War with Syria?: A Best Defense primer
None of the options are good, I am sure Defense Secretary James Mattis told President Trump at their meeting in Palm Beach.
None of the options are good, I am sure Defense Secretary James Mattis told President Donald Trump at their meeting in Palm Beach, Florida.
If there were good courses of action, he would have explained, they would have been exercised long ago. That’s the nature of the business we’ve chosen, as someone once said in another meeting in Florida.
So, first, to limber up, you chuck a bunch of sea-launched cruise missiles (also known as “slickems,” or SLCMs) at Syrian military airfields. That was done last night, and I would bet was just to keep them busy while you mull your next move.
But you can’t just leave it there — other wise you’re in former President Bill Clinton’s feckless position of responding to an atrocity by using million-dollar missiles to knock down plywood barracks and tents. Russian President Vladimir Putin got a heads-up, to get his guys out of the way, but that means the Syrians got it as well, and headed for the hills as well. (A Pentagon statement confirms that “Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line. U.S. military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.”) And that means last night’s strikes really didn’t punish the perpetrators. It punished a tarmac and a few empty bunkers.
Step two could be to declare a no-fly zone. But to do this, you need to take down the Syrian/Russian air defense system. That means a lot of air strikes, many of them against mobile targets that are hard to find and hit. It also runs the risk of killing Russian advisors. (Which might mean that it is time for Trump to cash in his chips with Putin, and say, “Hey, Vlad, you need to give your guys extended leave.”) You’ll also need Turkish cooperation — if not to fly strikes out of the Incirlik base near the Syrian border, at least to quietly base combat search-and-rescue operations from there, to retrieve any pilots who are downed, especially far from the coast.
But Mattis is known for his habit of pushing his civilian superiors to consider second and third-order consequences of contemplated actions. He also has expressed a preference to not take incremental escalations and instead go for knockout punches. In Iraq, for example, in the spring of 2004 he was ordered to pull back from Fallujah after fighting his way into the city. He didn’t like that order, having lost 39 marines and soldiers in the combat. He snarled to his superior in Iraq, General John Abizaid, profanely updating a comment of Napoleon’s, “If you’re going to take Vienna, take fucking Vienna.”
So it is possible that he might say that instead of going the no-fly route, Trump will aim for the root of the problem and conduct both airstrikes and Special Operations Forces raids against Syrian leadership, including everybody involved in ordering the use of chemical weapons. Air strikes alone are not necessarily effective, but the combination of air power and ground power can quickly reduce a foe’s options.
But what if you get lucky in a decapitation strike? What’s next? In other words, going bigly into Syria also can get you entangled pretty quickly.
Mattis also has been around the block a couple of times and understands that escalation is a two-way street. He may well ask the president to consider how Iran might react — and not just in Syria. Iran could quickly turn up the heat in Iraq, as it has done in the past. Mattis has noted in the past that “Bashar al-Assad has gotten the full support out of Tehran and out of Lebanese Hezbollah.”
What do you do then, Mr. President? Because you could find yourself in what Mattis once called “a full-throated, very, very serious war.”
I can just hear Trump’s reaction: “Wow, nobody knew military operations could be so complicated!” Mattis is a disciplined fellow and will not roll his eyes when he hears that.
Up to this point, I have written this item in a manner that treats our current situation as somewhat normal. So I want to state here, emphatically, that is it not. The best way to put it is that we, the American people, right now are governed by a child. He may look like an aging, overweight, hair-dyed man, but mentally and intellectually, he seems to me to be somewhere around 12 years old. As a reminder, here is a scorecard of the various brinks at which our nation now stands after his eleventh week in office:
Syria — The president says it crossed a red line.
North Korea — The president says stuff has to stop, one way or another.
Iran — Put on notice by General Flynn. (remember him?)
ISIS — The president says he’s going to wipe it out.
Germany — The president declined to shake its leader’s hand.
Photo credit: U.S. ROBERT S. PRICE/U.S. Navy/Department of Defense
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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