Attacking Syria: Updating the Desert Fox Blueprint

The 1998 strikes against Iraq offer clues and cautions for action in Syria

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Navy photo

A Navy sailor on the carrier U.S.S. Enterprise readies bombs for delivery to Iraq during Desert Fox in 1998

While the U.S. is trying to cobble together a coalition of the willing to give some legal cover for attacking Syria, American military planners are fine-tuning a playbook that at first glance may look a lot like Operation Desert Fox, a four-day bombing campaign against Iraq’s elusive weapons of mass destruction in 1998.

Tactically, that is.

Operation Jasmine Jolt, or whatever the Pentagon ends up calling the looming limited strike against Syria (Damascus has long been known as the City of Jasmine), will go after much different targets — and a different goal — from Desert Fox.

That’s a good thing for the Obama Administration. It should give the White House a chance to review bomb-damage assessments and declare that its goal of punishing Syrian dictator Bashar Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons has been achieved — something the Clinton Administration couldn’t do, following its inconclusive bombing of Iraq.

Here’s how the barrages are likely to be the same:

  • Like Desert Fox, the trigger will be weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqi bombing was aimed at crippling Iraq’s WMD production following a long-running cat-and-mouse game between Saddam Hussein and U.N. weapons inspectors. The Syria attack would be to punish Damascus for what the U.S. is calling its “indiscriminate” use of chemical weapons in suburbs of the Syrian capital that killed hundreds of civilians.
  • Like Desert Fox, the U.S. will lead the attack with air strikes. In this case — to avoid risking American pilots — the four Navy destroyers now lurking in the eastern Mediterranean Sea will lob cruise missiles toward Syrian targets. If President Obama wants to hit Syria harder, warplanes with bigger bombs — perhaps B-2s flying round trip from their Missouri base, or short-legged attack planes in the region — could see action.
  • Like Desert Fox, the most important ally in the attacks will be Great Britain. France — a leader in backing the rebels seeking to overthrow Assad — will also play a military role. To keep the operation from being an all-Western show, Arab allies will be encouraged to participate.
DESERT FOX

Navy photo / Brian C. McLaughin

An F-18 prepares to attack Iraq from the carrier U.S.S. Enterprise during Desert Fox

More important, however, here is how any attack on Syria would likely differ from 1998’s attack on Iraq:

  • While both are rooted in weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. and its allies will not target them in Syria. Instead, they’ll go after the enablers — command posts, communications nodes, troops and delivery systems like missile launchers and artillery tubes — that Assad’s government needs to use them.

“It’ll probably be aimed at Syria’s command-and-control systems, the forces who might have been involved in using it, and maybe expanded to include higher headquarters that would have coordinated the operations,” says Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I don’t think we want to get into the business of trying to degrade his chemical weapons, but we can degrade and punish the forces that were involved.”

  • It’s a lot easier to declare “mission accomplished” when your objective is to blow up command posts, weapons depots and runways, instead of hunting down and destroying weapons of mass destruction, which can be elusive.

Anthony Zinni, who as a four-star Marine general commanded Desert Fox, knows the frustrations that can come from hunting down weapons of mass destruction — especially chemical and biological weapons, which often depend on the same “dual-use” production infrastructure as many legitimate industries.

“There was one problem with Desert Fox — Washington believed we were going after his weapons-of-mass-destruction program,” Zinni says. “But when I looked at the [CIA-provided] target list, there was nothing there that was specifically part of a weapons-of-mass-destruction program; they were all ‘possible’ parts.”

That led to miscommunication. Then Army general and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs “Hugh Shelton called me up and said, ‘The President [Bill Clinton] wants to know how far back you can set back Saddam’s program with a strike,'” Zinni recalls.

Zinni’s staff calculated that taking out the targets on the CIA’s list would set back Iraq’s work related to them by two years. “By that, I meant we could destroy the machinery, his short-range-missile program” and other targeted sites, Zinni recalls. “But in Washington, that got translated into ‘We set back his program two years.’ But there was no [WMD] program.”

