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Here Is What a U.S. Attack on Syria Would Look Like

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s alleged chemical weapons attack on his own people last month provoked President Barack Obama's use-of-force resolution in Congress, but if the United States should strike Syria, its goal probably will not be to blow up lots of chemical agent (a self-evidently hazardous proposition) or even to focus on facilities related to such weapons. For all the special horror of chemical weapons deployment, the Ghouta attack was responsible at the most for one percent of the casualties of Syria’s two-year civil war. The latest tea leaves suggest an eventual U.S. strike would be broader in scope than merely hobbling chemical-weapons infrastructure—or at least should be broader, according to several military experts.

Particularly now that it is accountable to Congress, the administration must thread the needle between the majority, who at best are skeptical of military involvement in Syria and want any such involvement to be short-lived, and a few crucial hawks who worry that the administration will not do enough damage to make the strike worthwhile. “If it’s going to be a limited strike, you’re better served changing the risk calculus of the regime and the environment it operates in,” said Michael Eisenstadt, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He added, “I would prefer something larger rather than smaller, with the understanding that we’re doing this to avoid getting sucked in further.”

Over the past week the administration has broadened its target list in a way that strongly suggests it has re-imagined the attack. Where previously it envisioned a limited strike aimed primarily at symbolically responding to the regime’s violation of international norms, it now appears to envision a more substantial strike aimed at doing real damage to the regime’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future and even, potentially, to its ability to fight the rebels. “It is obvious the plan is changing,” said the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Anthony H. Cordesman. “It began with a look at six facilities, which probably make both delivery systems and chemical weapons, and politically visible targets. Over the last few days, it is apparent the target list is broadening.”

Looking at two New York Times articles published just a week apart provides a nice narrative for the administration’s evolving conception of an attack.

One week ago, the paper reported—under the headline, “Aim of U.S. Attack: Restore a ‘Red Line’ That Became Blurred”—that the strike would be narrowly tailored to send a message to Syria (and Iran) that crossing U.S. red lines would provoke a response. As such, they would primarily and even exclusively involve Tomahawk missiles launched from a safe distance of hundreds of miles. The strike “would not amount to the sort of open-ended campaign that might compel Mr. Assad to negotiate a transfer to a transitional government,” according to the article.

The advantage to Tomahawks, according to Gregory Koblentz, a George Mason University political scientist who specializes in weapons of mass destruction, is they are highly accurate, fly low to the ground (and can therefore typically evade air defenses), and can be fired from ships hundreds of miles away (hence the frequently used term “lobbed”)—thereby putting American soldiers at very little risk. The downside to Tomahawks is they pack a comparatively small explosive punch and, particularly because they cannot be reprogrammed in-flight, are best used on stationary targets—an especially problematic proposition given that the regime will likely have had several weeks to move whatever they want to move to different locations.

And indeed, late last week the newspaper reported that the administration has changed tack: “Obama has directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria in response to intelligence suggesting that the government of President Bashar Assad has been moving troops and equipment.” It continued: “Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the ‘degrade’ part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria— to ‘deter and degrade’ Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons.” And, maybe most importantly, it added: “For the first time, the administration is talking about using American and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets.”

Using planes—whether bombers or tactical aircraft—carries tremendous advantages, including the ability to go after mobile targets and even, suggested Eisenstadt, to coordinate with ground troops among the rebels. Planes also are capable of delivering much larger payloads: A single Tomahawk typically carries a 1,000-pound bomb; a single B-52 is capable of carrying as much as 70,000 pounds of explosives. The downside is equally tremendous: Although previously fired Tomahawks could probably do a good job of wrecking air defenses, flying manned aircraft risks the deaths of those pilots and more personnel.

Washington Post national security columnist Walter Pincus noted that 1998’s Operation Desert Fox, whose similar target was Saddam Hussein’s WMD capacity, involved both Tomahawks and bomb attacks—first to disable air defenses, then to destroy some 97 targets out of 100 targeted.  

So what might be targeted in a Syrian action?

As is widely if vaguely known, targeting chemical weapons or facilities could be tricky. Eisenstadt noted a contrast with Israeli bombings of nuclear facilities in Iraq (in 1981) and Syria (in 2007): Whereas in those cases, the facilities were not yet “critical,” Syria’s chemical weapons facilities are already the equivalent of “critical.” “You’re risking the same outcome as bombing the agent itself,” he said. “Even precursors are noxious.” Koblentz agreed. “We’ve invested in agent-defeat munitions, which are designed to neutralize chemical and biological targets, but they’re imperfect and have never been tested on the battlefield,” he explained. “I think there’d be reluctance to use them.”

Pincus, who is very well-sourced in the U.S. intelligence community, suggested that a prime place to watch is Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center in Jamraya, not far from Damascus. The Center is believed responsible for Syria’s unconventional weapons; though in the Defense Ministry, its head answers directly to Assad. A Republican Guard unit and Special Forces also have bases nearby.

Eisenstadt suggested that an efficient type of target would be specific Syrian scientists and soldiers. “We always think about destroying things,” he said. “Very often, what’s more important is people. The most important asset is not equipment.” Noting that even the grunts who handle chemical weapons have to be specially trained, he added, “What they are short of is loyal, competent, experienced manpower. … It would be good to hit units like the 4th Armored Division and Republican Guard, because they’re probably related to senior members of the regime. That’s how you change their risk calculus.”

Other potential targets include transports and command-and-control centers.

Ultimately, when attacking another nation, you pay for what you get—in treasure and, unfortunately, in blood. Whatever their actual motivations, those conservatives arguing against the use-of-force resolution because the administration’s planned assault does not to them seem aggressive enough may have a point. When Obama suggested a “shot across the bow,” many noted that shots across bows are useless in and of themselves: They must be backed by a credible threat of large force in order to be effective.

A strike on Syria that constitutes a slap on the wrist is probably not worth it, the experts I spoke with said. “If you’re only going to be able to strike once, you want to do as much damage as you can to the overall capability, because that limits the ability for any kind of attack on one of the neighboring states,” argued Cordesman.

This line of thinking in turn leads to an inescapable conclusion, to which the administration itself seems to have come around: Tomahawks alone will not suffice. Koblentz noted that in recent years several actors—Sudan, Iraq in the late 1990s, and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan before 9/11—absorbed cruise missile attacks. “A really meaningful strike that’s painful to Assad, that will punish him and deter him from doing it again, and degrade him from doing it again—maybe even prevent it—[will require] manned aircraft,” he argued. “You’re going to have drop bombs.”

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