Stepping on the tail of the snake

Bashar al-Assad. The tail of the snake.

Bashar al-Assad. The tail of the snake.

As the expected ‘limited’ Western strike against Syria draws closer, I admit to a degree of unease.

After all, Western use of military force since 1945 has been fraught with incompetence and failure. There is a basic misunderstanding of what it is for and how to employ it.

War is about crushing regimes and occupying territory. It is not about applying pressure in precisely calibrated ways. There are too many unintended consequences. Generals can (usually) tell you how to achieve military objectives, but political ones are another story. Even very bright people are often surprised by the outcome after what was intended as a surgical intervention turns into chaos.

I am not saying that military force is never appropriate. Just that it should be reserved for big objectives.  And ‘punishing’ Assad for using chemical weapons — but being careful not to remove him from power — is not a big objective. It is more about appearance than reality.

It is also kind of absurd, seeing that Assad already killed some 100,000 Syrians with impunity with ‘conventional’ weapons. Suddenly he needs to be punished?

Another interesting thing about the Western plan is that it has been described publicly in great detail before being executed. This is certainly an innovation in military strategy, unless everything that has been leaked is deliberately false (but I don’t think so)!

It is as if the object is to appear to be taking action without actually doing serious damage (except to our military budget, since each Tomahawk costs about $1.5 million). Assad will have plenty of time to move expensive vehicles, aircraft, etc.

The purported function of this attack is to send a message about red lines. But nobody will be fooled, and the message to Assad will be, at best, “be more careful next time”.

If we must attack Syria, then we should destroy as much of her military capabilities and stock of weapons of all kinds as possible, force Assad out, and allow the various factions to split the country into ethnic enclaves. The trick would be to do this without allowing too many dangerous weapons to fall into the hands of terrorist factions. This would probably require Western ground troops and be expensive and difficult. The US and Europe don’t have the cash or the will to do this.

Some have expressed anxiety that any provocation, even a minimal one, will cause Assad to respond by attacking Israel. Here we need to consider the possibility that Obama will tie Israel’s hands as Bush I did during the 1991 Gulf War. You will recall that several Iraqi scuds hit the Tel Aviv area, and although the US promised that it would take out the launchers, it proved unable to do so. Mass casualties were only miraculously avoided.

PM Netanyahu has warned Assad that Israel would respond strongly to any attack. Although Netanyahu folded under Obama’s demand to release more than 100 convicted terrorists in order to please the PLO, there are limits (somewhere). I cannot imagine that an Israeli government that allowed Syrian missiles to kill its citizens without a response would survive.

We should keep in mind that an ineffective or partial Israeli response would play into Assad’s hands — he has been claiming all along that Israel is behind the insurgents. So any response short of one strong enough to end his regime (or his life) would simply help him make his point.

We know that the US doesn’t want to go that far. So as usual, Israel is placed in a tough spot. It will need to be prepared to defy the US, and to credibly convince Assad that it will do so if necessary.

Actually, there is an entirely different approach that the  West could (but won’t) take. Here’s what Melanie Phillips thinks:

The most important argument used to support attacking Assad’s regime is that, by bringing it down, the west would deal a grievous blow to Iran, Syria’s puppet-master, which itself poses such a terrible threat to the region and the world.

But this is yet anther incoherent and essentially weaselly proposition. The intention, don’t forget, is not to get rid of Assad but merely to deter him. Weakening him, however, will not hit Iran. It may well merely drive Assad further into Iran’s embrace, and in the process strengthen the influence of Russia over the region – already increasing exponentially as the Middle East and Muslim world gaze at the wreckage of American influence and cosy up instead to the toughest guy on the block.

There is only one way to hit Iran – and that is to hit Iran. Attempting to weaken Iran by striking at Assad is to look at the problem the wrong way round. To neutralise the puppet Assad, the west has to strike the puppeteer, Iran.

Unfortunately, we are even less likely to “cut off the head of the snake” than to step firmly on its tail.

Technorati Tags: ,

2 Responses to “Stepping on the tail of the snake”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    I have wondered about the business of telegraphing exactly what you are going to do, giving them time to prepare, suggesting that a slap on the wrist is what’s coming. I have also thought about all of this distracting from the major problem of Iran. One possibility I thought of was that Israel if attacked would in return attack both Iran and Syria. But obviously this would create great problems. What should be done is that the U.S. should attack Iran, but this is not going to happen.
    I am troubled more and more by my sense of the incompetence of the Obama Administration. They just don’t seem to get it. On the other hand the truth is that there is no really good alternative in regard to Syria. The rebels may in fact be worse than Assad when the time comes.
    I again believe that Israel unless Intelligence says an attack against us is coming should stay out of this.

  2. NormanF says:

    It looks like the British have voted not to join on a Syrian military operation.

    This leaves America. Neutralizing Assad’s weapons of mass destruction is about as far as the US would be prepared to go.

    There is no chance it can actually defeat Assad or drive him fron power. Since the West is not willing to overthrow a Middle Eastern tyranny, its ability to realistically stop it from mass murdering more of its own people appears to be very limited.

    It doesn’t say much about the West resoluteness in dealing with an evil regime. They’re all bad guys in that part of the world and no one feels enthusiastic that a military operation will change anything there at all.

    Regardless of what America decides to do – Syria’s killing fields are sure to go on.