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‘Yes’ to U.S. Action in Syria

Syrian president Bashar Assad

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Last week, we wrote that President Obama was about to undertake the most reluctant military strike ever. Now, he has gone to Congress with the most backhanded request for the authorization of military force ever.

Secretary of State John Kerry had delivered two emotional justifications for military action that everyone took as a sign that an attack was imminent, when the president unexpectedly announced he had decided to ask for a congressional authorization (and without bothering to consult his secretary of state, who just happens to have been a senator for 28 years). The turnabout was so sudden it seemed to say more about the president’s irresolution than his desire to get congressional input. The president’s position is that, even if the measure is rejected, he might bomb Syria anyway.

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He is embracing an expansive view of his authority while ignoring the reasons the Founders wanted a strong commander-in-chief in the first place. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the executive can act with “decision, activity, secrecy and dispatch.” As he wavers and his administration leaks its target lists, President Obama is 0–4.

He is asking Congress to choose between unpalatable options. One is to green-light an attack on Syria that, as far as anyone can tell, is unconnected to any larger strategy, besides expressing a forlorn hope for a diplomatic solution to the war. The other is to turn him down and destroy the president’s credibility, and hence the nation’s, in the Middle East for at least the next three years. Obama would join David Cameron as the neutered leader of a country that was once feared and respected; François Hollande would practically look like a giant in comparison.

Credibility can seem an elusive commodity and one not worth firing shots over, but it is the coin of the realm in international relations, especially for a great power. When we eroded our deterrent with ill-advised statements or acts of weakness, we got the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. When our deterrent was at a high ebb in the immediate aftermath of our toppling Saddam Hussein, Libya gave up its nuclear program and, evidently, Iran temporarily stopped its uranium production.

If we don’t act in this case, after all this windup, Iran and Hezbollah will take note of how little our admonitions to not acquire or use weapons of mass destruction really mean. We can’t know exactly what would come of our self-inflicted humiliation, but it would be nothing good. For that reason, we would vote “yes” on the authorization, although we think reasonable people can disagree, and we urge Congress to push the president to enunciate a Syria strategy beyond punishing it for its chemical-weapons use.

That act of punishment is important in itself, and we shouldn’t underestimate how much damage we can do to a fragile regime fighting a war for survival, even if the strike is only with cruise missiles over a matter of days. But a congressional authorization, should it be forthcoming, and the inevitable delay as Congress debates the matter, raise the stakes. Any strike shouldn’t be a pinprick or necessarily a one-off but part of a broader, longer-term plan to topple Assad and defeat his allies. This means strengthening elements of the Syrian opposition we can trust, with arms and training; it means crafting and leading an international coalition committed to a post-Assad Syria; it means staying engaged beyond the next few weeks.

We should do this without any unrealistic expectation for what we can achieve in Syria. A new regime could be better than Assad and still lousy. But the Obama policy of passivity has, so far, proved a disaster. Some on the right support it by citing the famous Henry Kissinger quip about the Iran–Iraq war that it is a pity that both sides can’t lose. If only it were that simple.

Across the years of violence, the opposition has gotten more radical rather than less; the Syrian state has begun to unravel, ensuring that even if Assad loses, Syria is guaranteed more chaos and misery; Jordan and Lebanon have been destabilized by the spillover effects of the conflict; and at least until now, Assad has been regaining the upper hand, with the help of a terrorist guerrilla army and a terrorist state — Hezbollah and Iran, respectively. Not to mention the gruesome humanitarian cost, with 100,000 dead and a third of Syria’s population displaced.

It is always tempting to believe that we can be done with the world. But the world is not done with us. It never is.


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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