Syria and the Israeli Way of War

Paul Pillar

After it looked this past weekend like President Obama might have an uphill fight to gain Congressional approval for a resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria, the odds now appear to have swung in favor of passage of a resolution. This swing is due less to John Kerry's passionate “Munich moment” exhortations than to the fact that the Israel lobby has entered the fray, openly and explicitly, in favor of intervention. AIPAC made it official on Tuesday. The Israeli government may have the deciding vote on the matter before Congress, not so much because it appears to have been the source of intelligence that the Obama administration is relying on to make a case tying the chemical incident two weeks ago to the Assad regime (although there are interesting questions to be raised about that) but because members of Congress anticipating their next re-election campaign will be thinking about what type of vote Benjamin Netanyahu's government desires, a criterion that routinely gets equated in American political discourse with “support for Israel.”

A few days ago some were saying that a measure of political courage in the coming vote in Congress would be to buck the plurality of American public opinion, among followers of both parties, that opposes military intervention in Syria. Now a better measure would be to buck the preference of the lobby. As we have seen innumerable times before, one should not expect to see a lot of that type of courage.

Those voting in favor of a military attack should be aware that such a resort to armed force, in the very ways it would be quite consistent with how Israel has long pursued its objectives in the Middle East, would be inconsistent with a couple of the major themes in what the Obama administration has been saying in making its case. One is the theme that any U.S. military action would be strictly limited in duration as well as intensity. Neither the administration nor anyone else has adequately explained how this can be assured if subsequent escalation or retaliation from the other side follows a U.S. strike. As California Republican Ed Royce observed in a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday, “the Assad regime would have a say in what happens next.” For Israel, the country that developed “mowing the lawn” into a foundation of national security strategy, this is not a worry. One simply mows the lawn again...and again. For the United States, the question is whether it wants to involve itself in this kind of endless warfare.

Another major theme in the administration's case concerns upholding international norms of behavior. But no one has explained how violation of one of the most fundamental international norms—against attacking another sovereign state if the attack is not in self-defense or under the sanction of the United Nations Security Council—is a blow in favor of norm-upholding. Here again, this is not a quandary for Israel, which has long flouted the non-aggression norm as it has gone about its repeated lawn-mowing in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and elsewhere. As for the United Nations, Israeli policymakers gave up on it long ago as a lost cause, worth paying attention to only when it is time to squeeze another veto out of the United States at the Security Council or to make a fuss about someone else wanting to join the world organization. For the United States, the norm in question still has much value, at least as great as any of the norms having to do more narrowly with particularly types of unconventional weapons.

As for those unconventional weapons, here the Israeli way of doing things has been to dispense with international conventions, inspection regimes, and peaceful ways to pursue arms control and nonproliferation objectives. Instead, it has again been a matter of unilateral application of military force. Israel has, of course, long rejected any international cooperation, transparency, or honesty when it comes to its arsenal of nuclear weapons. As for chemical weapons, 189 states are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention; Israel is one of only seven states (along with Syria) that is not. The United States, which has been a major player in erecting the international structures dedicated to the peaceful pursuit of arms control and disarmament, still has a major interest in those structures and would lose much by in effect chucking them and what they represent and instead just turning to the gun.

A broader and more general way of posing the question the U.S. Congress now faces is: does the United States want to follow its powerful and privileged Israeli client on a path that not only brushes aside international law, international organization, and the peaceful pursuit of international objectives but also entails perpetual warfare, much isolation, and all of the costs and risks that go with that? The current Israeli government has chosen that path for itself; why would the United States want to take the same path?

As always with the Netanyahu government, the issue of Iran looms large. Netanyahu and his colleagues evidently have calculated, probably accurately, that a U.S. attack on Syria would serve their objectives of keeping the Iran issue boiling (and thus serving their further purposes of distracting international attention from issues directly involving Israel and precluding Iran ever becoming, in competition with Israel, a partner of the United States), diminishing the chance for a negotiated agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, and increasing the chance of a future U.S. military attack on Iran. In addition to wanting a U.S. attack on Syria that would provide ammunition to Iranian hardliners resisting agreement-facilitating concessions to the West, the Israeli government does not want a Congressional outcome on Syria that would make it harder to push through in the future an authorization to use military force against Iran. After all, if Congress were to say no to military action when a regime not only possesses a banned and abhorred weapon but has actually used it to lethal effect, how could it be expected to say yes with a different regime that has never owned or used the feared weapon, has not made any decision to build it, and where the only rationale for an attack would be that this regime has a program that maybe, someday, might help it to build such a weapon if it ever were to take the decision it has not taken?

