Jeffrey Lewis

The Playbook for the Syrian War Has Already Been Written — in Iraq

Why Obama should bomb Assad the way Clinton bombed Saddam.


In the wee hours of Wednesday, Aug. 21, I was dozing comfortably in Cape Cod. A world away, in Syria, the morning brought horror. Thousands of patients began showing up in hospitals around Damascus. More than 3,600 people displaying neurotoxic symptoms arrived in a three-hour window at a trio of hospitals supported by Doctors Without Borders. Three hundred fifty-five of those patients died.

Although Doctors Without Borders could "neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack," Dr. Bart Janssens, the group’s director of operations, said that "the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events … strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent."

A few months ago, in response to less-than-convincing evidence of chemical weapons use — well, I found it less than convincing — I wrote that if Bashar al-Assad were to start gassing cities, "we won’t be sitting around wondering whether he’s done so or not." A definitive judgment will take more time, but the circumstantial evidence is compelling in a way that previous claims have not been. Although I hate to judge before all the facts are in, it’s beginning to look like Assad gassed Ghouta.

The president spent Friday huddled with his advisors, discussing what officials described to the Wall Street Journal‘s Adam Entous as "targeted strikes to punish Mr. Assad for using chemical weapons." U.S. warships and submarines have reportedly begun moving into place.

Even Assad seems to have gotten the message, offering to let a U.N. fact-finding team visit Ghouta after a week of hemming and hawing. Assad probably thinks the United States is less likely to attack him if he seems to be cooperating. He may also think U.N. fact-finders make nice human shields. Either way, Syria’s sudden transparency seems unlikely to change many minds. Western officials have already called Assad’s offer "too little, too late." The U.N. team did try to visit the site but were turned back by sniper fire. A military strike of one sort or another looks likely at this point.

A lot of commentators imagine that Operation Habitual Line-Stepper will look a lot like Operation Allied Force — the 78-day air war in which NATO supported the Kosovar Liberation Army in its efforts to stop the Serbian genocide — or the recent military operation against Libya. (That is, when they can keep straight our mid-1990s Balkan adventures.)

While a major air campaign remains a possibility, a more limited military action looks more plausible to me. In both Kosovo and Libya, there was an organized opposition capable of taking territory when supported by Western airpower. The situation in Syria is not nearly so promising. If the canonical test for using force is whether it contributes to a specific, desirable diplomatic settlement, Syria does not pass it. The opposition seems too fragmented to make use of the sort of air campaign of the sort we saw against Yugoslavia or Libya.

It seems far more likely that the Obama administration will settle for a one-off series of airstrikes, largely using cruise missiles, in order to reestablish deterrence against the further use of chemical weapons. (And, perhaps, make good on the president’s blustery talk.) There is a direct historical precedent to such an operation — Operation Desert Fox, which the Clinton administration launched against Iraq in 1998. Although Desert Fox was far from perfect, it offers a useful model of limited use of force over a period of days that might degrade Syria’s capability to use chemical weapons and discourage Assad’s commanders from repeating the carnage at Ghouta without committing the United States to long-term involvement in the country’s civil war.

You may have forgotten this strange little episode. That’s to be forgiven. We lobbed a lot of cruise missiles around in the 1990s. You may also be wondering why we named an operation after a German general. In the mid-1990s, the sanctions regime against Iraq seemed to falter, resulting in a series of military operations — usually labeled Desert this or Desert that — including Desert Strike in 1996.

In 1998, the United States came close to using force twice before Saddam backed down each time — once in February and again in November. After the aborted strikes — known as Desert Thunder I and II or Desert Thunder and Desert Viper — the idea of Desert Fox was born. I can do no better than to allow Hugh Shelton, the bard of Tarboro, to explain it from here:

"Dammit, he did it again," I vented to [Gen. Anthony] Zinni …, frustrated that irrespective of whether or not Saddam backed down, our intel confirmed that once again he had already moved his missiles and equipment out of harm’s way. "It’s getting old and there’s got to be a better way."

"Couldn’t agree with you more," the burly commander said. "Doesn’t take the Amazing Kreskin to figure out that the ninety-thousand-ton carrier knockin’ at your door is not dropping in to deliver take-out baba ghanoush." [Zinni appears unfamiliar with the concept of "take-out."]

"We need to catch him with his pants down. Lull him into a false sense of security, then blast his ass," [I said.] "We’ve got to be sly, like a fox. In fact, we ought to call it Operation Desert Fox."

(Zinni tells an almost identical anecdote in his book, Battle Ready, although without the homespun feel. It’s just not the same when Shelton wants to catch Saddam with his "things in place.")

As then-Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen — another Republican senator dropped in the Pentagon by a Democratic president — explained pretty succinctly: "We want to degrade Saddam Hussein’s ability to make and use weapons of mass destruction, we want to diminish his ability to wage war against his neighbors, and we want to demonstrate the consequences of flouting international obligations."

