The purpose of this article is to provide a strategic framework for a possible US course of action regarding intervention in Syria. The strategic-level framing was used in order to provide readers with the most all-encompassing perspective; while tactical-level knowledge may be useful for understanding various actor TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures), it does little to broaden readers’ perspective and relative context of the overall situation.
Situation and Context
Extensive global media coverage on Syria has circulated vast quantities of talking papers, editorials, and analysis surrounding possible solutions and courses of action available to the select Gulf, Arab, and Western nations interested in providing some measure of direct military support to the Syrian Opposition in their struggle against the Assad Regime.
The US, as the strongest nation with the most resources and experience suited for direct military action in Syria, will undoubtedly play a large role in achieving the objectives identified by the ‘coalition of the willing’ should Congress approve President Obama’s recent request for direct US involvement. Other nation involvement has yet to be determined, aside from France emerging as the only current potential US partner to direct military action.
Generally, the more complex the solution to Syria, the “more time [the conflict] will take, the more of a leading role the US will have to assume, and the more obvious [any] force buildup will be.” This fact will become further apparent given the multi-faceted approach necessary to achieve desired short and long-term objectives in Syria. As chief participant in direct military action in Syria, the US must approach the conflict with a solution that encompasses a combination of both soft and hard power mechanisms, employs a variety of assets to achieve a balanced end game, and will produce both short and long-term benefits to US national security in the region.
Avenue of Approach
While there is no easy fix or clear solution to Syria, any extensive or elongated US military engagement is both outside the military’s current financial budgeting ability and well beyond the domestic popular support capacity of the American people. Therefore, a phased, relatively limited, and well-defined timeline must be established.
First, the US must strengthen the Supreme Military Command (SMC) of the Syrian Opposition. This support will not only marginalize the influence of AQI and other radical Islamist groups (i.e. Al Nusra, “JN”) in the region but also provide Syrian rebels with the training, equipment, and operational capacity necessary to conduct effective and consistent combat operations against Regime forces. This support will entail a combination of financial, material, and military aid for rebel forces, to include both overt and covert means.
Second, the US must leverage political and diplomatic discourse with Gulf and Arab states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who maintain the strongest existing networks of both material and financial support to the SMC. This will further solidify the capability and position of the SMC in the overarching conflict, combine US resources and intent with the organization and reach of regional Gulf and Arab states, and present a more unified and organized vehicle against the current Regime supporters (Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, et al).
Third, the US must shape political rhetoric and perception in the international community in order to minimize the collateral of Russian objections to military intervention, which will enable greater space for political maneuvering as closer working relationships between Gulf, Arab, and Western states materialize in support of the Opposition. This will marginalize Russian objections to US action and solidify popular support for any limited intervention.
Finally, the US must focus on fostering stronger regional partnerships with Israel, Turkey, and Jordan with the intent of containing any regional destabilization that will occur as a result of direct military intervention. These partnerships should be pursued with the intent of encouraging these allies to take a more active stance in supporting the coalition of nations actively working to affect a positive outcome at their borders. Not only should these regional partners allow US and western nations to utilize their countries as footholds for possible military operations, but also commit their own assets in support of local military operations as well (i.e. border security, refugee management, intelligence-sharing, etc.).
Down the Rabbit Hole
Strengthening the SMC: The purpose of focusing US efforts on training and equipping the SMC rests in both the operational short-term and strategic long-term interests of Gulf, Arab, and Western nations currently supporting the Opposition.
By solidifying the military capability of trusted and vetted centers of gravity (here referring to key individuals, power players, and prominent groups) within the SMC, the US is able to enhance the political, military, and economic power of the Opposition in its entirety. With an increased rebel capacity for more capable combat operations, the Regime will not only suffer increased tactical and operational losses, but will also be placed at a disadvantage against the more focused and streamlined support networks of the Opposition from other Gulf, Arab, and Western nations. This advantage provides anti-Regime players with a more beneficial strategic outlook.
This support also identifies where in the SMC continued support should be funneled for future operations, as well as establishes a fine working relationship with SMC actors from which further military, economic, and diplomatic discourse can be pursued upon necessity. Finally, this support ensures that the radical elements of the Opposition can also be identified and marginalized, effectively mitigating any US fear of radicalized and experienced terror threats emerging en masse from the Syrian conflict.
Use Existing Networks: It is important to note that while the US has remained relatively uncommitted to the type and levels of various arms and non-lethal aid it has provided and could provide to the Opposition, nations such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have already established a hotly pursued race to determine which nation could provide the most support to the regime.
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While the US has provided a variety of advanced medical, communications, and humanitarian relief aid to the Opposition thus far, Qatar and Saudi Arabia—due to their self-professed struggle for statecraft and supreme influence in the region—have made short work of any US fears regarding arming the Opposition.
As early as June it was already seeping through the press that Qatar, in an effort to outmatch Saudi Arabia, had provided at least two shipments of Chinese-made man-portable surface-to-air missiles to the rebel forces. The potential blowback of such weapons proliferation aside (think Afghanistan and the Soviets), this activity is indicative of the strong material and financial support networks already in use by Qatar and Saudi Arabia in support of the Opposition. It is in the best interest of the US to emphasize its intent to strengthen the SMC by leveraging these existing networks. This will in turn combine US resources with the organization and reach of the regional Gulf and Arab states, and also present a more unified and organized vehicle to counter Regime supporters.