  • The impending strike on Syria, unlike Desert Fox, might actually work.

There will be claims from Syria of innocent civilians killed (Desert Fox killed up to 2,000 Iraqis) and complaints from Syrian allies Iran and Russia that the strikes violated international law, predicts Anthony Cordesman, a military scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But, at the end of it,” he says, “they probably won’t use chemical weapons again.”

That may be the good news, relatively speaking. The bad news is that there’s no idea of what comes next for Syria, already torn apart by a 30-month civil war that has killed an estimated 100,000 people, after the all-but-certain U.S. attack.

DESERT FOX

DOD

A Pentagon bomb-damage assessment photo of Iraq’s Zaafaraniyah missile plant attacked during Desert Fox

31 comments
iongeopol
iongeopol

In response to rohit57's comment about the current status since WWII, that " the "victors" of WW2 are the big shots with vetoes. The war ended some 70 years ago, and France and China were hardly victors anyway. Also the meaning of "China" has changed from Kuomintang to Communism  Still these five are the bosses.".

Yes these 5 are still considered the victors regardless of your opinion on China's contribution to the war against the Japanese Facist, and the weight it took off the U.S. marines and army soldiers when they fought on Pacific islands.  To put things in perspective :

1) even in the waning years of the anti-Japanese war on China's soil, Japan had about 2 million troops in China;  

2) to defend the Pacific islands, at the height of the fighting (2nd half of 1944 / 1st half of 1945), Japan had about fewer than 300,000 troops allocated to all these islands, including the Philippines.

3) in case you are short on history, during the battle for Iwo Jima, 23,000 Japanese Imperial troops defended the island;  the battle lasted from Feb. 16 - March 26;  6812 US troops perished on the island;  19,189 wounded, most seriously;  of the 23,000 Japanese Imperial troops, 1083 survived.  Now, imagine had the China theater not tied down the 2 million Imperial troops, and on Iwo Jima island, the Imperial troops strength was double, or even triple, what would the U.S. casualties be?  Perhaps if one of your relatives - uncle, father, grandfather?  fought in the Pacific, they would be able to tell you that they were glad that the Imperial troops were 23,000, not 46,000 or more.  

4) and oh, your idea that Japan should be a member of the security council in the UN, now would you admit a country that, during WWII : a) used local women as "comfort women" (today we call it gang rape);  never admitted it and never apologized for it, officially;  b) Japanese bio-chemical warfare troops carried out experiments on live humans, Koreans and Chinese, yet was never tried for such heinous crime against humanity;  c) the Japanese imperial troops slaughtered close to 30 million Chinese but never boned up to the crime;  d) and are you cognizant of the Rape of Nanjing?  If not, go do some research.  

I put down all these historical facts because orhit57 suggested that Japan should be included in the security council of the UN, yet today, Japan still felt that they didn't do anything wrong during WWII, and in fact, the Imperial Military flag has been revived and is part of the flag for the Japanese military.   I would think that Germany would not consider the swastika be part of any German official insignia.  

 I rest my case.

Regio121
Regio121

One hit straight to Syrian command center, best if the head of state and dictator's is around. that could save thousands of innocent live. I'm against it, but currents events warrant a an effective strike.

JeffMoore1
JeffMoore1

I still don't understand why Obama wants to steal everyone's communications, so I'm not about to understand why smashing another Middle East country is ok. Iraqi's don't even have electricity. Even Bush's old friend Saddam could get the electric going after we smashed it in 90-91. 

Obama uses more violence than all the Middle East dictatorships combined. He's a criminal (Bushes too) and not our protector- benefactor! The world is less safe as the countries we "liberated" infect and sap everyone else in the area.

Our economy sucks and is unjust to all but a tiny minority. Let's organize protest against all of the above. 

