Wednesday, September 04, 2013

No Defined Objectives or Path to Victory in Syria

I honestly don't know what to think about getting militarily involved in Syria's Civil War. I don't know because I don't know what exactly that involvement hopes to achieve. Before going to war, a country should define its ultimate objectives. Then the country should define a path to victory that achieves those objectives. Finally, the country must ask itself if those objectives are worth the use of force and if the defined victory can feasibly be achieved.

In the American Revolution, for example, the British objective was simple: restore British order and control in the American colonies. However, their path to achieving that victory was much more complex and eventually unfeasible. They had to eliminate or scatter all enemy armies, conquer and control cities and vast areas of countryside, and do so without alienating the local population (which they did by allying themselves with Native Americans).

All the Americans had to do was survive as a fighting force.

The Redcoats were rarely beaten on the battlefield. Even after the surrender at Yorktown they still had significant forces available to them. The British weren't driven to the sea, they were recalled by a Parliament that finally tired of the war.

A similar thing happened in Vietnam. All the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong had to do was survive, while America needed to conquer land, as well as hearts and minds. That's pretty much impossible to do.

Then we get to the First Iraq War. Easily defined victory there: Eliminate and eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait, seriously weaken their ability to wage any future offensive wars. A definition of victory that could be achieved, and was.

The Second Iraq War and Afghanistan, not so much. The objectives were complex and the paths to victory was unclear. Remove current governments, install democracy, keep the peace in cities and countryside, oversee the conversion from militaristic dictators to peaceful democracies, rebuild infrastructure, rebuild economies, fight local and foreign terrorism, support national and local government institutions, fight corruption in national and local government institutions, secure a massive borders and isolated hinterlands. That's something you can't draw a battle plan for.

So what's the goal in Syria? Do we want to destroy all the chemical weapons? I'd support that objective, but then ask the tough question "how?" How could we do that without committing ground troops who would search buildings and underground storage dumps? Removing all chemical weapons is a fine goal, but difficult/impossible to achieve.

How about removing Assad? That can be done with an assassination or bombing whatever building he's in. But I'm not sure I like this as an objective. Assad's replacement will likely be just as bad, whether he's from Assad's camp or from the opposition. And there's something especially unsavory about people who assume power in vacuums. At least when power is won, even with brutality, the one holding the power has earned it in some way. People who assume power in vacuums tend to more grotesquely abuse that power.

One objective that might be feasible is to cripple Assad's ability to deliver chemical weapons. This means destroying missile and rocket launchers. I don't think we'd ever be able to eliminate all chemical weapons without a ground campaign (in other words, without getting us intimately involved in their war), and the air campaign would last an indefinite amount of time (perhaps as long as the war). But we can make it difficult and dangerous for Assad's chemical warfare troops and equipment. We can call it Operation Referee.

At the same time, intervention might not be a long term positive for Syria or its people. We intervened in Afghanistan in the 1980s when the Soviets were trying to conquer that country. It was a moral war to get involved in, there was a path to victory, and we prevented the Soviet Union from taking over. Years later some of the men we trained, like Osama bin Laden, turned against us. That was bad for the US and was bad for many people in Afghanistan.

Sometimes even good interventions have bad results.

So what's the objective in Syria? We're not going to try to end the Syrian Civil War. We don't want to support one side or another. So what is it that we want to achieve? NO OTHER QUESTION CAN BE ANSWERED UNTIL THIS ONE IS. We cannot decide whether to engage in Syria until we know what we'll try to do there and how we'll try to get it done.

The Left criticized G.W. Bush for not having an Exit Strategy in Iraq. Rightfully so. Before the exit, though, you need a path to victory. How do you get from the start of involvement towards your goal? We don't know what victory is yet, let alone the route to get there.

I blame Obama for the current cloudy and confused situation we are in with this mess. His stupid Red Line decree put himself against the wall, not Assad. Although now Obama denies setting a Red Line. Even though he did...

One perk to being a Liberal is that you can say what you want, then deny what your words meant because people who aren't as smart as you (which is everyone who criticizes you) misinterpreted what you were trying to convey.

Also, if he doesn't want to activate the military without Congressional assent, perhaps he shouldn't have set a Red Line without first conferring with Congress.

What he did was bluff. And Assad raised. And the proper thing to do after a failed bluff is fold. It'is braver to retreat and be embarrassed than it is to attack and be destroyed with pride. It's also the smart thing to do and it's the only thing to do. Live to fight another day. That's a figure of speech for Obama, but also a reality for the American servicemen who would be risking their lives in and above Syria, trying to attain a victory that can't be attained, and attempting to reach an objective that either isn't worth achieving or cannot be achieved.