US preparing for strikes in Syria, still lacking clear objectives

The crucial ingredient of starting a military intervention campaign is having a clear mission objective and robust high-level guidance.

The West has warned Syrian rebels to expect a military strike within days. The rebels have given the West a list of targets.

United States President Barack Obama believes the Syrian regime should be held accountable for its recent use of chemical weapons, and he will make an informed decision on how to respond in the coming days.

Two months ago a Western-led strike on Syria seemed unlikely, now, after an admittedly ambiguous chemical weapons attack in Damascus, the US is positioning forces in the region in preparation for an expected series of strikes.

However, a number of obstacles remain and a lack of clear high-level guidance will limit US intervention efforts.

US President Barack Obama has said any Syrian chemical weapons use would cross an arbitrary “red line” resulting in US strikes. Regime forces have been suspected of using chemical weapons in the past, but little evidence was uncovered to warrant military strikes.

In preparation, US warships have been repositioned in the Mediterranean Sea with the ability to launch Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) against a range of targets in Syria.

Air forces based in Turkey, Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, U.A.E., and Oman can also join any strike.

Alongside these US assets float two aircraft carrier groups in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, each with more firepower than most developed nations. US Ballistic missiles submarines can be expected in theatre as well.

Considering the order of battle in the region, striking targets in Syria remains a mission only the United States can accomplish effectively. US forces are far and away the most competent military ready to engage Syrian regime forces.

Noise without change
With all this noise, it pays to remember that the situation on the ground in Syria has not changed appreciably. The strategic problems which faced the international community at the beginning of the Syrian conflict still exist.

Syrian air defence is robust, redundant and spread strategically over the western regions of the country, the rebel groups are divided without central leadership, Jihadist groups lurk in the shadows waiting for a bigger vacuum, the American stomach for ground occupation is non-existent, and there is no agreement in the international community around if they should strike – let alone how and when.

Even with these obstacles, there are still a number of objectives US airstrikes could pursue.

They include: deterring further chemical attacks on Syrian civilians, punishing the regime for chemical weapons use, degrading the regime’s ability to deliver chemical weapons, degrade or destroy chemical weapons in known locations, degrade Syrian conventional forces, and also degrade Syrian air defence systems.

Those options exclude ground-force campaigns. Any build up for a full-scale invasion would take months and the quickest mission to secure these weapons could take up to three or four months.

However, unforeseen consequences and a lack of perfect knowledge is a reality every commander understands. Hitting Syrian regime targets will go some way in re-balancing the battle towards rebel forces, but what then?

It’s a wise question, but it is not necessary to know exactly how a conflict will play out or precisely how the fight will end in order to take action.

The crucial ingredient of starting a military intervention campaign is having a clear mission objective and robust high-level guidance. Removing Syrian President Bashar al Assad is a clear objective, as is stopping him from using more chemical weapons. However, punishing the regime for using the weapons is not a clear objective.

Washington struggles to find coherent objectives
The use of chemical weapons is surely an atrocity. The US has good reasons for building up an ability to respond. Because the longer the fighting continues in Syria, the more extremists from around the world will join, causing more problems for international stability in the future when those fighters return home with their skills.

Breaking those militant groups early and discouraging jihadist volunteers, as well as building up popular movements against al Qaeda groups, are just as important as limiting regime use of chemical weapons. Unfortunately, these objectives do not appear to be a high priority for the US administration.

Mr Obama will have to announce coherent and strategic reasons for striking Syria as well as confirming if there is a long-term commitment.

Punitive strikes in response to an arbitrary “red line” do little to help the rebel cause and cannot take advantage of the emerging opportunities to stem the tide of Islamist influence in the region.

But more practically, if the al Assad regime feels it can get away with limited chemical weapons attacks this time, it may feel encouraged to expand them in the future.

Ultimately, placing a “red line” around chemical weapons usage will probably require Mr Obama to respond in some military capacity, or risk encouraging other countries facing similar US military red line threats to push their boundaries.

A comprehensive, full-spectrum campaign to secure Syrian chemical weapons is highly unlikely given the incredible logistical demands.

However, targeted strikes on regime assets could be authorised by the US Defence Department. It remains unclear how far and how long these strikes will continue or what the strategic missions will be.

Nathan Smith has studied international relations and conflict at Massey University. He blogs at INTELL and Analysis

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