Operation Desert Fox involved strikes against 97 targets in seven areas — air defense systems, command and control, weapons of mass destruction security, WMD industry and production, Republican Guard units, airfields, and "economic" targets. The punishment was centered on leadership targets and WMD-related facilities. The bombing lasted 70 hours, ending just as the holy month of Ramadan began. At the time, Tony Cordesman wrote up a nice, if skeptical, summary of Desert Fox based on the battle damage assessment — although you can read all the good stuff on one slide behind Gen. Zinni briefing the results of the strike.

There were some less-than-charitable suggestions that President Clinton ordered the strike to distract attention from questions about his relationship with a certain intern. The president was pretty adamant that there was no relationship between the two, but then again he had just been adamant about there not being a relationship between the two. Still, I believe him. The situation with Iraq was clearly deteriorating; the Clinton administration wanted to make clear it would not allow Saddam to play what Gen. Shelton — master of the terrible metaphor — described as "three-card monte."

Whether Desert Fox mattered or not is an interesting discussion, albeit one usually poisoned by our continuing debate about the wisdom or folly of invading Iraq in 2003. Clinton administration officials argue that Desert Fox showed we were able to contain Saddam indefinitely — and that the subsequent invasion of Iraq was an unnecessary, disastrous change in policy. Bush administration officials, obviously, don’t see it quite that way.

One would think the impact of Desert Fox would be relatively easy to assess given the massive effort by the post-war Iraq Survey Group, responsible for the WMD hunt in Iraq, and subsequent academic literature based on tapes of Saddam’s internal deliberations. One would be wrong. Even the two men who headed the Iraq Survey Group drew vastly different conclusions about the operation.

David Kay, the first head of the Iraq Survey Group, ultimately adopted the Clintonian view that Desert Fox had put paid to the remnants of Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological aspirations. Kay gets several pages in Tom Ricks’ excellent Fiasco to make his argument:

It was only years later, after [David Kay’s] Iraqi Survey Group, the U.S. government’s postwar effort to find Iraq’s supposed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, had interviewed and interrogated two hundred officials from Iraqi weapons programs, that he realized that the four-day campaign had indeed had a devastating effect, far more than had been appreciated back in Washington. His post-invasion survey found to his surprise that after 1998 the Iraqi weapons programs, with the exception of missile building, "withered away, and never got momentum again." In a series of in-depth postwar interrogations, a score of veterans of the Iraqi weapons programs told Kay’s group that the Desert Fox raids had left Iraqi weaponeers demoralized and despairing. "They realized that they’d never be able to reestablish the type of industrial facility they were aiming at," he said in an interview. "They’d spent years, lots of money, and lots of energy on it, years and years. And they realized that as long as Saddam was in power, they’d never be able to reestablish production." In short, they had given up. The other point that Desert Fox made to Iraqis was that visible elements of weaponry, such as missile programs, which require a large, easily observed infrastructure such as engine test stands, could be hammered at any time.

Charlie Duelfer, the man who succeeded Kay as head of the ISG, had a different view. He concluded that Desert Fox was a "feckless bombing exercise" and a "ritual bloodletting." Duelfer doesn’t elaborate on that view, but it seems clear from the ISG report that Duelfer places rather more evidence on what he called the "vortex of corruption" that undermined Saddam’s ambitions.

Desert Fox did destroy many facilities of value — even if Saddam was able to resume his missile efforts. Clinton officials believed that additional strikes would be necessary over time, but they were confident the United States could indefinitely sustain enough pressure to keep Saddam from rearming. Moreover, some officials thought that operations like Desert Fox would also, over the long-term, provide a steady source of pressure on Saddam himself. Gen. Zinni, for example, believed that a massive purge launched by Saddam in the wake of the bombing demonstrated the tremendous insecurity of his regime in the face of Western military capabilities. (Ricks, however, notes that the downside of the bombing-induced purge was a loss of human intelligence assets which, in his view, contributed to the information vacuum filled by charming people such as Curveball.)

By contrast, Duelfer argued that the one-off strike convinced Saddam that Desert Fox was the worst the United States would do, thereby undermining the threat of an invasion like Operation Iraqi Freedom. Sadly, the documents in academic works like The Saddam Tapes don’t shed much light on this question, although I admit Duelfer’s argument seems a little too pitch perfect to reassure uneasy supporters of the invasion-cum-fiasco. In the wake of the futile hunt for weapons of mass destruction, advocates of the invasion began arguing that it would only have been a matter of time before sanctions collapsed and Saddam rearmed. For this argument to work, Desert Fox has to be a disappointing failure.