StephenSwain
StephenSwain

This is not a good idea.  These little toe-in-the-water-smart-bomb-cruise-missile gambits always lead to worse.  Moreover, if they fail to knock out his missile-launch capabilities, he will just shoot WMD-tipped missiles on Israel, which will create a further conflagration.  The Israelis won't wait, and they will not be so "nice" or careful about collateral damage.  This is a very bad idea.

bk2056
bk2056

He should just send the entire congress over there. The place will be a shambles in less than a month.

Adamu
Adamu

From 'Regime Change' to 'Indiscriminate-use-of-Chemical Weapons'! The lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan should have informed all wary person that war is never a solution to the quagmire the citizens of Syria are presently facing, while those that fan the embers of hate and war can do so for the simple fact that they are miles away from the 'centre of action' . A cursory look at happenings in Iraq can tell you that there is far a sinister motive(s) than what we are seeing. If the 'Coalition intends to help out in Syria-which of course they are not willing to do so, they can as well put pressure on the Rebels and the regime to seat down and work out a lasting solution. Well, let the war begins!

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

The first lesson from previous actions in the Arab space is, It Ain't Over Until It's All Over. However, everyone should remember that a limited "punishment" against Assad forces will accomplish only one result: prolonging the civil war. By "leveling the field" this act will increase the odds of a stalemate. Because both side do not respect the rules of war, are indifferent to human suffering and spiteful of civilized world opinion, a lot of innocent people are going to die from the continuation of this civil war. Anyone who wants to save them should realize that this noble aim can be achieved only by radical change of the regime and this requires a full scale (namely, ground forces in addition to air and navy forces) military intervention by a powerful army.

vladimir-ulrich
vladimir-ulrich

People do not like to be bombed, even by the USA. Syria may get even and use its chemical weapons in New York. If not Syria just now, some day somebody will.

rohit57
rohit57

One problem is that the UN is a highly undemocratic and dysfunctional organization.

There is on the one hand the UN security council on which US, UK, Russia, China and France, the "victors" of WW2 are the big shots with vetoes. The war ended some 70 years ago, and France and China were hardly victors anyway. Also the meaning of "China" has changed from Kuomintang to Communism  Still these five are the bosses.

In the general assembly, tiny countries are equal to Germany, Japan, Brazil and India.

This is a bizarre state of affairs.

It is blatant that the US, Russia and China use their vetoes, not on behalf of the international community but on behalf of their parochial interests.

Any action needs to be international, but lacking any real definition of "international", it has come to mean, the US, and anyone whom it can talk into or bully into going along.

An action on Syria may be desirable, but it is not going to be legal, whatever that word means.

The Security Council needs to be expanded to include the major countries Germany, Japan, India and Brazil which I just mentioned and action to be taken by a 60% majority voting (as in our Senate) rather than be subject to vetoes.

The US and its "allies" are not "the International community."  That equation is very dangerous.  But it is popular in the US and the US is better armed than the next three countries put together.  So the US can get away with the fiction, "We are the international community."

ffwatts
ffwatts

Innocent civilians, including children will die, that's for sure.  I wonder what happened to the old adage - get the top guy - There is usually only ONE PERSON that causes all this mess; that is a constant all over. Look at Castro, Chavez, Mugabe, Afewerki, Al Bashir, U Thein Sein, NGuema, and the new addition Kim jong Un of North Korea;  to mention a few.

.

jwarrencollins
jwarrencollins

There're are intelligent ways to involve American lives and treasure in foreign civil wars, of which there are and will be many, and there are AMERICAN STUPID ways to involve American lives and treasure. John McCain et al led the American Stupids. Lobbing missiles into the fray will not produce any kind of positive outcome. STUPID. 

falcon269
falcon269

Saddam Hussein could have implemented a scorched earth policy in either war, leaving an unimaginable mess for the invading forces. Assad could unleash chemical weapons in rebel areas that would stun western sensibilities. How would France, England, and the U.S. react to that? He has millions of hostages in a "hijack" scenario. Do we really want to watch those hostages die?

