Family Security Matters, by N. M. GUARIGLIA, April 12, 2017:
It would require cooperation from Russia.
Sean Davis, a co-founder of The Federalist, has written a very timely piece outlining the top fourteen questions America must ask itself should President Trump eventually expand on last week’s airstrikes and decide to remove Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from power. As Davis states: “We owe it to the American men and women whose blood was shed in Iraq, and their families, to not repeat the same mistakes we made there in Syria. We owe it to the men and women who would be deployed overseas to have a clear understanding of our political goals in Syria, what military resources will be required to achieve them, and what risks we face, both militarily and politically, as a result of approving military action to remove Assad.”
Indeed. Therefore, allow me to humbly address these concerns one by one.
Question 1: “What national security interest, rather than pure humanitarian interest, is served by the use of American military power to depose Assad’s regime?”
Answer: This presumes military power is necessary to depose Assad; a presumption America should not automatically make. American foreign policy history is littered with examples of nonviolent regime change (the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes among the most prominent). Regime change can be done through political means, not just military means. In fact, nonviolent regime change can avoid a war.
As for our national security interest, the answer is straightforward: with the death of Saddam Hussein over a decade ago, Bashar al-Assad is among a handful of living men – perhaps the only living man – to have crossed the calamitous threshold of having used a weapon of mass destruction. And he has done so multiple times. Removing Assad from power would deny his ability to do so again. It is not out of the realm of imagination for Syrian intelligence operatives – or terrorists employed by Syria – to release sarin gas in crowded American cities. In short, those Syrian children we have seen grasping for air on television could very easily be American children.
The Assad dynasty has been an enemy of America for decades. Assad remains one of the world’s leading state sponsors of jihadist terrorism. Should Assad fall, the world’s primary state sponsor of jihadist terrorism, Iran, would lose its chief ally. Terrorist groups like Hezbollah would lose their principle supporter. A regime responsible for murdering hundreds of American soldiers and Marines would be brought to justice (if you consider this hyperbole, research the role that the “Syrian ratlines” played in Anbar Province during Gulf War II).
Assad is a genocidal monster and his longtime hostility toward the West should not be taken lightly simply because he is currently engaged in a turf war with ISIS.
Question 2: “How will deposing Assad make America safer?”
Answer: This is similar to the first question and therefore contains the same answers. If Assad were to vanish tomorrow and be replaced by a non-hostile strongman – someone like General Sisi in Egypt or King Abdullah in Jordan – the anti-ISIS coalition in Syria would be unified. No longer would a large percentage of Syrian people feel obligated to fight both ISIS and the Syrian government, thereby dividing their efforts. Instead, the new Syrian leader, if he were adequately benevolent and did not use chemical weapons on the Syrian people, could unite the Syrian military with the anti-ISIS rebels. Rather than have a three-way regional war with Russia, Iran, and Syria’s leadership in one corner, America and ragtag Syrian rebels in another corner, and ISIS in the third corner, we could instead craft a three-on-one alliance with America, Russia, and Syria’s new leadership uniting together against ISIS, cutting the Iranians out entirely from their traditional sphere of influence along the Mediterranean. That would expedite the defeat of ISIS and make America safer. It would kill three strategic birds (Assad, Iran, ISIS) with one tactical stone.
Question 3: “What does final political victory in Syria look like (be specific), and how long will it take for that political victory to be achieved? Do you consider victory to be destabilization of Assad, the removal of Assad, the creation of a stable government that can protect itself and its people without additional assistance from the United States, etc.?”
Answer: We do not need to turn Syria into a liberal democracy to achieve our political and strategic objectives. Final political victory in Syria would probably look much like Jordan today; a relatively benign government at peace with its neighbors and within its own borders. That means no Assad. That means no ISIS. Both of those objectives are entirely within our grasp, especially if we work in concert with Russia (or I should say, if Russia works in concert with us).
As for how long it will take: who knows? As long as America is not taking casualties – and not throwing billions down a bottomless pit with no end in sight – does the length of our “involvement” really matter? We have provided logistical support to the Jordanians and Egyptians for decades. Nobody cares. We have been conducting an air campaign over Yemen and Somalia for years. Nobody cares. We may require a similar posture toward Syria in a post-Assad environment.
