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
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.
Is escalation a danger? The answer is that Assad will attempt to retaliate no matter what we do. Impairing Assad’s cyber capability impedes his only strategic capability of striking back. It will prevent, not facilitate escalation. Either alone or with Iran, we should expect an effort. Iran may join Syria in launching such attacks. Iran is already implicated in attacks on Saudi Aramco, Qatar’s RasGas, the U.S. National Nuclear Safety Agency, the New York Times, JPMorgan and the Associated Press. By targeting military assets – notably command and control capabilities – the U.S. is limiting the scope of its retaliation while striking meaningfully. A cyber attack that impairs Assad’s offensive cyber capability serves vital U.S. security interests by suppressing the best strategic weapon that Assad can use—and has a willingness to employ—to strike back.
Bottom line: Use preparations for kinetic force as a feint to distract and confuse Assad, but cyber tools are what offer the opportunity to take strong action without getting caught in the vise of defining precisely what damage has been inflicted. The harm to Assad will be real and the message that U.S. warnings must be taken seriously will register with interested parties. One critical step that would strengthen this tactic is to secure the visible, active support from partner Arab nations. They can demonstrate support through public statements and by stationing their appropriate military representatives in the right command centers as attacks are launched. That can be achieved without breaching vital security protocols and it would strengthen our ability to make clear that the United States is acting in partnership with allies and not alone.
The Syrian conflict may be difficult. But having thrown down a gauntlet by declaring a red line exists, the United States needs to take action—but only action that has clear purpose, projects U.S. power, and achieves a defined result that advances our security interests.
James P. Farwell is an expert on cyber war and the author of Persuasion & Power (Georgetown University Press, 2012). Darby Arakelian is a former CIA officer and national-security expert. The opinions expressed are their own and do not represent those of the U.S. Government, or any of its agencies, departments, or COCOM. Rafal Rohozinski of the SecDev Group contributed to this op-ed.
Image: Flickr/Ioan Sameli. CC BY-SA 2.0.