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.