Our Opportunity in Syria
Assad’s use of chemical weapons means we now have moral and strategic reasons to act.

Four guided-missile destroyers including USS Barry are positioned to strike at Syria.


In Syria, it seems, our options range from bad to worse.

Arm and support the rebels? We’d wind up with al-Qaeda affiliates ruling Damascus and even more oppression of the Syrian people.

Do nothing? We’d allow the murderous Assad regime to remain in power and continue as a top client for Iran and Hezbollah.

But recent events may have turned that conventional wisdom on its head.

It’s now a near-certainty that government forces unleashed a chemical attack on their own civilians last week, a “moral obscenity,” per U.S. secretary of state John Kerry, that slayed more than 1,000 Syrians. This heinous assault must be met promptly with a forceful response by the United States and its allies for both humanitarian and strategic reasons.

For too long, the agonizing “Syrian question” — which has divided academics, pundits, area specialists, and even the White House itself — has been mired in either-or thinking along a single, oversimplified axis: Which group should we support?

Unfortunately, there’s no good answer to that question. But Assad’s ghastly gassing of his own people clears the waters a bit for the U.S. and the law-abiding international community.

First and foremost, a forceful response to Damascus’s grisly attack sends a critical humanitarian message: The world will not tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction, especially on civilians.

The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins reported last week that Assad had carefully been calibrating the amount of toxic gas in each previous attack to inflict damage below a threshold likely to attract international attention. The Syrian strongman tested the American “red line,” and largely crossed it unscathed.

In the latest onslaught, however, Damascus has either abandoned caution or miscalculated, and the horrific carnage has rightly stirred even the most cold-hearted realists.

The slaughter makes it a moral imperative, quite apart from any strategic concerns, for the U.S. to spearhead a retaliatory strike on the missile sites from which the chemical assault emanated, the silos housing the munitions, and the laboratories and factories used to develop them. We should also strongly consider a shot across Assad’s bow: airstrikes on the bases and hideouts housing the upper echelons of his military command.

The Syrian government, and any future would-be WMD deployers, must be made to realize that the civilized world simply will not abide such crimes against humanity.

Second, a limited but forceful response to Assad’s chemical offensive would vindicate the administration’s stated red line and restore its deterrent effect. The U.S. cannot credibly claim to hold a firm foreign-policy position in future conflicts if it cannot enforce the rules it laid down in this one.

Some, such as foreign-policy expert Edward Luttwak, have argued we “should resist the temptation to intervene more forcefully in Syria’s civil war” because, given the wretchedness of both sides, the only good result is a continued stalemate. Yet even if this analysis has merit — and it isn’t without justification — a limited retaliatory strike against discrete Syrian targets would, if anything, help restore balance, including by hampering the regime in attempts to dislodge rebels from ground they hold.

In addition, the only (slim) possibility of a positive long-term outcome in Syria involves liberal and moderate pro-American rebels wresting control of the opposition, and that opposition in turn toppling Assad. A restrained U.S.-led strike on the regime would promote those goals, however marginally.

There are significant costs and risks associated with a military strike. The personnel launching the assault — be they Tomahawk-missile operators or pilots dropping munitions through Syrian airspace — could face a lethal counterattack, and Damascus could well unleash Hezbollah against Israel or Western targets in the Middle East and elsewhere. But these risks pale in comparison to the moral and strategic interests at stake.

“All red lines have been crossed,” Turkey’s foreign minister noted after last week’s attack, “but still the U.N. Security Council has not even been able to take a decision. This is a responsibility for the sides who still set these red lines, and for all of us.” If the feckless U.N. won’t lead, the law-abiding international community, led by the United States, must discharge its moral and strategic obligation accordingly.

— Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and writer in San Diego. Reach him at michaelmrosen (at) 

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