The citizenry wants us to stay out of this conflict. And there is no legislative majority pushing for intervention. A declaration of war against Syria would almost certainly fail in Congress. Yet the consensus in the press is that President Obama faces tremendous pressure to intervene.”  (August 2013)


Congressional Research Service: Syria: Overview of the Humanitarian Response (9/4/13)

Congressional Research Service: Possible U.S. Intervention in Syria: Issues for Congress (9/3/13)

RAND Corporation: Airpower Options for Syria (9/3/13)

Congressional Research Service: Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Issues for Congress (8/30/13)