There are some who doubt that a limited strike would work. “Tactical actions in the absence of strategic objectives is usually pointless and often counterproductive,” Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and a former U.S. Navy planner of such strikes, told Foreign Policy.
“This is a low cost option, but the broader issue is that low cost options don’t do any good unless they are tied to strategic priorities and objectives,” he said. “Any ship officer can launch 30 or 40 Tomahawks, it’s not difficult. The difficulty is explaining to strategic planners how this advances U.S. interests.”
So what is the strategic value of a Syria strike? How would one gauge success? If it failed, would the U.S. be forced to further escalate its attack? We asked Omar Lamrani, military analyst at the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, to weigh in.
Syria Deeply: What do you think we’ll see from a Syria strike?
Omar Lamrani: There’s different options to look at here. The nature of the strike is going to be based on what the political intent is. It could range from a punitive strike, to convince [Bashar al-]Assad not to use chemical weapons again, to another we don’t think is likely at all, which is to secure the chemical weapons bases and methods of delivery, and everything in between. The less ambitious options are definitely more likely than the more ambitious ones. The punitive options seems to be the least ambitious of all: it’s saying that this action [the chemical attack] is not to be repeated again. It’s meant to send a message to Assad. It could be done by cruise missiles fired from U.S. Navy vessels, land attack missiles from the air, or the U.S. could send stealth bombers into Syria. They are highly survivable in this environment, especially the B-2 bomber. If you go up the escalation ladder, more resources are required and more risk is entailed.
SD: Can you explain the logistics of how such a strike would be carried out?
OL: It depends on what the U.S. uses. B-2s during night missions are almost invulnerable to the Syrian air force. It’s an aircraft that’s very advanced, meant to enter airspace alone and unprotected, and is not visible on Syrian radar. As you progress up the ladder and try to achieve more than just a punitive strike — let’s say the mission is to destroy the chemical weapons delivery mechanism and capability that he has, like by targeting airfields, aircraft and the ballistic missiles that can carry these chemical weapons — in that sort of mission, the spectrum of targets is so much broader that many more actors are required. A few B-2 bombers are not going to do the job.
The first step in such a campaign is the suppression of Syrian air defenses, and that starts with a cruise missile strike. You escalate into sending tactical fighters into the war zone. It’s unlikely you’ll destroy all these defenses, so there’s always some risk involved.
SD: What happens if Assad ignores the strike?
OL: A punitive strike sends a message, but if Assad completely neglects this message, Washington will be under extreme pressure to escalate its response. Once you use [that kind of a strike], the issue is, “It didn’t work the first time, so now we have to escalate, we have to hit chemical weapons delivery platforms.” From the regime’s perspective, they really cannot risk a campaign with the West that will decrease their defenses and leave them vulnerable to the rebels.
Why did they use chemical weapons to begin with? Are they vulnerable in ways we don’t know about? Or is it that they’ve always escalated and no one has intervened, so did they expect they could continue using low-level chemical attacks and no response would happen? And now they know that the calculus has shifted. The reason why they used chemical weapons could have arisen from extreme pressure we don’t know about. For example, running low on recruits, or the fact that they’re currently dependent on Iranian and Russian financial aid, and are they coming to a point where that aid isn’t guaranteed anymore?
SD: What’s the downside to a punitive strike?
OL: The downside to a punitive attack is that if the regime doesn’t change its behavior, that means it’s a failure and the Obama administration will come under heavy pressure: “OK, so, you did this and it didn’t do anything?”