Does the Timing Matter?

by Patrick Brennan

Critics of President Obama’s decision to seek authorization from Congress to strike Syria, delaying attacks probably at least until after September 9, have suggested that this would enable Assad to prepare for such an attack by moving his key forces out of harm’s way. This certainly seems reasonable and intuitive, but two retired top military commanders both rejected the idea pretty unequivocally this morning.

President Obama said in his address on Saturday, which could put off strikes for two weeks or more, that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey told him strikes against the planned targets would be equally effective today or a month from now. When asked about the issue on CNN Sunday, General Anthony Zinni, former head of U.S. Central Command, said he thought “much too much has been made of [Assad’s] ability to hide and move. . . . I guarantee you General Dempsey is right, our targeting will not be a problem.” He laid out three reasons for his certainty: Many of Assad’s assets we’d like to target are “fixed installations” he can’t move; the amount of intelligence and surveillance assets being devoted to the region should make it difficult for him to move matériel out of sight; and Assad’s current position, engulfed in a civil war, means he can’t exactly be moving military units, such as rockets or artillery, as he wishes.

A former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine general James Cartwright, explained on ABC that “most of the targets associated with this limited strike are fixed — they’re building, they’re facilities, they’re areas.” Cartwright said that the U.S. won’t strike chemical-weapons stockpiles because of the risk of dispersing the deadly agents — while it’s possible to bomb such stockpiles heavily enough to incinerate them harmlessly, the general seems to be assuming that the strikes being contemplated aren’t significant enough to do that. He expressed skepticism of what the strikes will aim to do instead, saying the idea of trying to “prevent [future chemical-weapons attacks] . . . I don’t think is possible,” but said it’s possible to “deter” their use by attacking production facilities, transportation arteries such as bridges, and command-and-control facilities. Thus, the general said, “the question is, are those targets going to be valid a month from now? . . . They’re not going to move.”

Some could read bias into both generals’ effectively defending the president — Zinni became a vocal critic of President Bush and the Iraq War and has endorsed Democrats in the past, and Cartwright has been called a favorite of President Obama, but I assume they take their educational role as veterans more seriously than any desire to curry political favor. Further, both of them rely on their assessment of what kind of strikes the president plans to launch, which isn’t publicly clear (though they may have a better idea than we do). But if one takes them at their word and General Dempsey as a forthright adviser of the president, perhaps the idea that the U.S. is losing an advantage by the day isn’t as inevitable as it sounds.

Whether a surprise strike in the days following August 21 might have been more effective remains unsaid, though, and, further, some reports indicate that Assad is moving some of his military assets deeper into civilian territory to maximize the civilian suffering caused by any U.S. strike. Neither general addressed that possibility specifically, although the idea that the key targets are not mobile units would seem to argue against concern on that front, too.

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