At this time, it appears President Trump has no interest in using military action to overthrow Assad from power. Very well. But if events in Syria lead to that outcome, given the emphasis with which Secretary of Defense Mattis has placed on speed and operational tempo, I suspect any overt U.S. military intervention in Syria would be overwhelming, devastating, and swift – taking days and weeks, not months and years.
Question 4: “What military resources (e.g., ground troops), diplomatic resources, and financial resources will be required to achieve this political victory?”
Answer: This is a great question to which I do not have the answer. And it certainly must be answered. It would depend upon how we go about it strategically. In the event that overt military force is used – even if conventional ground forces were used – there is no reason to believe that would necessitate a years-long military occupation and nation-building effort. President Trump is famously averse to nation-building (and for good reason). He wants the U.S. military to be the SWAT team that kicks the door down; not the meter-maid handing out parking tickets. This is to his credit.
In fact, Trump’s view of how the military should be used has always been the traditional American view. It has only been since the Marshall Plan in the aftermath of World War II that we decided to tie our hands to long-term reconstruction efforts in all postbellum environments. Before going into Iraq, Colin Powell famously warned George W. Bush of the Pottery Barn rule: “If you break it, you own it.” Lame. I suspect Trump’s view of war is to break things without taking on the contemporary obligation of making them nicer after doing so. Cheers to that. Breaking things is fast, easy, and cheap.
Question 5: “How long will it take to achieve political victory?”
Answer: This is similar to Question 3. Military force and political victory are admittedly two separate concepts. Syria has been in a state of civil war for the better part of six years. I believe “political victory” would take less than that. Much less. Indeed, militarily speaking, ISIS in Syria already seems to be on the ropes. Removing Assad from office could take days or weeks. The final destruction of ISIS may take another six months. In short, the length of any regime change effort is completely unknowable, and would entirely depend upon the nature of our strategy. If America and Russia were to work together, I do not see why Assad should last more than a few hours. Perhaps Putin will eventually offer the Assads an asylum package?
Question 6: “What costs, in terms of lives (both military and civilian), dollars, and forgone options elsewhere as a result of resource deployment in Syria, will be required to achieve political victory?”
Answer: This is a question for the U.S. Congress. America is a constitutional republic that requires the will of the people to go to war. Therefore, in order for our national wars to be politically sustainable, they should be won as quickly as possible. Our strategic and political objectives must be clearly defined and limited enough so that they are obtainable through military operations. If an American war takes longer than 90 days, results in more than 300 dead Americans, and costs more than 5% of the annual defense budget, we’re probably doing it wrong.
Question 7: “What other countries will join the United States in deposing Assad, in terms of military, monetary, or diplomatic resources?”
Answer: England and France would join. As would Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others Sunni Arab states fearful of both ISIS and the Iranians. Israel would join too, of course, although we may want them to sit on the sidelines for geopolitical reasons.
But the real key would be to obtain Russian support. Russia has upwards of 4,000 troops in Syria, all of whom are currently supporting the Assad regime. So it seems at the moment almost preposterous to seek Russian support in the removal of Assad, does it not? However, I believe this is where Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – who has known Vladimir Putin for many years – could work his diplomacy. In fact, the presence of Russia within Syria may even accelerate the speed with which Assad could be overthrown.
For starters, America does not want to inadvertently kill Russian soldiers in Syria. Such an event could potentially lead to World War III. Therefore, since neither America nor Russia want nuclear apocalypse, I believe both countries are likely to deepen coordination efforts in Syria so as to avoid unintentional friendly-fire.
Secondly, we should not forget that Russia was supposed to disarm Assad of his chemical weapons in 2013 as a precondition for President Obama not enforcing his feckless “red line.” Whether intentional or not, Russia clearly did not fully disarm Assad. The international community has every right to hold Russia to account for such negligence; the mere threat of doing so may force Moscow to cut ties with Assad. Why should Moscow expend enormous geopolitical capital defending a man they could easily replace?