There is a another dimension about Israel and Iran that is based on Netanyahu's already well-established image of someone itching to pull Israel's own military trigger and attack Iran. This image has been supplemented by much commentary in Israel in recent days to the effect that Obama's supposed wavering on Syria—by throwing the issue to Congress—demonstrates how on a matter as important as Iran, Israel must rely on no one other than itself. All this gives rise to the argument, which is likely to sway some members of Congress, that if the United States does not reassure Netanyahu by taking a firm line about using military force and smiting Syria, the Israeli prime minister is apt to start a new war with Iran.

So Netanyahu's incessant saber-rattling on Iran is increasing the chance of the United States going to war against Syria, which in turn would increase his ability to sell a future U.S. war against Iran. That game works well for Netanyahu. It is an awful game for the United States.

TopicsArms ControlCongressDomestic PoliticsUNDefensePublic OpinionThe PresidencyNuclear ProliferationWMD RegionsIsraelIranUnited StatesSyria

The Coming Congressional Debate on Syria

Paul Pillar

President Obama's referral of the Syria question to Congress should not have come as a surprise. This president is not avidly seeking direct U.S. involvement in another Middle Eastern war. He is moving to do something forceful about Syria largely because he has been pressured to do something forceful about Syria. It is not surprising that he seeks as much buy-in as possible from the legislative branch. He and his political advisers also will be able to watch how this issue intensifies intramural tussles among Republicans.

Besides any reasons for the referral that may please the president's political advisers, there are good reasons that ought to please any American citizen. Involving the legislative branch on this important decision is, just as the president said in his statement on Saturday, the way a constitutional democracy ought to operate. A Congressional debate and vote on whether or not to authorize the use of military force against Syria will be an encouraging step that will, at least for the moment, reverse the discouraging atrophy of Congress's war-making power.

There also are some early signs that the debate will go beyond surface rationales and delve into some of the more important implications of the proposed use of military force. Although there is still too much focus on one reported use of an unconventional weapon, some members have explicitly acknowledged that an empirical question about a chemical weapons incident is different from the policy question of whether it makes sense to apply U.S. military force in Syria.

Another war and another vote eleven years ago weighs heavily, of course, on the minds of members as they consider the current issue. There is nothing wrong with that. Although some may consider the stewing of politicians over how they decided to fight the last war to be just as bad and backward-looking as generals preparing to fight the last war, it isn't. It is healthy for Congress and for U.S. policy for members to strive consciously to avoid the pathologies that led to the Iraq War. Just about any deliberative process about whether to employ military force will be an improvement on what happened before that earlier war, when there was no such process at all in the executive branch and only a perfunctory one in the legislative branch. This time there even will be committee hearings, which never took place before the Iraq War.

Congress being Congress, however, let us not get too high our hopes for care and profundity in the deliberative process that is about to begin. Some of the most important complexities of this issue do not lend themselves well to sound bites or easily understood positions in a re-election campaign.  When a resolution authorizing military force comes to a vote, members will cast what is described as a “vote of conscience.” But like all their votes, it will be at least as much a vote of politics. There are many different political games that will get played with the Syria issue. Perhaps what we should hope for most is that even some games that are played for the wrong reasons will have the effect of promoting an outcome that minimizes damage to the national interest.

One thinks in this regard of the habit of some Republican members to oppose anything that Barack Obama has proposed. If such a habit can go to the extreme it has with health care reform—over a plan that was more of a Republican idea before Obama made it his signature domestic program, and is now the law of the land—it will not be surprising if some members one might otherwise assume would be hawkish, quick-on-the-trigger Assad-haters will vote against what would be one of Obama's biggest foreign-policy actions.

Working in the other direction will be the perennial elephant in the room on anything Congress does regarding the Middle East: the Israeli government and its lobby in Washington. The upheaval in Syria has involved a mixture of concerns for Israel, but the principal Israeli objective that seems to be most engaged in the U.S. handling of the Syria question is to sustain hostility toward Iran and to undermine prospects for an agreement with Tehran. A U.S. military intervention in Syria probably would help to serve that Israeli purpose by making it politically harder for President Rouhani and his allies to make concessions to the United States and the West that would be necessary to reach agreement on Iran's nuclear program (notwithstanding what may be a broadly shared Iranian dismay over the use of chemical weapons in Syria).

