The Buzz

Britain’s “Shock-and-Awe” Plan for Syria

When evidence emerged on August 21, 2013 that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime launched a series of lethal chemical weapons attacks on rebel-held towns outside of Damascus, President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pledged a firm response.  Nearly a week after the attacks that killed over 1,300 Syrians—many of whom were sleeping in their beds or cowering in basements to escape the middle of the night bombardment—Kerry stepped up to the State Department podium and was unequivocal in what the United States and the international community needed to do.  “This crime against conscience,” Kerry said at the time, “this crime against humanity, this crime against the most fundamental principles of international community, against the norm of the international community, this matters to us.  And it matters to who we are.  And it matters to leadership and to our credibility in the world.  My friends, it matters here if nothing is done.  It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens.”

Of course, nearly a year later, we now know that the U.S. did not take military action.  Bashar al-Assad was forced to give away his chemical arsenal—which for years he denied even existed—to international inspectors for destruction, and by doing so escaped a coordinated air campaign that would have degraded a significant portion of his military power.  Eleven months later, the war in Syria goes on, and Assad is clawing back territory that was once the exclusive domain of his armed opponents.

At the time, commentators and pundits from across the political spectrum speculated as to why President Obama decided to opt for a last-minute, Putin-orchestrated diplomatic deal that would largely save Assad from military punishment.  Republicans in Congress, led by Senator John McCain, argued (and continues to argue) that the president’s unwillingness to use U.S. military power when it’s most needed diminishes the credibility of the United States in the eyes of friend and foe alike.  Obama was called gun-shy, naïve, too cautious for his own good, or simply overwhelmed by the world around him. 

Equally important, however, was the fact that America’s strongest ally across the Atlantic, Great Britain, opted out of an anti-Assad air operation as Washington and a good chunk of Europe’s capitals were debating whether military force was required to send a message.  Prime Minister David Cameron, a man who assumed that he could convince his colleagues that British involvement in a humanitarian mission was a necessity, failed to gain the votes in the House of Commons.  In a blink of an eye, the discussion for intervention in Washington became even more intense, and proponents for military action inside the Obama administration saw their position losing momentum as America’s indispensable partner decided to stay out of any operation.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we are all now afforded to opportunity to discover that the Syria debate in London was far more comprehensive than original thought.  In fact, if recent reporting is accurate (there is no reason to doubt that it isn’t), some British military officials were more muscular and innovative on the Syria problem than some of their counterparts in the United States.

Courtesy of the good investigative work compiled by the BBC’s Newsnight program, we now learn that political and military leaders in Britain were actively considering a more aggressive and hawkish policy towards the Syrian civil war as early as 2012—a time when the Assad regime was at its most vulnerable as thousands of Syrian troops were deserting to the other side.  From the BBC:

“The UK drew up plans to train and equip a 100,000-strong Syrian rebel army to defeat President Bashar al-Assad, BBC Newsnight can reveal. The secret initiative, put forward two years ago, was the brainchild of the then most senior UK military officer, General Sir David Richards..." 

"...With ministers having pledged not to commit British "boots on the ground", his initiative proposed vetting and training a substantial army of moderate Syrian rebels at bases in Turkey and Jordan. Mr. Cameron was told the "extract, equip, train" plan would involve an international coalition. It would take a year, but this would buy time for an alternative Syrian government to be formed in exile, the PM was told. Once the Syrian force was ready, it would march on Damascus, with the cover of fighter jets from the West and Gulf allies. The plan envisaged a "shock and awe" campaign, similar to the one that routed Saddam's military in 2003, but spearheaded by Syrians.”

General Richard’s strategy was serious enough to be pushed through the chain-of-command, where the British National Security Council discussed the merits and practicality of the plan and whether it could be implemented without any significant risk to western personnel and the security of the region. 

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