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Obama’s Halfway Effort in Syria
Intervening now is a good start, but our moral and strategic imperatives demand more.


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Elliott Abrams

As it becomes increasingly obvious that President Obama has decided to attack Syria with cruise missiles and perhaps a bit more, those of us who have been urging a stronger stand on Syria for two years should be very pleased. This is what we’ve asked for, isn’t it?

It isn’t, and I can’t muster more than one or one and a half cheers. Why not?

Two things have been notable about the Syrian civil war. First, real American security interests are at stake in Syria and have been from the start. Iran and the terrorist group Hezbollah, which together have an enormous amount of American blood on their hands, have sent troops to Syria to win a war there. Russia has provided a constant flow of arms to the regime. They all consider their control of Syria important, and they are right: If they lose the control they have through Bashar Assad, their position in the entire Middle East is badly weakened — and ours is strengthened. This is a proxy war, with them on one side, and American allies — Jordan, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — on the other. It is in the interest of the United States to win this fight, and we should want Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia to lose.

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Second, there is a growing humanitarian disaster: 100,000 dead at a minimum, plus millions of refugees and displaced persons. The suffering has already spilled over into Jordan and Lebanon, with more to come.

The problem with the Obama administration’s probable reaction over the next few days is that it appears likely to address neither of these issues, and instead focus narrowly on another: Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The international taboo on such weapons should be upheld, and it is reasonable to punish Assad for his action — thereby deterring him and others in the future from using poison gas. Such an action also avoids any further humiliation of the United States with regard to the red line the president drew (and then ignored, of course, until the latest, largest, and most blatant episode).

But there are 100,000 or more dead, and that is ignored if our strikes focus narrowly on the chemical-weapons infrastructure. Most were killed by bullets or artillery; are we content to watch another 100,000 killed the same way? One need not be a supporter of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine to wonder if mass killing in this strategically important region should elicit zero response from the United States while a use of chemical weapons that kills 1,000 people elicits a military intervention.

But what about our strategic interests? If our strikes are limited to Assad’s chemical-weapons assets, we leave his war machine intact — including the air power that is one of his main advantages. We make it no less likely that our enemies — Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Assad — will win this proxy war and greatly strengthen their position in the Middle East — preserving Iran’s only ally in the region, which affords them ports in the Mediterranean and a border with Israel (via Hezbollah in Lebanon).

I’ve been in Israel this week, and found universal the sense that America is receding in the region — and seeking to recede. I know from previous travel, and many conversations with Arab leaders, that our Arab friends in the Gulf share this view. A couple dozen cruise missiles landing on chemical-weapons warehouses will not change that perception, and indeed will raise questions about our odd priorities on both the humanitarian and strategic levels.

So I give the administration some credit: It would be far worse to do nothing and prove that we have no credibility and need not be feared under any circumstances whatsoever. But the Russians and Iranians and their terrorist allies will not be defeated unless we show greater determination and greater willingness to act. For a start, the Obama administration should destroy not only Assad’s chemical stocks but his air power as well — bases, helicopters, jets. That would be the way to show American power in the Middle East is still to be reckoned with, to instill fear in our enemies, and to hearten our allies.

— Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.