Maybe Desert Fox wasn’t going to turn Saddam into a choir boy, but it did destroy much of what remained of his proscribed weapons. At the time, a long-term policy of episodic strikes like Desert Fox might have seemed unappealing. In retrospect, it looks positively lovely compared to the carnage of post-invasion Iraq. Which is pretty depressing when you think about it.

The long-term impact of a similar strike on leadership and WMD targets in Syria is anyone’s guess. Would it reestablish deterrence against further chemical weapons use?

I’ve heard a lot of terrible credibility arguments in the past few weeks. The recent academic literature on credibility is pretty damning. In particular, Daryl Press has written a wonderful book, Calculating Credibility. (I normally bemoan that academics do little policy-relevant work. This is a happy exception.) Daryl, who by the way is more than happy to suggest we bomb the bad guys when push comes to shove, finds that foreign leaders are far more likely to assess the credibility of a threat based on the balance of power and the interests at stake, not past actions. In other words, reputation matters less than cold assessment of the moment. I’d differ with Daryl just a bit to suggest that foreign leaders tend to interpret events in a way that reinforces existing worldviews, more than objective, externally knowable calculations of interest. The Saddam tapes are striking in terms of just how much filtering existed between reality and Saddam’s inner circle. If Assad thinks the United States is out to get him no matter what, or alternately that we’re simply not willing to do more than launch cruise-missile strikes, Operation Habitual Line-Stepper will just reinforce that view.

On the other hand, the United States does have an interest in preventing the further spread and use of chemical weapons. I was talking to a reporter who asked why we care about chemical weapons use when there are all other manner of atrocities being committed in Syria. It’s a good question. While I readily concede that the distinctions are a bit arbitrary, the international community has long tried to build norms against the worst weapons — weapons that maim victims, are indiscriminate or persistent, and enable killing on a mass scale. I tend to look at the effort to prohibit biological weapons, chemical weapons, landmines, cluster munitions, and, yes, nuclear weapons with a great deal of sympathy — even if these efforts are only baby steps toward a world in which we don’t settle disputes with any form of violence. We settle for making war a bit less horrible. I had the opportunity to interact closely with a group of Iranian chemical weapons victims a few years ago. Chemical weapons are abhorrent. The fact that the Syrian government and the opposition are engaged in other atrocities doesn’t change that.

One could imagine some benefit of a one-off effort like Desert Fox that would target Syria’s chemical weapons along with its missile and nuclear infrastructure, as well as sites related to regime security. The Israelis have already conducted limited airstrikes against missiles suspected to be en route to Hezbollah and CERS — the French acronym for the Scientific Studies and Research Center, where Syria performs research on chemical weapons. There are no doubt a number of sites that might draw the attention of targeteers in the United States. I won’t go through a full targeting exercise for you — that’s what the Wall Street Journal editorial page is for. But you can get an idea of the sort of targets that might be on the table from the Syria facilities webpage and interactive map that my employer, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, maintains for the Nuclear Threat Initiative. For some time, the United Nations has been seeking access to three sites related to the bombed-out reactor near Al Kibar. I’d been hoping the rebels would overrun the sites, but we can also imagine noncooperative threat reduction. And I probably wouldn’t accept any invitations to visit any visiting fellows from Iran or North Korea "studying" at CERS.

It is possible that such a strike will reestablish deterrence, discouraging Assad from gassing more cities. There is also the important issue of Assad’s commanders — they are probably as important an audience for deterrence as Assad himself. Of course, Assad might also decide that the gloves are well and truly off, gassing more cities and daring us to do something about it. But after Ghouta, I am not expecting further restraint from the Syrian regime. Even if Assad and his commanders are not deterred, a successful strike might make it harder for them to use chemical weapons again.

There also remains the risk that Assad will escalate the conflict further, retaliating against our interests through terrorist proxies like Hezbollah. A military strike unavoidably carries such risks. Slippery slope arguments, however, obscure the reality that the president need not respond mechanistically to additional provocations. After all, one need not lob good cruise missiles after bad if the strike disappoints. If the president is clear about what level of involvement is in our interests, and what level is not, he need not succumb to the predictable political pressures to do more than makes sense.

Much of our current debate over intervening in Syria seems haunted by the ghosts of Iraq. A lot of people are, understandably, concerned that doing something means recreating the experience in Iraq — not a happy thought for anyone but the most ardent of Vulcans. Our foreign policy has been far too bellicose over the past decade. Yet that does not mean that we should never use force. Desert Fox ought to remind us that, before the carnage and chaos of Operation Iraq Freedom, the United States was able to use force on a limited scale in support of diplomatic goals around the world. A limited use of force does not guarantee a favorable outcome and will hardly be applauded by the president’s political opponents, but it stands a reasonable chance of making it harder for Assad and his henchmen to do again what they seem to have done at Ghouta.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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