A Better Syria Option: Cyber War

It's time to unsheath America's newest weapon.

As Congress debates strikes against Syria for using chemical weapons against its own people, much attention has focused on using cruise missiles for limited strikes. The risks are evident. Will these be seen as a delayed, empty gesture that inflicts little damage but prods Bashar Assad into stepping up further attacks? Would casualties inflicted merely deepen bitterness between the sides and fuel the bloody conflict? Having declared use of chemical weapons a red line, will limited U.S. action convince other parties—notably Iran, China and Russia—that American threats should be taken seriously?

The United States must, as Steve Yates has observed, act with a sense of purpose and power. We must define the goal. Merely punishing Assad raises a problem. Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken powerfully and eloquently on why Assad should be punished. But a 1994 U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs reported that the United States approved shipments to Saddam Hussein of materials that can be used in the production of biological weapons during his war with Iran. Make no mistake. No matter what they say today, any strike aimed at punishing this Arab regime for will draw criticism from Arabs and others as hypocrisy. That holds especially true if U.S. bombing or missile strikes result in Arab deaths or injury.

A goal of weakening the regime risks drawing the United States into the center of the conflict. For over a year, we have cautioned that the enemies of our enemy may not be our friends. We must tread carefully. Any use of force must define how far the United States is willing to go. There’s good reason Winston Churchill noted that sound foreign policy is driven by interests, not friendship. Our key strategic interest lies in ensuring that Assad’s formidable arsenal of chemical weapons does not get loose. That poses a threat to the international community. Israel has rightly said that any effort to transfer those weapons is cause for war. Here surfaces another problem.

The United States has declared it won’t put American boots on the ground. But containing Assad’s WMD arsenal may well require special operations that almost certainly would require intervention by special forces, even if in tandem with Arab partner states.

These considerations mandate that any strike—whether to punish, deter or weaken Assad—eschew what the military terms “kinetic” strikes (e.g., using missiles or bombs) in favor of cyber attacks. Taking out Assad’s air force and making his runways unusable might be a meaningful option, but there seems no realistic possibility the United States will opt for that. Well-targeted cyber attacks will send Assad and interested parties a strong message that we’re serious and put a meat axe into his command-and-control capabilities by sowing confusion, distrust, and chaos into those systems. The key is to direct attacks against Syrian cyber assets. That means find, fix, and finish activities against Syrian Electronic Army operatives – many of whom operate outside of Syria in the Gulf and Maghreb countries – and who can be identified and taken off the battlefield.

Rafal Rohozinski, whose firm the SecDev Group monitors Internet activity in Syria, has it right in observing: “The Syrian conflict is the world’s first cyber civil war. Cyber communications are central to strategy and tactics employed by both Assad and the rebels.” They are used for command and control; to maneuver forces for operations and tactical engagements; for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; for psychological warfare; and to influence and shape attitudes, opinions and behavior among their own audiences and both Syrian and international audiences.

Says Rohozinski: “It’s hard to overstate how heavily both sides depend upon cyber tools to articulate their narrative, stories, themes and message. The war has integrated kinetic and information warfare tactics in unprecedented ways. And while striving to make their own voices heard, each side has battled vigorously to silence the other.” Both sides make heavy use of Facebook, Skype and YouTube.

Assad’s most prominent cyber tool is the Syrian Electronic Army, which only last week claimed responsibility for hacking a U.S. Marine Corps website. The SEA wages social media war at home and against nations like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The regime employs smaller groups for other cyber attacks. The regime has mounted a huge effort to shut down rebel cyber efforts used for tactical, kinetic operations, as well as to discredit the regime.

Cyber attack is ideal for undercutting Assad’s ability to execute strategy, operations, and tactics. Unlike missiles or bombs, it is very unlikely to kill or physically injure anyone. The damage from a cyber attack may be repairable, but the impairment of cyber capabilities can significantly undercut the ability of Assad’s forces to operate effectively. That is merely one line of operation that cyber tools offer. We have many additional cyber options that can be used as appropriate.

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