How all this nets out on Capitol Hill is uncertain, and the current betting line seems to place about even odds on either passage or rejection of a resolution authorizing the use of military force. Suppose the resolution fails; what would Obama do then?—a question he understandably declined to answer when it was shouted at him after his statement last Saturday. A negative vote certainly would be viewed immediately as a significant political embarrassment and setback for the president. This is mainly what underlies commentary to the effect that Obama has taken a risk by calling for a Congressional vote. This president, however, may perceive even greater risks in going ahead and attacking Syria after a rejection by Congress. These would include not only the domestic risks of flouting—in stark contrast to David Cameron in Britain—the will of the people's elected representatives, but also the considerable risks of an attack leading to deeper, more costly, and ultimately ineffective involvement in the Syrian civil war. So the president might at that point say, “I tried, but Congress has spoken, and I respect the decision of Congress.” If that happens, political motives and sound foreign policy calculation will have combined to produce the outcome least damaging to the national interest.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsThe PresidencyWMD RegionsIsraelIranIraqUnited StatesSyria

Where Politicized Intelligence Comes From

Paul Pillar

An Associated Press story on the Obama administration's preparation of the public for a military strike on Syria includes these statements:

The White House ideally wants intelligence that links the attack [with chemical weapons last week] directly to Assad or someone in his inner circle, to rule out the possibility that a rogue element of the military acting without Assad's authorization.

That quest for added intelligence has delayed the release of the report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence laying out evidence against Assad...

The CIA and the Pentagon have been working to gather more human intelligence tying Assad to the attack...

When one hears that policy-makers want not just intelligence on a particular subject but intelligence that supports a particular conclusion about that subject, antennae ought to go up. A “quest” for conclusion-bolstering material is fundamentally different from an open-minded use of intelligence to inform policy decisions yet to be made. It is instead a matter of making a public (and Congressional) case to support a decision already made.

These two different uses of intelligence constitute markedly different working environments for intelligence officers. The great majority of those officers strive to arrive at their best and most objective judgments given the incomplete information available to them. They also are human beings. When they are called on to interpret sketchy and ambiguous data, and when they know that the people for whom they work seek support for a particular conclusion, it should not be surprising if that knowledge affects their interpretations, even if only at some sub-conscious level.

We have, unfortunately and tragically, been through this before. When in 1964 analysts at the National Security Agency were called upon to interpret ambiguous, fragmentary signals intelligence and to assess whether the North Vietnamese navy had attacked U.S. destroyers on a dark night in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin, the analysts knew that the administration of Lyndon Johnson wanted the answer to that question to be yes, to justify the opening shots in what turned out to be an eight-year U.S. military expedition in Vietnam. The analysts said an attack had occurred. They were wrong.

Eleven years ago, when intelligence analysts were called on to make judgments about Iraqi unconventional weapons programs, it was crystal clear that the administration of George W. Bush strongly wanted a particular answer to the question posed, to win public support for the extraordinary step of launching a major offensive war. Senior members of the administration, most notably the vice president, had even already publicly announced their own answer to the question. The rest of that story is too well known to require retelling here. There is still resistance to the idea that the very intense policy preference influenced the judgments of intelligence officers, but thorough review of the circumstances—and major portions of books have been written on the subject—make it hard to avoid the conclusion that it did.

Any mention of the Iraq War requires the immediate caveat that there are very big differences between that piece of history and what the current administration is doing regarding Syria, and not just in that a major offensive war is not what the current office-holders apparently are seeking. The selling of the Iraq War was an especially egregious instance of policy-makers themselves politicizing intelligence, to the extent of manufacturing almost out of whole cloth a fictitious “alliance” between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda and creating a unit dedicated not only to pushing that theme but also to discrediting contrary judgments by the intelligence community. Nothing like that appears to be happening in the Obama administration.

Moreover, the language quoted from the Associated Press report may be the choice of the AP reporters and editors more than a direct reflection of administration thinking. Nonetheless, there is other evidence that a decision to take some sort of military action against Syria in the near future has in effect already been made.

The observations above should be kept in mind whenever any intelligence-based case about Syria is presented to the public. This does not mean the case is necessarily invalid. Even if policy-makers want a particular answer, that answer might still be correct. But the human dynamics of the intelligence-policy relationship in a situation of public case-making provide an important perspective in assessing the case.

Two other thoughts should be coupled with this perspective. The more important one is to remember that an intelligence question such as what some state has done with a certain class of weapons is quite different from the policy question of whether it is wise to do something such as intervening in a foreign war. Unfortunately Americans have gotten into the bad habit of treating these two questions as equivalent. This is a lazy and politically convenient way to dumb down a policy debate. No matter how iron-clad a case there may be regarding what the Assad regime has done with chemical weapons, that begs the question of whether U.S. military action in Syria is advisable.  And in this case it is not.

