In the aftermath of the chemical weapons attack, the American decision to punish Syria has already morphed in to something larger and a mismanaged affair. The first manifestation of this was showcased when British Parliament voted down its military involvement in Syria on August 29th (Thursday). No body ever thought the decision to strike would put the future of US-UK ties on the pedestal in a way it did.
President Obama himself appears to have run in to problem with Congress on making a case for an intervention in Syria and defining the American goals and interests at stake there. Frankly, the arguments being presented mimic previous calls of ‘cry wolf,’ when there is little domestic and global appetite for it.
The decision to strike Syria revolves around the following key tangents:
Building a representative alliance that involves western nations and regional countries; using the appropriate military tactics and weapons to achieve the objective; defining what the goal really is; assessing the possible reaction to the military strikes.
Unfortunately, problems have emerged in each one these realms, but they all stem from having an ill-defined goal.
Forming an Alliance and the Goal
Forming an alliance should have been the easiest part. Many Arab nations have been urging US for sometime now to deal with Syria sternly. The Saudis, for example, have left no stone unturned to create urgency in this matter. They even approached the Russians to stop supporting the Syrians, a liaison that may have backfired according to some unconfirmed reports. Turkey is openly calling for a regime change. Then there was the time-tested partnership with UK that US could always rely upon.
Even with such support, something went dramatically wrong and it is connected with the failure to clearly define the objective for why a military attack on Syria was needed. Is the strike required to destroy its chemical warfare capacity, diminish the military capability of Syria, or is it the higher aim of regime change? Each one of these options requires a different set of military assets and possible consequences to deal with. For example, what happens if the conflict spreads, as many believe it would, and ground troops are needed? Most importantly, how will the mission be supported financially if things do drag out, as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Policy, Strategy, and Tactics
In short, the failure to correctly understand the difference between policy, strategy and tactics, made it difficult to frame the debate correctly. Moreover, the episode represents a miscalculation to grasp the political environment. There is little appetite domestically, and amongst European allies, for another foreign military misadventure.
With out a clear policy objective, it also became difficult to define an appropriate strategy, and the tactics to accomplish it. How the events unfolded suggest that the decision to strike was made before determining the precise policy goals. This technical flaw created difficulties for President Obama, and allies, to make a good case for why a military intervention was needed now.
Car Sales Man Approach
How the whole affair was attempted resembles a style that a typical American car sales man adopts in making a pitch. After spending considerable amount of time on gauging customer’s interest and other superfluous matters, the salesman tries to create urgency and attempts to rush through a deal. If the client is not worn off and is still paying attention, the trade being offered usually has several entrapments. If everything else fails, the dealer throws in the ‘now or never’ wrench. He knows very well if the customer was given time to rethink, or return another day, the deal will fall through. If there is a next time, the deal almost always has to be reframed.
The Real Goals
When President Obama did clarify what the goal was on August 30th (Friday); it turned out to be ‘none of the above’ choices. Obama stated the aim in Syria is ‘limited, narrow act,’ or, in other words, a slap on the wrist. The question arises; if it was going to be a couple of cruise missiles being shot across the bow, why a need for such a ruckus.
This developed confusion about the real intent behind the strikes and distrust regarding the evidence, especially in the backdrop of Iraq fiasco. Russia and China appear to be in no mood to give the West benefit of the doubt after Libya, where they felt the mandate they agreed to was blatantly violated.
This does not imply Obama administration does not know what the real objective in Syria is; it’s just that there is war fatigue. American exceptionalism usually drives many of its decisions in such matters. That approach works when the country is economically strong, but when it is not doing well; many unforeseen challenges emerge. Someone grossly underestimated the challenges they would face to make a public case.
Ultimately, Obama had to back track on August 31st (Saturday), as the goal that was defined was not worth the costs and risks involved, and that to with out the public support. Only a day earlier, US appeared poised to launch an attack on Syria. Not because it had presented a convincing justification for it, but because it had cornered itself. First be declaring there was a red line, and secondly by making a decision before the case for it was made.
This does not mean all is set and done yet. Both US and UK will now try even harder to make a genuine case for why a strike is needed in Syria. As they do, the policy goal might be reframed, with appropriate changes to the strategy and tactics.
The reality is that military intervention in Syria is needed to degrade its military capability and to rid Iran of its only regional ally. Moreover, to dent the growing resurgence of non-state actors in Syria which is increasingly threatening to Israel and western allies in the region. The challenge is how to go about doing this when there is little public buy-in for another regime change and a larger war. Now that the ‘cry wolf’ phenomenon may be real, no one seems to be heeding the call based on how it has been framed.