Attacking Syria: Avoiding the “Big Pinprick” Syndrome

Calibrating strike has to balance competing goals

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Pete Souza / The White House

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, Feb. 13, 2012.

Deep inside the Pentagon, General Goldilocks and her war planners are now in the final stages of calibrating U.S. war plans to attack Syria — not too big, or too small, but just right. That’s always a challenge when it comes to delivering high explosives from hundreds of miles away:

– The U.S. needs to rain sufficient firepower on Syrian targets to punish Bashar al-Assad’s government for its alleged use of chemical weapons, and encourage him not to do it again.

– But it doesn’t want to cripple his military and create a vacuum that al Qaeda-linked rebels can exploit.

– Syria’s closest ally, Iran, is keenly interested in the scale of American punishment, knowing its nuclear program might be next in line for U.S. targeting.

– Finally, the Obama Administration, which came into office vowing to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, needs to convince a war-weary U.S. public that it isn’t being dragged into a third Middle Eastern conflict.

All told, it’s a major balancing act for Obama, and a difficult one to resolve with military means.

The President said Wednesday that he is seeking a “limited, tailored” attack plan for Syria. He said it will be “a shot across the bow,” designed to convince Assad, and others like him, to keep their chemical weapons under wraps. But his phrase, used in an interview with the PBS NewsHour, was vexing. A “shot across the bow” is a naval term for firing a shell in front of a moving ship to compel it to stop; it doesn’t imply punishment.

“This won’t be a strike to end the war — it’s got other, much more limited objectives,” says Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But it needs to be big enough. “The very worst thing would be a very small strike, aimed at a few symbolic or token targets,” White says. That would remind him of the cruise-missile attacks the Clinton Administration lobbed into Africa and the Middle East: “We used to refer to them as `really big pinpricks.’”

The rush toward an attack seemed to ease late Wednesday when Britain made clear it wants to see the UN inspectors’ report into possible Syrian use of chemical weapons first. The anticipated strike, according to Pentagon officials, is likely to last only a day or two, and take aim at critical pieces of the Syrian military, including command posts and rocket and artillery units capable of using chemical weapons, but not the weapons themselves.

“It’s no surprise to me that they’re not going to go after some place that’s cooking bad stuff, or where they’re stockpiled,” says Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine general who commanded similar strikes against Iraq in the 1990s as the head of U.S. Central Command. But the rumors of the impending war — that it will be a “one-and-done” attack — suggest it will have limited impact, he says: “Hitting delivery systems at the tactical level — every battery, every rocket — if you’re going to take out the entire delivery system, that’s a campaign, not a single strike.”

Such a strike — designed to punish Assad for his government’s purported use of chemical weapons — is unlikely to tilt the balance of power in Syrian civil war against him. The White House has made clear that while the U.S. military would be attacking Syria, its goal wouldn’t be to oust Assad, whose forces the Administration believes carried out the chemical-weapons attack Aug. 21 in the suburbs of Damascus.

“Isn’t it contradictory that two years ago he [Obama] said he [Assad] must go, and now he’s saying this isn’t aimed at regime change?” Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., wondered aloud on MSNBC Wednesday. “And if it isn’t aimed at regime change, what is it aimed at? We can send them a diplomatic note if it’s just that we don’t agree with what they’re doing…we’ve got to have a policy.

“And I have yet to see a policy or a strategy.”

Some military officers, speaking privately, say that the looming strike is all about “sending a message” to “punish” Syria for its alleged use of chemical agents. The U.S. military can do that, they concede. But they don’t know what might come next, especially amid a civil war that has claimed an estimated 100,000 lives.

Nonetheless, they will salute and do as they are ordered.

“If you ask the military to do anything, they will,” says Eliot Cohen, a former Pentagon official now at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Besides, he adds, Syria deserves it. “These guys have really crossed a major taboo,” he says. “You need to do something that’s going cause them real damage.”

Not to mention repairing Obama’s international standing. The President’s talk of chemical weapons being a “red line” that Assad crosses at his peril, Cohen says, means that Obama’s credibility is “in the most profound jeopardy imaginable.”

Going to war is the most profound decision a nation makes. It’d be nice — especially absent a congressional declaration — if imaginary weapons of mass destruction or bruised presidential credibility weren’t the trigger.

