What President Obama Won't Tell You About the Syrian Operation

The U.S. is about to give the green light to another operation in the Middle East, but there are several questions that haven't been clarified for the public. For example, we have been told that the strikes aim to degrade Assad's ability to use chemical weapons, but it remains a mystery what the specific targets are. Specialists say there could be four types of potential targets for the U.S.:

1. Airstrips. The infrastructure for delivery of chemical weapons needs to be disrupted, including airstrips, airplanes, and helicopters.

2. Elite military divisions. U.S. missiles are likely to target Syria's elite units, on whom President Assad has relied for more than two years.

3. Facilities used to deploy chemical weapons. This would be tricky as Assad owns huge quantities of chemical weapons and launchers, and they are constantly relocated. What's more important is that the chemical weapons themselves are not targeted, as subsequent contamination would be unavoidable. 

4. Syria's rocket and artillery sites. 

Here's how the scene looks on the map:


Via The Wall Street Journal

(You can find an interactive map here with more details.)

So as it turns out, the operation to punish Assad for alleged use of chemical weapons would target pretty much everything except the chemical weapons themselves. Syrian officials have announced that they have already started to evacuate the army's command and control compounds. So Assad is not sitting around and waiting for the intervention, but in fact is anticipating and getting ready for it. However, if the Assad government's military infrastructure is destroyed or weakened, rebels will have easier access to the stockpiles of chemical weapons. There is evidence that rebels possess facilities to launch a chemical attack, so the Syrian campaign as it is might benefit the rebels in a way that the Obama administration expects least of all.

President Obama has promised a "limited, narrow act" with "no boots on the ground," but this doesn't explain how limited options the United States' options are in reality. The U.S. cannot afford the level of casualties that marked the 2003 Iraq war. The upcoming intervention will be free of any serious tactical aviation, and Joint Direct Attack Munition will not be used. The operation will rely on long-range cruise missiles and will bear a resemblance to the 1998 bombing of Iraq by the U.S. and the UK (Operation Desert Fox).

Back then, Iraq failed to comply with UN Security Council resolutions, which resulted in a four-day bombing campaign. In 1998, sea-launched Tomahawks were mostly used, which resulted in high weapons costs but no human losses for the Pentagon. So it is largely believed that in order to make the operation against Syria effective the U.S. would need to spend a lot of money of cruise missiles.

Hypothetically, the operation may succeed, if you don't take into account that the U.S. needs to take down Syrian air defense — one of the strongest components of the Syrian military. Although there are mixed messages saying that the strength of the Syrian air defense may be largely overestimated, it still remains a key issue. 

Just as the 1998 campaign in Iraq didn't solve the problem and had no effect on the country's WMD infrastructure, the operation against Syria is unlikely to succeed. The operation will fall short of stopping the civil war, there are doubts that the Assad regime will be weakened without the imposition of a no-fly zone, chemical weapons will still be there, and it will be a matter of time until they are used again either by the government or rebels.

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Yuri Barmin

Yury holds an MPhil in International Relations from Cambridge University and currently works as a political analyst. Yury's interests include politics of the Middle East and Russia.

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