Attacking Syria: Mission (All but) Impossible

Obama must strike Assad hard amid a war he wants no part of, without the U.N. and NATO. There may be no way to do it right.

USS Ramage is one of four U.S. destroyers currently deployed in the Mediterranean Sea equipped with long-range Tomahawk missles that could potentially be used to strike Syria. (Reuters)

Chuck Hagel, who's had some experience avoiding dumb wars, was strikingly confident about U.S. military plans against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in an interview Tuesday with the BBC. "We are ready to go, like that," the Defense secretary said.

Actually, that's not quite true, and Hagel's tough words fail to convey the vast complexities of a military strike against Syria. Military experts and NATO officials are also warning against facile comparisons to the military intervention in Kosovo in 1999 or to the campaign against Muammar el-Qaddafi's Libya in 2011. That's in part because of the greater sophistication of the Syrian forces, but it's also because President Obama must achieve the nearly impossible. Obama will have to strike the Syrian regime hard enough to send a clear punitive message, thus avoiding criticism that the attacks were merely cosmetic and politically motivated, but not so hard that he tilts the balance in a civil war that he wants no part of.

It's fairly easy to order cruise-missile strikes from the U.S. warships that have converged on Syria in the Mediterranean, the plans to which Hagel may have been referring. But what those missiles will hit and the impact they will have are entirely different matters.

Strategically, it may amount to the military equivalent of threading a camel through the eye of needle.

And Obama's not going to be getting much help, except from the French and British, with a possible gloss of legitimacy from the Arab League, which delivered a clear statement Tuesday that Assad had used chemical weapons against his people. A meeting of the U.N. Security Council planned for Wednesday is very likely to be met with a veto from Russia, which has begun backing Assad more forthrightly than before. On Tuesday, despite efforts under way to engage Moscow in discussions over the language of a U.N. resolution that it could accept, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said an attack would have "catastrophic consequences."

As for NATO, "there is no formal planning," U.S. Army Col. Martin Downie, the NATO spokesman, toldNational Journal on Tuesday. Syria, he says, will be "one of the agenda items" at a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, NATO's governing body, also scheduled for Wednesday. And while NATO is not likely to be involved as an organization, even if it is, countries would have to develop lists of assets they can provide, and "the best case would be a matter of weeks," not days, Downie says.

The White House says it has made no decision yet on what kind of response it is planning against Syria, but the uncompromising language coming from senior administration officials in recent days—so reminiscent of the Bush administration's hard-line rhetoric before the 2003 Iraq invasion—has put Obama's credibility on the line. "There is no doubt who is responsible for this heinous use of chemical weapons in Syria: the Syrian regime," Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday in a speech, following similar statements on Monday from Secretary of State John Kerry. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has called a national security council meeting for Wednesday and has recalled Parliament for a debate on Thursday, is using similar language, as is French President Francois Hollande.

So military action of some kind appears all but assured. No matter what kind of operation is planned, "this is a major undertaking," says a U.S. military officer involved in previous interventions. "There isn't a single military action that is without consequences, and we have to ask ourselves what are we willing to live with." For example, with all the talk of hitting Assad's "command and control" operations, the question arises: What would happen if he lost his command and control? Would that increase the chances of a victory by radical Islamists?

There may, in fact, be no good precedent for the kind of air attack Obama is said to be planning. Syrian air defenses are far more formidable than Libya's. "The Syrian military possesses far denser and more integrated air-defense systems than Libya," says Chris Dougherty of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. As far as plans to strike units responsible for the chemical attacks, that may be problematic too. "In all likelihood, Assad has dispersed at least some of his weapons to local commanders. Some weapons are likely kept mobile to avoid detection and targeting," says Dougherty.

The NATO intervention over Kosovo--which also took place without a U.N. resolution, again thanks to Russia's veto--may offer something of a legal model under international law, but the actual campaign was not anything Obama wants to emulate. The Kosovo campaign, launched to protest ethnic Muslims from being slaughtered by Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, also meant getting involved a civil war—between the Kosovars and Serbs—that Washington wanted no part of. It required 78 days of bombing and left NATO in tenuous control of a province that neither Washington nor the West wanted to have independence, because that might set a grim precedent for other self-determination movements elsewhere, such as the Kurds in Iraq. Despite raining a high-tech assortment of laser-guided and satellite-navigated bombs on Serbia and Kosovo, NATO officials were astonished to see many Serb tanks and troops depart the province after NATO peacekeepers went in. And in the end, Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic relented only after the Russians were induced to put pressure on him to withdraw.

Wesley Clark, the NATO supreme commander who directed the campaign in Kosovo and was summarily dismissed from his post after the war, may have described the outcome best in his memoirs when he wrote: "Though NATO had succeeded in its first armed conflict, it didn't feel like a victory."

What will the strikes against Syria feel like, once they're over?