The other, lesser, thought is to have some sympathy for the intelligence officers who are put into the difficult position of serving as involuntary substitutes for well-reasoned policy debate when this sort of dumbing-down occurs. When forced into the policy-justification mode rather than policy-informing mode, those officers are being made to perform a function they were not trained to do and did not sign up to do. That is bad for the intelligence-policy relationship, just as it is bad for the objective of arriving at sound policy.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsPsychologyIntelligenceWMD RegionsIraqUnited StatesSyria

Barack W. Bush: Unilateral War In Syria

Jacob Heilbrunn

Barack W. Bush. Joe Cheney. Here they come. Girded for a war that the British took one look at and bailed out on before it even began. Announcing that they are prepared to go it alone. Who said that unilateralism went away with George W. Bush?

Obama said acting unilaterally was a bad thing when he campaigned for office in 2008. That was then. Obama, who has followed in Bush's footsteps on national security surveillance measures, as the Washington Post's extensive revelations about the reach of government spy agencies show today, is about to go to war again.

Vice-president Joe Biden sounds like Cheney redivivus when he declares that there is "no doubt" that Bashar al-Assad authorized the use of weapons of mass destruction. All that's missing is a reference to yellow cake or the claim that this enterprise will be a cake walk. Meanwhile, the White House is engaging in magisterial Bush-speak, invoking the defense of the homeland: "The president of the United States is elected with the duty to protect the national security interests in the United States of America," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. Well, yes. But this dodges the real question, which is: Will he be protecting America's national security interests by attacking Syria? Or will he undermine them?

The strongest case for launching an attack centers on American crediblity and international norms. The shadow of the 1936 Italian invasion of Abyssinia when Mussolini employed chemical weapons and the League of Nations proved toothless looms large here. Writing in the Financial Times, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations,  says that strikes against airfields and a promise to supply moderate opposition forces would be a punitive response that "sends the message that use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated and will be costly for the regime." But the Obama administration is simply asserting that it has the authority to embark on one and that Americans should trust its asseverations about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. As Obama put it, "we do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable."

Both Democratic and Republican legislators remain skeptical. As the Los Angeles Times observes, "Lawmakers have become increasingly vocal on the need for congressional authorization of military action, and more than 160 House lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, have signed letters demanding a vote in Congress." Maybe Obama can't make the case because he doesn't wholly believe it in himself. Obama himself has clearly been reluctant to embroil the United States in the Syrian conflict.

Thus his own plan for intervention seems quite limited--no no-fly-zone, no troops on the ground. It is more, you could say, about what it is not than about what it is. Which has frustrated the liberal hawks and neocons. Charles Krauthammer, for example, says that Obama is being shamed into war and needs to do more: "If Obama is planning a message-sending three-day attack, preceded by leaks telling the Syrians to move their important military assets to safety, better that he do nothing. Why run the considerable risk if nothing important is changed?"

In 2002 Obama called Iraq a "dumb war." Is this one any smarter?

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

The Smart Way to Bomb Syria

The Buzz

It now appears that America’s entry into the Syrian civil war is inevitable. The crucial question now is not whether this is a good idea, but what our goals are and how our imminent use of force can best achieve them. The popular purpose proffered for the pending war is punishment—that is, to inflict harm on the Assad regime over its reprehensible chemical attack on its own people. On one hand, this is remarkably easy to achieve—the first measure of a successful punishment is that it is proportionate to the offense, so we merely need to inflict as much harm on Assad as we think is appropriate, and we have succeeded. On the other hand, punishment is a highly unusual goal for a war. Morally, it is unusual (and risky) that we are assuming the power to judge and mete out punishments to other states—this power is normally exercised by a sovereign authority, and it is an empirical fact that we do not exercise sovereignty over Syria. Strategically, it is unusual as war, per Clausewitz’s classic definition, normally aims to make the enemy do what you want. If our intent is to punish Syria, no action is required of the Syrian government besides “being punished”—we wage war against it as an object, and do not ask anything of it in return. A war like that would not even be strategic.

So the goal is really more complicated—we aim to prevent as much as we aim to punish. By harming the Syrians, we hope that other states will hesitate to use chemical weapons. And we hope that the Syrians won’t use chemical weapons yet again. The former goal requires that our attack be brutal and effective enough that others would fear it. It’ll be hard to do that with the three days of cruise missiles that the Obama administration is hinting at.