More Aggressive US Politics and Diplomacy: Probably the least tangible actions the US must pursue in Syria fall in the realm of political discourse and aggressive, tactful diplomacy.
As the US announced its possible plan for strikes against Regime assets following the latest reporting of chemical weapons use, Russia was quick to issue statements of political rhetoric and warning regarding US actions. This is significant due to Russia’s position on the UN Security Council and their stake in maintaining a naval base in Tartus, Russia’s pinnacle of influence in the region. While not directly opposing US strikes against the Regime, Putin successfully leveraged available political and diplomatic channels at his disposal to exert Russia’s soft power in contradiction to US plans.
Such actions reveal the fine political and diplomatic understanding Putin commands over the institutions of which Russia is a major player. This is evident not only in Russia’s position on the UN Security Council but also its role in the recently concluded G20 summit, hosted in St. Petersburg no less. It is critical that the US works equally as hard to shape the political rhetoric and international community perception of US plans, which will subsequently minimize any collateral Russian objections to military intervention in Syria. It also enables for greater political maneuver as Gulf, Arab, and other western nations work to produce more sustainable and identifiable support for the Opposition.
Get Our Regional Allies to Buy In: The final aspect of the multi-faceted US solution to setting pro-Opposition nations on the right course in Syria relies on a relatively substantial level of buy-in from regional players and allies such as Israel, Turkey, and Jordan.
As a result of any possible military intervention in Syria, it is likely that pro-Opposition forces (namely the US and other nations with the proper mechanisms to do so) will be required to contain an even greater level of regional destabilization. In order to mitigate this destabilization, US efforts must double to not only encourage Israel, Turkey, and Jordan to take a more active role in supporting US and Gulf nation efforts to supply, train, and equip the Opposition, but also to dedicate as many assets as possible towards conducting extensive local stabilization operations as well. Israel, Turkey, or Jordan authorizing US forces to utilize military airfields, government facilities or territory, and other national resources necessary to conduct stabilization and training operations in the region would best achieve positive results.
What Do We Look For?
Ultimately, any US action in Syria will be taken to achieve or rectify a number of objectives or issues that have been cited by the Obama administration thus far.
Among these issues are: providing some measure of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people as a result of the atrocities committed by Regime forces and nearly three years of civil war, enforcing the red line condemning the chemical weapons use perpetrated by the Assad regime, providing enough support to the right Opposition forces in order to enable them to achieve military success against Regime forces, stemming the flow of radical Islamist fighters from Syria into the region, stabilizing the Levant region through an emphasis on primary US allies, and minimizing the influence of regional proxies and global powers such as Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.
By identifying these issues, it will be easier to establish concrete US courses of action that are beneficial in supporting the end game solution to the conflict in Syria.
Because it is a highly complex and dynamic situation, this process will be arduous and taxing on US resources. However, with a properly phased, relatively limited, and well-focused approach, it is possible such a solution could merit positive results.
The Elephant in the Room
The most difficult problem to solve, and the primary justification for US intervention, is the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The chemical weapons issue adds yet another variable to the conflict that only complicates the existing quagmire.
First, it must be noted that the Assad Regime is believed to possess varying tonnage of different chemical agents, to include Sarin, VX, and Mustard (all of which have likely been weaponized into bombs, shells, and missiles). Not only does the Regime have multiple stockpiles located throughout the country, but it is also likely that it maintains several production facilities as well.
Second, it is difficult to speculate on the status of both the Regime’s stockpiles and production facilities, due to more than two years of brutal clashes with little visible military headway. The possibility exists that during the conflict rogue Regime military or militia units, Opposition forces, or other third parties could have obtained positive control over any number of these munitions. Should this possibility be reality, it must be determined whether or not these actors possessed the capability and intent to employ the weapons in pursuit of any number of agendas.
Third, should the US engage militarily in Syria, decision-makers must clearly identify the intent of any direct military action—especially when attempting to determine appropriate tactical and operationally significant strikes against the Regime.
Regarding US intent, it must be determined what the ultimate goal in Syria is; does the US want to topple the Regime and risk eliminating what existing control the Regime may currently possess over Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and production facilities? Does the US want to intervene in Syria in order to uphold the political credibility of the US on the world stage, in order to support condemnation of the “internationally” drawn red line of chemical weapons use?
Ultimately, policy and decision-makers must identify a strategic, long-term end state that would best suit US interests. Is it the stability and security of the Levant region? Is it demonstrating US commitment to international norms and agreements regarding chemical weapons use? Based on this end game state determined by US policy makers, an effective and appropriate intervention can be set into action. Until then, the US is bound by the immediate consequences of whichever actions its decision-makers pursue.
Thanks for listening. ~14Charlie
Author’s Note: Hopefully the info presented here helps categorize the issue enough to the point of further understanding. Knowledge is power, and a more educated populace is able to better communicate US foreign policy needs to our elected decision-makers. If learning is occurring, our job was accomplished!
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