58 comments
Frylock
Frylock

Complete boondogle. Standing by and letting civilians die via chemical weapons will be resented and decried for years regardless of outcome. Involvement implies complicity to one side or the other. Serious no win scenario really. A REAL UN would act and force a difficult peace, but we dont have a real UN. SNAFU.

kolagunta
kolagunta

Obama is trying to be a Bush. It reminds us of the war against Saddam which has resulted in chaos. It will be same in Afghanistan. US has miserably failed in both. It wriggled out of Iraq at great cost, apart from loss of face. It is high time that the US and the Nato get out of the Muslim world and curtail all activities except for a restricted business in fuel. All types of aid should be stopped. Allow the sects,(Shia & Suni), to fight and come to a settlement, even if it leads to a carnage. This will be the quickest way of solving the issue. It will also virtually decommission the Terror machine, which is presently running on the aids and Black Dollars from the illegal drug sale.  

Whatanotion
Whatanotion

Let's see if I understand this :  WE are uncertain of how strongly to attack because they have cleverly hidden behind a curtain when they pushed the button than unleashed the chemical weapons.   But because we are sooo honest we can't set off some computer electrical gridlock on them because then they will "just know" it was us that did it and be justified in retaliating.  There is that it?  Seems to me Syria fried the bridge to altruism in warfare when the chemicals leaked out or however they were delivered.  Call in the Golden Retrievers Mr. O'Bama.  Release the Computer Ork.  ...You do have Computer Ork; right?.... Please tell me Snowdjob wasn't the smart one of our geeks.     

spot60spot
spot60spot

@TIME The powerful message is in the threat, not the ensuing slaughter.

skeezy99
skeezy99

Where I come from, this is called, "cover your butt". The President should NOT have said what he said ONE LONG YEAR AGO. I cannot imagine why he would have set such a parameter for those in power in Syria.

Apparently no one has learned a thing in these many years of "conflict" with Muslim States, or bothered to hear what experts have been saying all along.

In any case, as a citizen of the United States, I am totally against to any "punishment" against Syria. Nothing we have ever done has taught a single thing to any Middle Eastern country. Nor will we now.

Please, God, make them hear and not just do what one person wants.  No more American lives lost to stupid warmongering!

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

How about we send a powerful message by staying out of what is not our business. All we know is that chem weapons were used we have NO proof of who used them.

narodana
narodana

@TIME oh! Wanna know HOW 'sending a powerful message without creating chaos' would actually work if you're already planing to use force.

jhonflin
jhonflin

Marine Le Pen reaction to the speech of François Hollande . Syria : Holland chooses the Islamists.

Hollande said his determination to engage France in a U.S. military intervention in Syria now appears more than likely and imminent.

This is a hasty decision based on speculation (" All indications " that it is the regime that committed this act, by its own terms ), while the light has not yet been done on the chemical attack committed in Syria. A few weeks ago , Carla Del Ponte , a member of the Commission of Inquiry of the UN on Syria itself showed that the rebels were using such weapons.
Past experience would however have done thinking : everyone remembers about the U.S. handling of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that does not actually exist.

This is a decision that enfeoffs again seriously France to the United States. Clearly, Hollande chose to obey orders to U.S. intervention in Syria, and continue to undermine the independence of our country, as Nicolas Sarkozy had done also by choosing to intervene in Libya . We are far from healthy refusal of France , in 2003 , to engage with the Americans in Iraq . It is far from a strong and independent diplomacy , respectful of international law.

But it is especially a decision that will be very heavy dramatic consequences .
First, because it is by attacking the Syrian regime , supporting Islamist rebels Hollande has also announced its intention to arm more. Again, past experience does not seem to serve any purpose : Nicolas Sarkozy had made ​​the same mistake in Libya , helping to bring to power Islamist rebels , with terrible consequences that we know today. Sharia , the persecution of Christians in Syria , this is what awaits the country if the United States and France are involved . There is also a major contradiction with the objective to Mali , which was precisely to prevent the takeover by the Islamists and fight another weapon on one side even those that .
Then , striking Syria , the United States and France may put your finger in a terrible spiral , the region is a tinderbox , and Russia, along with China , displaying a real hostility to any intervention . Everything suggests that this decision will result in an escalation of violence.

Decidedly Francois Hollande all areas commits any mistakes .

Perez210Juan
Perez210Juan

@TIME MESSAGES ARE SENT IN ENVELOPES, AND MAYBE WE SHOULD HAVE A SIT DOWN FACE TO FACE HAVING A END GAME CONVERSATION, WHERE SYRIANS WIN??