Of course, enlisting the support of Russia would come at a price. Putin would likely demand something significant from America in exchange for turning his back on Assad. The question is: what would that be? Therein lies the foundation of negotiations that one could reasonably conclude are about to take place.
Question 8: “Should explicit congressional authorization for the use of military force in Syria be required, or should the president take action without congressional approval?”
Answer: Many lawyers believe the War Powers Resolution gives President Trump 60 days to conduct military operations before needing congressional authority. Many lawyers and constitutional experts disagree. It’s a moot point if we pursue regime change non-militarily in coordination with Russia.
Question 9: “What is the risk of wider conflict with Russia, given that nation’s presence and stake in Syria, if the United States chooses to invade and depose Assad, a key Russian ally in the Middle East?”
Answer: The entire premise of deposing Assad non-militarily is that it should incorporate Russian assistance so as to avoid precisely this risk.
Question 10: “If U.S. intervention in Syria does spark a larger war with Russia, what does political victory in that scenario look like, and what costs will it entail?”
Answer: A war with Russia would be TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it). There would be no political victory. Those of us that survive the fallout would spend the rest of our days eating squirrels in the woods. That’s why it likely won’t happen. A half-century of nuclear deterrence and the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” has proven that the Russians prefer their own existence to the annihilation of America. We feel the same way. One must believe that rational minds will yet again prevail before tensions begin to even approach this point.
Question 11: “Given that Assad has already demonstrated a willingness to use chemical weapons, how should the United States respond if the Assad regime deploys chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons against the United States?”
Answer: Assuming U.S. ground forces are used – a bold assumption that I do not believe will come to fruition – we will be faced with the same question we were forced to address prior to invading Iraq in 2003: what do we do if the regime we are overthrowing uses WMD on our troops? The answer, as far as I can tell, is the same as it was then, and two-fold: protect U.S. ground forces with CBRN Hazmat suits and retaliate against any WMD usage with the wrath of an angry psychotic god.
It is worth recalling the reason Assad does not today have nuclear weapons (by way of North Korean scientists): because the Israelis took aggressive military action on a secret Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.
Question 12: “Assuming the Assad regime is successfully removed from power, what type of government structure will be used to replace Assad, who will select that government, and how will that government establish and maintain stability going forward?”
Answer: If America and Russia both agree to replace Assad together, then the new leader would be someone that has the backing of both America and Russia. This person could be found within the existing Syrian polity or from the outside. So long as the new leader sufficiently breaks with the Iranians and continues to fight ISIS, America’s interests are met. Once the insurgency is squashed and the civil war has ended, then Syria’s political future would belong to the Syrian people. The goal must be to find someone that: a) won’t use WMD against innocent people; b) won’t support terrorist organizations; and c) won’t be a stooge of the Iranian government.
Question 13: “Given that a change in political power in the United States radically altered the American position in Iraq in 2009, how will you mitigate or address the risk of a similar political dynamic upending your preferred strategy in Syria, either in 2018, 2020, or beyond?”
Answer: This question presumes Republican losses in 2018 and 2020. Nevertheless, given his “America First” rhetoric and campaign pledges, I cannot envision a scenario whereby President Trump agrees to a Syria strategy that ties America’s hands for years to come.
Question 14: “What lessons did you learn from America’s failure to achieve and maintain political victory following the removal of governments in Iraq and Libya, and how will you apply those lessons to a potential war in Syria?”
Answer: The primary lesson from Iraq and Libya is to have a political alternative ready to assume control once we have ousted the regime in question. It only makes logical sense to pursue regime change in Syria if such a political alternative is identified prior to removing Assad. This would require enlisting Russian support.
Putin turning his back on Assad might seem improbable. But it certainly isn’t impossible. When Trump and Putin put their dalliance aside and get down to truly negotiating about the future of the world, it is not unreasonable for the American side of table to bring up the replacement of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Contributing Editor N.M. Guariglia is an essayist who writes on Islam and Middle Eastern geopolitics.