On Sunday, I noted that two prominent retired four-star generals offered strong support for the president’s contention that the U.S. isn’t losing any tactical advantage by delaying strikes against Syria for a week or two. That’s apparently what chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey told President Obama, but our friend Elliott Abrams raised concerns about that claim in a Politico op-ed yesterday:
This delay in striking Syria will also make any eventual strikes less effective. In 2007, when Israel struck the Syrian nuclear reactor then under construction, Israel and the United States engaged in elaborate and successful efforts to maintain secrecy until decisions were made and the strike finally launched. Why? Because it was obvious that Syrian President Bashar Assad could take such steps as putting human hostages (foreigners, political prisoners, or children, for example) at the site if he discovered our intentions. Now we have given him weeks to take steps to protect the chemical weapons-related sites in this manner, and to move the materials to new locations. The president said this would make no difference, providing this evidence: Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has “indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive.”
First of all, what mission is that? No one knows the proposed size and target list, of course. If the mission is to protect the president from his “red line” comment of last year and make a symbolic show, it is not time-sensitive; it is not useful, either. Indeed, the narrower the proposed mission, the less time-sensitive it is.
Second, are we to be reassured by this vague comment from Dempsey, who has spent the entire last year explaining why a strike at Syria would be disastrous and is nearly impossible anyway, requiring hundreds of air sorties in advance? Unfortunately, the general’s interventions in policymaking on Syria, which have gone far beyond his expertise and proper role, have eliminated him as a reliable guide.
The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, reports today that Assad’s forces are moving around in preparation for strikes — by moving troops into urban areas, and telling civilians to evacuate (which doesn’t contradict the claims made on Sunday by the two generals, that the key targets the U.S. wants to hit are fixed). Abrams’s perspicacious piece, however, contends that’s just the problem: A strike unaffected by such movements is purely symbolic, won’t shift the balance of the conflict away from Assad, and isn’t part of a coherent strategy either to discourage the use of weapons of mass destruction (by Syria or Iran) or to defend U.S. interests in the region.