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Syria: What are we going to do now?

Syria: What are we going to do now?
Published 5 Oct 2016   Follow @RodgerShanahan

As the media becomes full with images of the bombing of Aleppo, calls for military action by Washington to stop civilian deaths become louder and louder. As a former military planner though, I side with President Obama when he says that he hasn’t seen a military option that stops the civil war short of the deployment of large numbers of ground troops.

There have been myriad proposals put up by well-meaning commentators with uncertain, if any, military planning experience. None of these really engage with addressing the significant (I would say fatal) flaws inherent in each. In 2011 the Brookings Institution offered four military options in Syria but noted, even at the time, that there was 'no guarantee such options would work'. Five years later, commentators have offered up four military options that seem equally thin.

There have been calls for no-fly zones (NFZ) and safe zones, no-bomb zones, cratering of runways to stop the ability of aircraft to take off and bomb civilian targets, and better arming of opposition groups. Of course none of these options represents a strategy, simply a short-term tactic to 'exact a price' on the Syrian government sufficient to force it into serious negotiations. This assumes (erroneously in my opinion) that such an action, or combination of actions, will cause a certain reaction in the Syrian, Russian and Iranian governments. 

But in military planning the devil is always in the detail and one of Washington’s concerns is that the Syrian military coalition is not a unitary actor. The failure of a limited military response to elicit the desired Syrian/Russian response leaves Washington with two choices. It can either continually up the ante and become more involved militarily until it is decisively committed (the 'boiling the frog' theory of strategic entrapment and an unstated aim of some of the advocates), or have no lasting effect and be humiliated.

Let’s look at some of the potential problems in the suggestions that have been made. I will bypass the lack of international legal coverage for most if not all options as it is a common factor. [fold]

NFZ/no-bomb/safe zones

This would require a willingness to challenge and shoot down Russian aircraft flying in support of a legally recognised government that has requested Moscow's military assistance, because we have to assume Moscow would challenge any such illegal construct. What if the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies decide that they will stop flying but use large numbers of artillery and multi-launch rocket systems against insurgents operating among civilian populations? Will US (and possibly Australian) aircraft be comfortable flying at 20,000 feet protecting an illegal NFZ while below them they see towns pummelled by ground-based indirect fire assets? The NFZ would look pretty ineffectual then. Conversely, how would the coalition guarantee that jihadis aren’t able to take advantage of the air cover that an NFZ provides to rest, train and plan, safe from air attack? An NFZ in the Syrian context requires a ground force to ensure that opposition forces of various hues don’t take advantage of the protection it affords: who is going to do that, and how effective would they be in identifying and stopping other groups’ fighters from taking advantage of the NFZ? 

Cratering runways

This might stop fixed wing aircraft for a little while, until the runway is repaired and the planes start flying again. Okay, then we’ll bomb it again. But what if this time it’s Iranian and/or Russian airfield engineers that repair it and set themselves up at the airbase? Or if Moscow decides to deploy some Russian aircraft with Syrian aircraft on some Syrian airbases to see if Washington wants to take the risk of stopping Russian aircraft from operating, or even damage Russian aircraft should a guidance unit not function properly and a hangar rather than the runway gets hit. Or they move military aircraft to Damascus International Airport and operate from there instead. What will Washington do then? And then there’s the uncomfortable fact that rotary wing aircraft don’t need runways to operate from. They can operate from playing fields, highways, school grounds: wherever there is enough space to take off, land, refuel and re-arm.

Giving the opposition better weapons, or even man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS)

The problem, of course, with supplying weapons to rebel groups is that one loses control of them the moment they are handed over. They may be used properly or they may be on-sold, lost on the battlefield, captured by (or handed over) to fighters they were never intended them for. With small arms this is less of a problem, and even anti-armour weapons may be an acceptable risk (although US-supplied anti-tank missiles were allegedly used by Kurdish forces to destroy two Turkish tanks in August this year). But MANPADS are a proliferation line that no one wants to cross so more arms will do nothing to halt the Syrian/Russian air campaign.
Only Charles Lister from the MEI has had a crack at outlining a series of steps that constitute something that approaches a strategy, an effort for which he should be congratulated. But his proposal is practically unworkable as it requires international law to be ignored. It assumes the Russians would be willing to sit and take whatever the US throws at them. It suggests pro-Al Qaeda jihadists should not be targeted in favour of other opposition groups being made to ‘re-realise’ that the jihadists were not preferred battlefield partners, despite the fact the AQ fighters are largely Syrians and the most capable rebel military force. Any one of the assumptions on which the plan is based doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and the combination of them all even less so. 

President Obama has no shortage of commentators and pundits who have any number of suggestions for getting involved in military action in Syria, but not one of them has any coherent sense of where such action would lead, or even what to do when the opening military actions don't achieve the effect envisioned. That is the difference between the calculations of a commander-in-chief, who needs to look at things strategically, and commentators and advocates who can't see past the tactical. 

Photo: Mahmut Faysal/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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