Updated August 23rd 2013: Since this article was written back in April of this year the situation in Syria, not to mention the rest of the region has continued to get worse. This past week there appear to be credible new reports of the Syrian government using chemical weapons against their own people. It appears that the US and other powers are cautiously moving military forces into the region closer to Syria and that Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Israel could be drawing closer to involvement in the war. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians of all ethnic groups and faiths are fleeing the country, primarily to Iraq, Jordan and Turkey. Lebanon is beginning to collapse and Israel launched air strikes into Lebanon after being hit by rockets fired by the Assad regime’s ally Hezbollah. This is all taking place as Egypt is perched at the abyss of civil war, and much of North Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula is in the throws of war, civil war or the collapse of any governmental order.
Needless to say it is not a good situation and the United States as well as many other governments and international bodies are trying to find a way through the eye of the needle to keep the multitude of problems from coalescing into a truly disastrous regional conflict which could effect the political, economic and military security of countries in the region and yes, like us on the far side of the globe.
Carl von Clausewitz wrote: “No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.”
Personally I don’t think that there is anyone who has a clear understanding of what they think their country should do or accomplish in Syria of the Middle East.
That being said here is what I wrote in April.
For the past number of weeks various news agencies and governments have reported the use of Sarin nerve gas by the Bashir Assad led Syrian government against rebels in that country’s civil war. The use of such weapons would be in defiance of international law and the law of war. The confirmed use of such weapons has been defined as a “red line” by the Obama administration. Israel, NATO and Turkey have all warned of the danger of the use of such weapons. Sarin has been banned and almost all nations have signed the 1993 treaty, but Syria is not one of them and reportedly has one of the largest stockpiles of Sarin in the world.
Today US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated:
“the U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.”
Last week both Britain and France wrote the Secretary General of the United Nations that they had evidence that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against their own people. The Russians, a long term traditional ally of Syria have accused the West of attempting to “politicize” efforts to determine whether chemical weapons have been used and compared such efforts to the pre-Iraq War hunt for alleged Iraqi WMDs.
It is a dangerous time. The United States and NATO have deployed a number of Patriot Missile batteries to Turkey, which is harboring tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and a small number of US troops are in Jordan assisting with refugees and working with the Jordanians on other security matters. Lebanon is becoming involved in the conflict due to the activities of Hezbollah and Israel has stepped up its security along its border with both Syria and Lebanon. In Syria the civil war has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives with hundreds of thousands more displaced or living as refugees in other countries.
It is a human rights disaster and in a perfect world the international community would come together to right the situation. That will likely not happen. Instead I expect that hawks in the United States Congress and press and potentially Israel and its Washington lobby will force President Obama to intervene in the Syrian Civil War, perhaps unilaterally or as part of a relatively small coalition. Both Senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein made statements today on the need for intervention.
The fact is that as terrible as the situation is that an even worse situation will most likely develop should such a limited intervention take place to secure the chemical and possible biological weapons stored by the Syrian regime. Before Iraq I would have probably been on the bandwagon urging intervention, but I did learn something from Iraq. The fact is that though our intelligence agencies may believe that Sarin has been used in small quantities we need to be absolutely sure before any intervention is made. Some in the Defense Department are concerned because of what happened regarding supposedly good and solid intelligence. As such the Miguel Rodriquez of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs noted:
“Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin. This assessment is based in part on physiological samples. Our standard of evidence must build on these intelligence assessments as we seek to establish credible and corroborated facts. …
“Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experiences, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient — only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making …”
I know what Sarin and other nerve gasses can do. I trained extensively as an Army Medical Service Corps Officer in NBC (Nuclear Chemical and Biological) weapon defense. The Soviets called Sarin GB and it was something that we trained to defend against during the Cold War. Back then we trained extensively to defend ourselves against chemical weapons, we practically lived in our MOPP (Mission Oriented Protective Posture) suits and protective masks. We trained to decontaminate personnel and equipment, we trained on knowing how such weapons were used, fallout patterns and half-life of the agents. We trained with atropine injectors in case we were contaminated and we learned that the triage of wounded was different when they were contaminated with chemical agents.
