Healthy Skepticism on Syria
The mainstream media headlines, with slight variations, predict that an attack against Syrian targets by US missiles could occur as early as Thursday. The UK and France are lobbying hard for action because of the alleged chemical attack.
Numerous pundits and experts have expounded on the need for the US to take action, the consequences of inaction, and the potential for a US attack to generate a regional conventional war. (Curiously, they have not mentioned the probability of Iranian-instigated terrorist attacks in the US.)
I have little to add to all that "wisdom," but prefer to comment instead on matters not covered.
The "bugs and gas" (biological and chemical warfare) contingent in the US intelligence community contains fine people who get few opportunities to shine. That's because of the limits of intelligence on bugs and gas. Next to nukes (nuclear weapons) they are the most protected weapons a country, such as Syria and North Korea, has.
As a result, studies of national capabilities and stock piles of bugs and gas are notoriously suspect, but err on the side of caution because a little goes a long way. As a result, the record of predictive accuracy tends to be poor. That record includes the inaccurate judgments about various weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003.
The detection of actual use of bugs and gas agents and of the specific agents used, as during the last year of the Iran-Iraq War, is even harder. It always requires reliable and competently educated and specially trained investigators on the ground at the site. Actual use cannot be inferred from radio intercepts or any other indirect or remotely collected information source.
A second observation derives from the Russian use of a chemical agent in 2002 when Chechen terrorists held more than 800 Russian hostages in a Moscow theater. The Russians used a crowd suppression agent that killed 116 people, but enabled 650 to be rescued. The agent is not banned by the Geneva convention on chemical warfare.
If the Syrians used such an agent, which can be delivered by mortars and artillery as well as aircraft, there would be no international legal justification for attacking Syria based on the Geneva convention; it would not have been violated. The possibility that a non-banned substance was used makes it all the more urgent that competent investigators inspect the sites to identify the agent as well as the culprit.
A third observation is that the use of lethal gas is notoriously and inherently dangerous, often depending on the weather and the delivery system. It can blow back, in some instances, for miles. That is why military forces do not use it. [Case in point is the German use of chlorine gas in WWI, which killed many French colonial troops on the first use, but killed many Germans in their trenches when a change in wind blew it back upon them the second time around.]
A fourth observation from feedback [to previous columns] from chemical warfare experts is that lethal gas kills effectively. There are no large numbers of people left alive but suffering. Victims die by the thousands. Survivors are few, if any. That is the lesson of Iraq's use of such weapons at Hallabjah against the Kurds and later against the Iranians. Casualty reports from Syria are precisely opposite of the lethality pattern in a chemical weapon attack.
A fifth observation is that US media have given Syrian forces more than enough warning about an impending action to enable them to protect themselves and their weapons. Leaks about US attack plans represent either monumental incompetence in operational security or a deliberate effort to tip off the Syrians for arcane political purposes.
In either event, the leaks ensure that Syrian military forces will suffer no significant damage from a US attack. An attack under these conditions must be considered entertainment for the benefit of the international press instead of a serious military operation.
As for Syrian defense capabilities, Syria has a respectable integrated air defense system, but the Israelis have defeated it thrice in the past year. It poses no serious impediment to a missile or air attack except to the unwary or unlucky.
Syria has supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles that have a range of 300 nm. Syria will use them if it can acquire the US destroyers off its coast.
As for the value of limited punitive strikes, Syria already has shown that it can withstand limited, genuinely surgical, punitive attacks by the Israeli air force. The Israelis have attacked three times in the past 18 months and the Syrians have not retaliated. Apparently that is because the Israeli attacks have had no demonstrable impact on Hizballah's operations or Syria's prosecution of the fight against the opposition.
Syria is in an existential battle. Surgical, pin prick NATO attacks are trivial compared to the prospect of Syrian forces destroying the rebel concentrations east of Damascus. This means Syria might not retaliate for a US attack, but just continue to prosecute the fight. Iran and Lebanese Hizballah are the more dangerous sources of retaliation.
As for ripple effects, Iran is so heavily invested in the survival of the government in Syria that US and NATO planners must plan for retaliatory attacks in Western Europe, in the US, in the Persian Gulf states and everywhere the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force has a presence. Iran's responses will depend on the damage inflicted on Syria.
Concerning leading from behind, American audiences apparently are not aware that in Libya and in Mali, Western European air forces were unable to sustain combat flight and logistics operations without comprehensive US support, from intelligence to mission planning to all types of resupply. Some US military personnel are resentful because they received so little recognition for so much effort to compensate for European NATO lack of capabilities.
The notion of leading from behind is a political and media myth. NATO is incapable of sustaining any but the most elementary level of air combat for a minimal amount of time without comprehensive US support. That means the feel-good notion of a coalition of the willing is actually a cover term for US military operations with minimal NATO help for window dressing. This is not a criticism, it is a fact of European economics.
John F. McCreary is the Chief Analysis Officer for Kforce Government Solutions (KGS) and the author of Nightwatch, an overnight executive summary and analysis of developments in world events . McCreary has more than 42 years of experience as a professional analyst and is a distinguished 38 year veteran of defense intelligence. McCreary joined the Defense Intelligence Agency in 1968 as an intelligence analyst specializing in Chinese language and studies. Between 1980 and 1992 he was the senior analyst and Director, National Warning Staff, Office of the Director of Central Intelligence. This excerpt appears courtesy of KGS.