President Obama’s two-and-a-half years of inaction since the beginning of Syria’s civil war helped precipitate the crisis that is now building. His red line prohibition against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons — of which last week’s attack was not the first — became a dotted pink line. His failure to assist the insurgency in its initial stage smoothed the way for the influx of radical jihadists. As with this administration’s vacillating policy in Libya and Egypt, the lack of a strategy to prevent the jihadists from capitalizing on political change in the Arab world has earned this administration not respect, but contempt.
Syria’s consequent aggressiveness should surprise no one.
There’s nothing new here. The Bible describes a similar phenomenon. When the defenseless Israelites fled Egypt the Amalekites set upon them in the Sinai. God tells Moses to “rehearse (the attack) in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” Years later God remembers and commands King Saul to “utterly destroy all that the (Amalekites) have…” Saul disobeys. He spares the Amalekite king and flocks of choice sheep and oxen. Saul’s disobedience angers God but there’s policy here too. The Amalekites remain a problem. When surviving Amalekites attack and burn a Judean town taking away two of David’s wives, God commands David to pursue them. David obeys, rescues all Israelite captives, and finishes off those of the Amalekites who do not flee. “David,” as the same book of the Bible notes, “behaved himself wisely in all ways; and the Lord was with him.” And that is pretty much that for the Amalekites in the Bible. Obedience is important, but so is strength.
Strength is the short suit in the signals that Obama is sending about a response to Syria’s un-ignorable use of chemical weapons. The White House has talked about what it won’t attack: Syria’s chemical weapons facilities. It has announced that military targets that are not directly related to the Assad regime’s chemical warfare capabilities might be on the target list, and that — as The Washington Post reported on Monday 27 August — the military options under consideration are probably restricted to a time limit of two-days. On the 28th the president told National Public Radio that any military strike against Syria would be “a shot across the bow,” a clear message to the Syrian regime that the U.S. is looking no further than a slap on the wrist.
Obama’s unwillingness or inability to articulate the objective of a U.S. or coalition military strike is the most troubling sign of the president’s irresolution and strategic befuddlement. To a brutal dictator under whom more than 100,000 have lost their lives over the past two and a half years, the current administration’s approach to the use of force as well as the event itself — were it to occur — is likely to be seen as equivocal, a virtual invitation to repeat the offense. The gas will be used again.
As for the slap itself, sending four ballistic missile defense (BMD) destroyers to the region plus a fifth destroyer, the U.S.S. Stout, which is configured for a land attack mission (i.e. the entire standing combat power of the U.S. Sixth Fleet plus two) is as much of an option as closing your home’s windows in a rainstorm: there’s no other reasonable choice. It’s important to remember, however, that the BMD ships, while able to launch land-attack missiles, were initially stationed in the Mediterranean against an increasing threat to Europe from Iran’s ballistic missiles. Obama decided in 2009 that resetting relations with Russia required abandoning the plan to build land installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. With enough time the anti-ballistic missiles in their vertical launch tubes can be replaced with slower Tomahawk (TLAM) missiles that are designed to strike land targets at a distance. But whether and how many TLAMs the little flotilla now carries remains to be seen.
As events have shown, the reset has been less than a success. Moscow understands the problem that U.S. military planners face as they contemplate an effective response absent the combat power that the U.S. projected in the Mediterranean when two aircraft carrier battle groups prowled the inland sea year in and year out. According to a report in Thursday’s Agence France Presse, the Russians are sending one large ship equipped for anti-submarine warfare and the 11,000+ ton rocket cruiser, Moskva. Another cruiser of the same class, Varyag, is to relieve the anti-submarine ship this fall. These ships bristle with anti-ship missiles.
Without the air cover that a carrier would provide for the smaller U.S. destroyers, the arrival on-scene of Russian cruisers is much like what happens in a chess game when important pieces are brought to bear as a single square becomes the focus of a match. Is Russia’s interest in maintaining its use of basing facilities at the Syrian port of Tartus sufficient to threaten U.S. destroyers that may be ordered to retaliate against Syria’s use of chemical weapons? Is Mr. Obama willing to risk such a confrontation with the Sixth Fleet’s depleted force? And if the crisis persists, will the administration keep extending the deployment of the U.S.S. Nimitz in the Persian Gulf? Another carrier, the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman, whose deployment the Navy cancelled in February to halve the number of carriers in the Persian Gulf, has arrived to relieve Nimitz. So now there will be two carriers in the Gulf after all, but for how long? If Iran comes to the aid of Syria by attempting to close the Straits of Hormuz or by attacking Israel the U.S. will need two carriers in the area. And how does all this make Secretary of Defense Hagel’s July announcement that he is considering a reduction in U.S. carrier strength from the current number, 11, to 8, look?
The answer is simple: foolish.
The Eastern Mediterranean is reverting to a form which stretches back to Homeric times: violence and conflict. The U.S. should increase the Sixth Fleet to at least half its Cold War strength with a single carrier battle group and amphibious ready group permanently on patrol, showing the flag, asserting American influence and helping to deter such outrages as the murder of American diplomatic personnel in Libya last year, the deepening crisis in Syria, the possibility of increased violence in Egypt, and to protect such Western interests as the extraction and transportation of the huge natural gas deposits that have been discovered in recent years off the Israeli and Cypriot coasts. A robust Sixth Fleet would give the president a choice between using missiles or aircraft, or both, to cripple the Syrian regime’s ability to wage air warfare against the insurgents we should be helping. It could destroy much of the supporting infrastructure needed to continue chemical warfare.
In doing so it would increase the chances that the moderate opposition to Assad might succeed and that Assad, himself, would be restrained from using chemical weapons again.
Obama’s handling of Syria has wavered between the fecklessness of lassitude and deep confusion about who are our friends and who our enemies. The president said that Assad must go. This was two years ago and Assad is still very much there. Obama established a red line against the use of chemical weapons. This is not the first crossing of the line. It is the first time that the administration seems to be taking the matter seriously. As with the 8,000 Bosnian boys and men whom the Serbs murdered at Srebenica in July 1995 — which forced Bill Clinton into taking military action the next month — the images of dead and suffering children and adults has tilted Obama into doing something. But with our military capabilities (already drying up) and the administration’s equivocations it looks like a far cry from the month-long bombing campaign of 1995 that resulted in the Dayton peace agreement in November.
Soft power has it place. But not without the hard stuff. Obama has yet to learn this.