RobertJ.Spreitzer
RobertJ.Spreitzer

Another hornets nest. This at least will take domestic policy troubles off the news. Convenient. But what a price we'll realy end up likely paying for this latest misadventure in self-righteous world policing.

sophiesobea
sophiesobea

@TIME Obama said Wednesday,8/28,that he's seeking a “limited, tailored” attack plan for Syria.He said it will be “a shot across the bow”.

tgaw213
tgaw213

@TIME How to make an impact without asking for retaliation from some other idiot dictator (Iran)? Something must be done regardless...

viksul90
viksul90

crazy world..ee will all be judged by God one day on account of our deeds..their will be no politics,,only 100% truth..

une_avalanche
une_avalanche

@TIME NO ONE wants a war. we need congressional approval so that the peoples voices are heard.

humdehum801
humdehum801

@TIME "Without creating chaos." Yeah, okay. Good luck with that.

jhonflin
jhonflin

The British government is the most enthusiastic country in the entire international community to get involved in Syria, and the decision on intervention has already been made, believes leader of UK Independence Party Nigel Farage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f12z3RP7Rm8

svilen_dekov
svilen_dekov

If Assad is guilty , he should be sued not bombed . Another problem is that he has better missiles than tomahawk .

chemistryman
chemistryman

Dear Assad don't kill your people with gas. Kill them in many other ways.


paulejb
paulejb

"I think the consensus is that while stopping Assad in 2011 might have been wise (before the use of the WMD and 100,000 dead), doing so now is, well, problematic."

VICTOR DAVIS HANSON

http://pjmedia.com/blog/intervening-in-syria/

Barry 0, as usual, is a day late and a dollar short.

paulejb
paulejb

It's not a difficult decision, people. Since neither side is worth a bucket of spit target them all. It doesn't really matter since any US attack is merely a stunt to cover for Obama's total fecklessness.

sophiesobea
sophiesobea

@TIME Obama said Wednesday,8/28,that he's seeking a “limited, tailored” attack plan for .He said it will be “a shot across the bow”.

jmac
jmac

@une_avalanche @TIME We're at war and we've been at war since 9/11.  

jmac
jmac

@buffalo.barnes102 When he took out bin Ladin?  No, Bush wasn't worried about Bin Ladin.    It wasn't when Obama lied about weapons of mass destruction, yellow cake and selling a war based on an event that happened 14 years previously - because Obama hasn't done that.  

paulejb
paulejb

@chemistryman 

Exactly what are the approved methods for killing civilians? We have 100,000 dead Syrians, most of whom are Muslim, and a few hundred civilians allegedly killed by poison gas. What is the difference?

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

@paulejb How about stopping al-Qaeda Iraq, with its Saudi and Qatar support?

une_avalanche
une_avalanche

@AKDBBmmC @TIME i can see from your wall that you are a ranting republican. equating obama to hitler? you are out of your freaking mind

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

@paulejb@svilen_dekov   On the Internet, there is a dictum known as "Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies," coined in 1990 by a man named Mike Godwin. This law holds that "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." Anyone who has spent time on political discussion boards can see that it's true; in any charged debate (abortion, Iraq, Israel, foreign policy), it's only a matter of time before someone compares his opponent to Hitler.

buffalo.barnes102
buffalo.barnes102

@jmac @buffalo.barnes102 

And yet, with 2 debacles poorly handled, not to mention whatever that was in Libya, here we go marching into yet another quagmire. Burned-out troops, led by a new crop of Generals, eager to "make their bones", raise their medal count, then quickly retire, to squawk on CNN/ Fox Spews, "If only..."

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

@jmac @buffalo.barnes102 But Obama did significantly expand the failed US exercise in Afghanistan, as well as increase domestic repression in the U.S. So he is sorta like Bush, but worse.

paulejb
paulejb

@Don_Bacon @paulejb 

Too late! That ship has sailed. Barry 0 snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq.

jmac
jmac

@Don_Bacon @jmac @buffalo.barnes102  Yes, Obama listened to the Generals on AFghanistan when he should have listened to his V.P. - who had a son fighting.   We know from history we can't nation build in Afghanistan and the last "surge" was a waste of money.   But if it set up the mission of going into Pakistan to get bin Laden - then it was worth the money.  

The domestic repression has a lot to do with Congress wanting the economy to flounder - and, again, with the Blue Dog Obama not listening to progressive economist.   He's no Democrat.