But the latter goal is far harder. The Syrian government uses chemical weapons because the rebels threaten its survival. The United States needs to create a comparable threat if it wants Assad to think twice. Yet for now we aren’t attempting regime change, and a three-day war probably won’t give the rebels a decisive advantage. (Indeed, one anonymous official told the Los Angeles Times that the attack would be “just muscular enough not to get mocked.... just enough to be more than symbolic.”) Assad has already lost half his country—we’d have to endanger a lot to hold his attention, and few in America want a war big enough to do that, or even want a war at all.

All is not lost. There are other ways to create near-existential fear. As Lincoln Bloomfield has pointed out, the Alawite elite that stands behind Assad has suffered relatively little, especially in its coastal homeland. Attacks there might have little significance to the broader civil war, but could reshape the internal discussion and create support for a negotiated settlement—America’s broader goal in Syria. Our expectations must be bounded, though. The Alawites rightly fear that an Assad defeat would see them driven, with savage violence, into a pathetic rump state behind the coastal mountains. It’ll take a lot to convince them to negotiate—a lot of force and a lot of confidence in their own diplomacy. But attacking them in their homeland offers a key advantage: compared to many other options, it is less likely to turn the tide of the war in favor of, say, Al Qaeda sympathizers among the rebels, but more likely to alter Assad’s calculations.

A second option is to directly target those involved in the chemical attacks, and other members of the security elite. There’s some evidence that Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother, commanded the recent atrocities. As head of a Syrian military unit, he’s a perfectly legitimate target in war. Yet individuals are notoriously hard to target, so while an attempt on his life should be made, other actions will be necessary. The units implicated in the chemical attacks should be struck viciously and without mercy. This fits the war’s punitive rhetoric, and could give pause to those ordered to carry out future chemical attacks. Such an attack will be difficult to carry out by cruise missile—ground-attack aircraft, supported by live intelligence from JSTARS and drone aircraft, would be more effective. (And surrounded by other Syrian divisions, the targeted units wouldn’t even be able to surrender, Iraqi Army-style, to their aerial attackers.)

Destroying Assad’s air defenses is worth serious consideration, as the three-day war probably won’t achieve its goal. We’ll most likely have to go back. Leaving Assad more vulnerable to a broader follow-up attack, this time by aircraft, will amplify whatever message we manage to send by making that follow-up attack easier and cheaper for us. On the other hand, it is unwise at this stage to destroy Assad’s air force. This is counterintuitive, given how important the air force is to his regime’s survival. But if our goal is to prevent Syria from using chemical weapons again, destroying his primary alternative to chemical weapons would be foolish. Further, leaving a fair share of his air force intact leaves him with something to lose—again amplifying our message. (Of course, if follow-up attacks do become necessary, much of the air force would have to be destroyed for the safety of our own pilots.)

In spite of all this, we cannot escape that Assad enjoys strategic advantages. We’ve signaled that we (rightly) aren’t willing to become deeply involved in Syria’s war. Assad, with his back to the wall, has a vastly greater pain tolerance than us. He can also attempt to use the war to his advantage—for example, by launching new chemical attacks in rebel-held areas he’s wanted to hit, and then announcing that the American campaign had caused their accidental release. He won’t want to provoke the United States too much (a broader war is still bad for him), but he’ll have many ways to retaliate through proxies and asymmetric methods (terrorism, etc.). This will inflict pain on us and our allies, but it will be harder for us to respond to than a naked Syrian attack.

Iran holds the strongest hand of all in this conflict. A U.S. entanglement in Syria couldn’t be better for Tehran. No matter how deeply involved we become, we’re unlikely to achieve outright victory. And the more deeply involved we become, the less power (military and diplomatic) we’ll have to wield against Iran. Israel will be left essentially alone in its stand against the Islamic Republic’s advancing nuclear program. Tying up America for even a year or two could be decisive, giving Iran enough time to develop a robust nuclear breakout capability, a capability that would leave it much less vulnerable to the United States—and especially to a United States left even more war-weary than it is now. Accordingly, we must be on guard for Iranian actions in and near Syria that aim to lure us deeper and keep us around for more than the White House’s scheduled three days of conflict.

The complexities of the situation and the numerous unfavorable dynamics mean that the Weekend War probably won’t achieve its goals, and may expose us to new dangers. Yet if we’re going to do this, we should do it right.

Image: Flickr/Steve Jurvetson. CC BY 2.0.

TopicsDefenseFailed StatesGreat PowersHumanitarian InterventionMilitary StrategyRogue StatesState of the MilitarySecurity RegionsSyria