It looks like we do.

anon76
anon76

@StephenSwain 

Granted I don't know the guy, but Assad has never struck me as the type who would invite the Israelis to clean his clock when he's already up to his eyeballs in civil war.  He strikes me much more as the "self preservation at all costs" type, and trying to penetrate Israel's missile defense shield is pretty much the opposite of self preservation.

StephenSwain
StephenSwain

@bk2056 Let's start by sending the Speaker of the House in as a forward artillery observer.  Maybe that brilliant gentleman would learn something then about being proactive.

Adamu
Adamu

@YehudaElyada War Mongers like you can encourage such a beastly confrontation, because such actions are never played in your country. You accused Bashar of Mass Killings while the intended actions by the So-called Coalition of the Willing will also result in the Mass killings of innocent lives and destruction of property. Don't you people have conscience?

S_Deemer
S_Deemer

@YehudaElyada I can agree with everything you write, up to your final sentence. Yes, an invading army can provoke regime change; whether or not that would "save" the Syrian people is very much up in the air. Unless an outside "savior" is willing to act as a colonial occupier for a generation or more, I don't see that happening, and assuming that an occupation would be any better than the status quo is equally doubtful.

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

@vladimir-ulrich This is the standard terrorist tactics: don't you dare do the right thing because we'll retaliate without any human refrain from targeting the innocents. Do not join their despicable ranks.

Adamu
Adamu

@rohit57 There is nothing 'democratic' about the UN-we see how things are being run to the detriment of the majority of world citizens!


anon76
anon76

@ffwatts 

Uh, Chavez is gone, and it hasn't changed much in Venezuela.  Not that killing thousands of civilians is a good thing, but I don't think it's as simple as you're making it out to be.

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

@Adamu @YehudaElyada tell that to the 100,000 innocents who already paid the price of having people like you protect Bashar. I don't want to see Syria turned into the next Iraq or Afghanistan - just because the Assad dynasty is unwilling to let go. Shame on you to value the wellbeing of the tyrant more than the life of the oppressed.  

Realworldnonfantasyland
Realworldnonfantasyland

@Adamu @YehudaElyada We should just sit down with the leaders and have a Kumbaya moment, because people with a conscience like Adamu think that it is better to do nothing but sit on our hands and that everything will work itself out, because you know it has been

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

@S_Deemer @YehudaElyada Not necessarily. At the end of WW2 both Germany and Japan made a 180 degrees turnabout and became real democracies without the "colonial occupation phase". It is the realization of the devastating consequences of accepting dictatorship that makes people switch political culture.

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

@Adamu @rohit57 What you call "the majority of world citizens" are represented in the UN by corrupted dictators, pretending to posses moral principles while actually offering their equal voting rights to the highest bidder. Do not disparage the democratic values of the Western nations just because they let the non-democratic majority take control of the general assembly.  

Adamu
Adamu

@Realworldnonfantasyland @Adamu @YehudaElyada You are missing the point! Ok, convince me or us that War is the ONLY solution! If such 'crazy' ideas (War) could solve this problem, we won't have been talking of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, uptil this moment and the rest of the War centres-which I believe you are not in any of such places. War has never been a solution. We can all envisage the outcomes of such issues.

PAL_Houston
PAL_Houston

@anon76 @YehudaElyada 

Well, if you are talking about Iraq then the difference is that we didn't spend 45 years in Iraq, like we did in Europe and Japan after WWII.  And both Germany and Japan still have vestiges of the fascist culture even today, although thankfully those people are (small) minorities.  So, going by the precedents set after WWII, it takes a generation and a half to transition from fascism to democracy successfully, with a strong stabilizing influence such as the US provided.  We gave Iraq a third of a generation and that is obviously not enough.

anon76
anon76

@YehudaElyada

Is there any more recent precedent that might help guide us?  Another country that has been invaded and occupied besides Japan and Germany?  One that shares many of the cultural and ethnic fractiousness of Syria, located just a shade to the East, perhaps?