There is no free pass when one nation attacks another. In such a high-stakes game of poker, it’s always wise to peek at your opponent’s cards. “The enemy,” U.S. military officers like to say, “always gets a vote.”
So as the U.S. prepares to deftly punch Syrian strongman Bashar Assad hard enough to hurt — but not drive him from power — he may decide not to play along and simply take the punch and quietly put his deadly gases away. There’s always the danger Assad — or his allies — could respond to Washington’s retaliation by retaliating themselves.
President Obama said Friday he has been listening to advice from his military advisers. “We are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act,” he said, “that would help make sure that not only Syria but others around the world understands that the international community cares about maintaining this chemical-weapons ban.”
The Obama Administration knows the risks of a limited strike. In fact, they were detailed by the nation’s top military officer last month. “There is a risk that the regime could withstand limited strikes by dispersing its assets,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a July 19 letter to Senator Carl Levin, D-Mich, chairman of the armed services committee. “Retaliatory attacks are also possible, and there is a probability for collateral damage impacting civilians and foreigners inside the country.”
Military experts agree. Once the shooting starts, anything can happen in the fog of war.
“Syria state is a client state of Iran, and Iran is a master of irregular warfare,” says Phillip Carter, a former Army officer and Pentagon official now serving as an analyst with the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “Iran could easily destabilize the region for quite some time and see the threats of retaliation play out over months or years into the future.” But that shouldn’t stay the President’s hand, he says: “These are risks that great powers must take whenever they act in the world.”
Such retaliation doesn’t always come quickly. In 1983, a month after shelling Lebanese fighters, a suicide trucker blew up the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. troops. Three years later, the U.S. bombed Libya to retaliate for the bombing of a German disco that killed a pair of American soldiers. Two years after that, in 1988, Libyan agents downed Pan Am Flight 103, killing 270 people, including 189 Americans. In 1998, the U.S. lobbed cruise missiles into terrorist training camps in Afghanistan to punish al Qaeda for bombing two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans. Three years later, al Qaeda struck on 9/11, killing 2,996 people, including 2,623 Americans.
There is little chance Assad will retaliate, says Jack Keane, a retired Army general who served as the service’s No. 2 officer from 1999 to 2003. “He wants our ships to go away,” Keane says, “and take their cruise missiles with them.”
But Iran is a different story. It won’t openly lash out against the U.S. or Israel, he predicts. “That would give [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu the excuse he needs to go get Iran’s nuclear weapons once and for all,” Keane says. “But they might do more state-sponsored terrorism using surrogates” like the Hizballah Shiite-militant group.
“They’ve been killing us for 30 years, and we’ve never lifted a finger against them,” he says, citing bombings across the region beginning with Beirut in 1983, to providing U.S. foes in Iraq with deadly explosively-formed penetrators that Keane estimates killed 1,200 U.S. troops. “So they could attack U.S. targets in the region,” he says. Then he pauses. “But the truth is,” he adds, “that could happen any time.”
Retired admiral William “Fox” Fallon echoes that sentiment. He served as chief of U.S. Central Command (which includes Syria) in 2007-2008, and is leery of connecting U.S. strikes to subsequent terror attacks. “I’d be careful about drawing too many lines between these events, in different places, at different times, about different issues,” he says. Fallon was flying bombing missions over Beirut when U.S. warships were shelling Lebanese Muslims, but doesn’t think the two were connected. “Those guys were looking for an opportunity to blow us up in any way, shape or form,” he says, 30 years later. “I don’t think that was a reaction to the shelling.” But any attack, he warns, can trigger “unintended consequences.”
It’s trite, but true: war is always a gamble.
So as Obama prepares to roll the dice, he’d do well to remember something else Dempsey, his top military adviser, said in that letter to Levin last month. “We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action,” the general wrote. “Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”