Strike on Syria
As diplomatic rhetoric escalates over alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces, the White House is mulling plans for a potential U.S. strike on the Assad regime. Here’s how that strike might look. Pictured, the destroyer USS Gravely, currently deployed off the coast of Syria.
The Obama administration has been busy laying the diplomatic and political groundwork for a strike, but has not confirmed any specific strike plan. Pictured, Secretary of State John Kerry discusses Syria at a press conference on August 26.
Media reports have coalesced around the concept of a quick strike primarily using Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from surface and submarine vessels operating in the Mediterranean, possibly complemented by heavy bombers. Pictured, Tomahawk launch from USS Sterett.
The strikes would target regime infrastructure, command centers, and artillery batteries. They would likely not target chemical weapon manufacturing or storage facilities because of the risk of collateral damage. Pictured, Syrian government tanks in Damascus.
Such a plan would inflict targeted but serious damage on the Syrian regime without putting U.S. pilots in harm’s way. Pictured, Syrian president Bashar Al Assad meets with army troops.
The Pentagon has confirmed that four Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers are already in the eastern Mediterranean: The USS Ramage, USS Mahan, USS Gravely, and USS Barry (pictured). A fifth destroyer, USS Stout, is also in the region.
The Arleigh Burke class is built around the Aegis Combat System, a powerful combination of radar and missile technology. A mainstay of the Navy’s surface offense capabilities, there are currently 62 active Arleigh Burke-class vessels in the American inventory. Pictured, USS Barry.
At just over 500 feet in length, Arleigh Burke destroyers can cruise at 30 knots and have a range of up to 4,400 nautical miles. Pictured, USS Ramage.
It is likely that at least one submarine is also in the region, but submarine deployments are rarely made public even during peacetime. Pictured, the USS Florida, which took part in operations against Libya in 2011.
The Tomahawk flies at speeds of up to 550 miles per hour and as low as 50 feet to avoid enemy air defenses. With a range of approximately 1,500 miles, it could hit any target in Syria.
The latest generation of Tomahawk missile can loiter over the battlespace for hours, transmit battle-damage assessments, and be re-targeted in flight.
The Tomahawk can carry a single, 1,000-pound warhead or drop smaller bomblets in precision strikes. Pictured, a Tomahawk launches from USS Shoup.
The Tomahawk can also be fired from submarines while submerged. Pictured, a Tomahawk launch from USS Pasadena.
Arleigh Burke destroyers can carry about 90 Tomahawk missiles. Their launches, often at night during the opening moments of a campaign, have been covered by news media since Desert Storm. Pictured, Tomahawk launch from USS Sterett.
The Tomahawk has been a workhorse of naval combat operations since its debut in 1991 against Iraq in Operation Desert Storm; 288 were fired in that conflict. Pictured, a Tomahawk launches from the battleship USS Wisconsin during Desert Storm.
Tomahawks were used most recently against Libya in Operation Odyssey Dawn, where more than 100 were fired from USS Barry (pictured) and British Royal Navy vessels.
Heavier ordnance would likely be delivered by Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bombers, which operate out of Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.
The B-2 would be preferred for its ability to penetrate advanced air defense systems, a mission for which it was specifically designed. Syria’s air defenses use Soviet-built equipment.
The B-2 can carry 40,000 pounds of guided munitions, in either 500- or 2,000-pound versions. It is refueled in flight to give it intercontinental range.
Air Force fighter aircraft could also be used to launch precision-guided stand-off weapons — such as the AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon or AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile — without having to enter Syrian airspace. Pictured, an F-16 deploys the AGM-154.
Fighter aircraft involved in an operation over Syria would include F-15 and F-16 aircraft, and would likely operate from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and possibly facilities in Jordan. Pictured, an F-15 Eagle.
The Navy could also deploy strike aircraft from two carriers in the region — USS Harry S. Truman and USS Nimitz — which operate in the north Arabian sea, as well as from Sigonella Air Base in Italy. Pictured, an F-18E Super Hornet launches from Truman.
British forces in the Mediterranean are also likely to participate in action against Syria. The British could field strike aircraft from Akrotiri Royal Air Force Station on Cyprus, as well as their own Tomahawk missiles (pictured) launched from Royal Navy vessels.
Drones such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper (pictured) would likely play only a small role, if any, mainly to gather intelligence. Their weapons loads are too small to take out any target beside a vehicle.
A strike on Syria would be similar to those undertaken against Libya during Operation Odyssey Dawn in 2011 and against Iraq during Operation Desert Strike in 1998. Pictured, Tomahawk launch from USS Shiloh during Operation Desert Strike.
In Odyssey Dawn, more than 100 Tomahawks were fired from USS Barry and British Royal Navy vessels, while three B-2 bombers struck 45 targets on the opening night of the operation. Pictured, Tomahawk launch from USS Stout during Odyssey Dawn.
Syria has an aggressive air defense capability that could pose a threat to manned bombers. The Syrian air force is estimated to have 365 combat aircraft and 150 anti-aircraft missile batteries, with some 8,000 anti-aircraft missiles at its disposal. Pictured, a Syrian MiG-23 drops bombs in 2011.
Updated: Aug. 28, 2013

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