However, since 9-11 and our counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan the general preparedness of most units in this type of warfare has been neglected because those wars did not require them. With the exception of highly specialized units organized with the mission of Chemical, Biological and Nuclear weapon defense and response in the Continental United States few units are trained to the level that we were in the Cold War and even then most of us expected that if such weapons were used in the quantities amassed by the Soviets that most of us would die.
That being said we had damned well be absolutely sure that we know a lot more than we know now before committing a single American Soldier, Marine, Sailor or Airman to the mission of securing these weapons. Securing them in the existing environment in Syria would take tens of thousands of troops and based on the geography of Syria, the potential for Iranian intervention and the use of these WMDs against our troops by Syria should we intervene.
The question that I would ask anyone advocating military intervention now is “what is the cost in lives and treasure you are willing to make to do it? and what is your endgame?” The fact is that in two “low intensity” counterinsurgency campaigns we have lost over 6500 US troops killed and over 50,000 wounded not counting the hundreds of thousands afflicted with Traumatic Brain Injury and and PTSD. How many more would be sacrificed in a campaign in Syria and what will be the long term cost to them, their families, the military, national security and the economy?
The easy answer for the Hawks in Congress, the Beltway pundits and lobbyists is to send in the military. I think that it is a reflexive response now, send in the troops, damn the costs. That is easy for them to say because “the troops” are less than 1% of the US population. They can win elections without our vote. Sending in the troops looks strong and patriotic and people applaud when they see us on television doing a great job. But it is unrealistic. The military has been worn down by nearly 12 years of war. Equipment is wearing out, troops are tired, suicide rates skyrocketing, medical costs increasing. Add to this the fact that operational units are being squeezed by the budget fiasco forced by Congress in 2011 known as the sequester. But few will say this and that is as close to criminal negligence as one can get on the part of those advocating intervention in Syria.
I am offended by the knee jerk reactions of Congressmen and Senators as well as their enablers in the media and the beltway who seem to be advocating US involvement in yet another civil war in a Middle Eastern country. What is the legal basis for such an invasion or intervention? What is the human cost and what is the economic cost and who pays the bill?
Smedley Butler, Marine Corps Major General and two time Medal of Honor winner said it well when writing about the costs of war in his book War is a Racket following World War One, which by the way was the last time that US troops faced Chemical weapons:
“But the soldier pays the biggest part of this bill.
If you don’t believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit any of the veterans’ hospitals in the United States….I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.”
In another part of his book Butler wrote:
“In the government hospital at Marion, Indiana 1,800 of these boys are in pens! Five hundred of them in a barracks with steel bars and wires all around the outside of the buildings and on the porches. These have already been mentally destroyed. These boys don’t even look like human beings. Oh, the looks on their faces! Physically they are in good shape but mentally they are gone.”
There are thousands and thousands of these cases and more and more are coming in all the time…
That’s a part of the bill. So much for the dead-they have paid their part of the war profits. So much for the mentally and physically wounded- they are paying now with their share of the war profits. But others paid with the heartbreaks when they tore themselves away for their firesides and their families to don the uniform of Uncle Sam- on which a profit had been made….”
Before any military actions are taken against Syria someone had better ask the hard questions that were so buried and ignored in the build up to the Iraq War. What is the cost? What is the legal basis? What is the endgame? If those questions cannot be answered in a satisfactory manner then not no American military forces be committed and not a dime spent.
Yes the situation in Syria is a tragedy, but intervention would likely make it even more so. As terrible as this conflict is, it is a Syrian affair. Yes we will have to deal with whatever comes out of it, but is American military intervention to secure the Syrian Chemical weapons the wise course of action, especially in light of how much that we do not know?
How many more coffins containing the bodies of US military personnel need to be shipped back from yet another war? Oh wait, I’ll bet you didn’t know that the bodies of soldiers killed by chemical agents are contaminated and most would not come home because of that risk. Somehow I don’t think that a military cemetery in Syria would be as well maintained as those in France, Belgium and Luxembourg where so many Americans lay in final repose following the First and Second World War. I know this because I have seen the British military cemetery in Habbaniyah Iraq.
Yes this is a big deal for all of us. It is much too important to be made without a full accounting before a single American Soldier, Marine, Sailor or Airman is committed to action.