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The Syria Strike and the Three Bears

The on-again, off-again U.S. military strike on Syria – widely assumed to be an attack using cruise missiles launched from destroyers – appears to be off again.

Thanks to a Sept. 14 U.S.-Russian agreement aimed at pressuring Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to place his chemical weapons under international control, U.S. military intervention no longer appears imminent, although President Barack Obama says U.S. military intervention remains an option.

Nothing in the current flurry of activity seems likely to reduce the violent horrors of the Syrian civil war.

For weeks the world focused on the looming missile strike in retaliation for a Sarin gas attack by Assad forces on Aug. 21 that killed about 1,400 people, including about 400 children. Thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizing the moment – and having lots of luck – it now appears diplomacy may replace missiles.

Nothing in the current flurry of activity seems likely to reduce the violent horrors of the Syrian civil war, which has left more than 100,000 dead and created 2.5 million refugees, apparently the largest refugee population in the world. The flow of refugees to camps that were never equipped for their numbers has created painful infrastructure issues in Jordan, a nation friendly to the United States whose very survival is threatened by the refugees’ demands on water, food, supplies and infrastructure. There has been no slowdown of fighting within Syria.

Syrian Diplomacy

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and their senior advisers meet on the pool deck of the Hotel Intercontinental in Geneva, Switzerland, during their final negotiating session over an agreement to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons, Sept. 14, 2013. U.S. State Department photo

As a retired U.S. diplomat, I never understood where Obama was going with the missile-strike plan. As a longtime author on military topics, I’ve been scratching my head over what I dubbed the “Goldilocks” missile strike – not too big, not too small, just right. Secretary of State John Kerry has backpedaled from his assertion that the strike would be “incredibly small.” Obama said, “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.” That comment by the president disturbed Pentagon officers, who regard bragging about military strength as poor form, and it leaves no one quite certain what the strike would consist of.


The “Goldilocks” Strike

Although it now appears less likely than in late August, the paradoxes that underlie the missile strike against Syria continue to puzzle observers in Washington. The questions are many:

Why did the president do an about-face and seek congressional approval after polls showed the public overwhelmingly opposed?

— If the strike was to be effective, why did Obama, initially with no intention of consulting Congress, broadcast his plan in advance, giving Assad’s forces time to prepare? The president did not seek congressional authorization when the United States intervened in Libya, in a far less complex crisis, in 2011.

— Why did the president do an about-face and seek congressional approval after polls showed the public overwhelmingly opposed? Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said his constituents were 90 percent against it, but he would support a strike because, “I’m voting my conscience.” Ted Sevigny wrote in the Washington Post September 10: “It may come as a shock to … Mr. Connolly, but Congress was created to represent the wishes and desires of voters.”

President Barack Obama Syria

President Barack Obama discusses his decision to seek authorization from Congress before launching any military action against Syria with Speaker of the House John Boehner, in the Oval Office, Aug. 31, 2013. Vice President Joe Biden listens at right. White House Photo by Pete Souza

— How would a missile strike deter Assad from stockpiling and using chemical weapons? Pentagon officials acknowledge they don’t want to degrade “Unit 450,” the elite palace guard that maintains iron-fisted control over Assad’s chemical and biological arsenal, considered the second largest in the world after North Korea’s. Obama said striking stockpiles directly would risk releasing toxic gases, inflicting the very kind of nightmare the United States seeks to prevent.

— Wouldn’t a strike, or for that matter the U.S.-Russian agreement, leave both sides in Syria free to continue widespread slaughter with bullets, bombs and artillery shells? It has not escaped the world’s press that some of the rebels can be as brutal as Assad’s forces. A widely published photo shows rebels killing captured Syrian soldiers, execution style, hands tied behind their backs.


Ready to Fight

Here’s a brief timeline: After passing the fewest number of bills in the history of any single session and making no progress toward crucial domestic issues, Congress took a five-week recess Aug. 3 to Sept. 9, leaving no prospect that a traditional budget can be in place when fiscal year 2014 begins Oct. 1. The United States began building up its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean in early summer and continued the process after the much publicized Aug. 21 Sarin gas attack in an outskirt of Damascus. Obama scheduled an address Sept. 10 to appeal directly to the public for Capitol Hill approval for a missile strike. What became known as the “Putin proposal,” and later the U.S.-Russian agreement, was enunciated Sept. 9, cutting off Obama at the knees before he could address the nation the following day.

Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times that the message conveyed by Barack Obama was that dictators can massacre their own people so long as they don’t do it with chemical weapons.

The result was a mishmash of a presidential speech that may have been the worst, ever, by a figure better known for oratory than for governance.

U.S. Navy Eastern Mediterranean Near Syria

The guided-missile destroyer USS Stout (DDG 55), right, and the guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) perform small boat operations, Sept. 12, 2013. Any potential military strike against Syria would have likely involved the Tomahawks carried by the Stout and Barry. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Christopher B. Stoltz

The U. S. Navy has four Arleigh Burke-class missile destroyers near Syria. The USS Ramage (DDG 61), USS Barry (DDG 52), USS Gravely (DDG 107) and USS Stout (DDG 55) are each armed with about 20 Tomahawk cruise missiles, although they can carry 96. Some carry the latest version, the RGM-109E Block IV Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (T-LAM), which has a range of about 1,150 miles (1850 km) and the capability to approach at high altitude and loiter over a target area before striking. Stout was routinely slated to relieve USS Mahan (DDG 72). Officials said at first that Mahan would remain on station, bringing the total number of destroyers to five, but it appears Mahan headed for home after the “Putin proposal” undermined the president’s speech.

And the speech? Obama said he still thought a strike might be necessary but, paradoxically, that he would postpone his request for congressional approval. At the podium for the purpose of justifying an act of war, Obama embraced the “Putin proposal” and expressed hope it could contribute to peace. Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times that the message conveyed by Barack Obama was that dictators can massacre their own people so long as they don’t do it with chemical weapons.


Vladimir Putin On-Stage

Russian President Putin has a knack for soaking up publicity that would put Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton to shame. A macho photo of Putin shirtless on horseback is a popular item in Moscow souvenir shops. The Russian president loves being seen in masculine pursuits – scuba diving, piloting powered hang gliders, fishing in the wild. He loves martial arts. In March 2000, he was photographed flying in a supersonic Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker” from Moscow for an inspection of the restive Chechnya province. While Obama fares poorly in polls, Putin, despite his totalitarian style of leadership, remains immensely popular among most Russians.

There’s the simple fact that Putin is determined to keep Assad in power, no matter what.

The “Putin proposal,” the result of an of-the-cuff comment by Kerry, now appears to be a stroke of brilliance by the Russian leader. The New Republic, which supports Obama, wrote, “Obama got played by Putin and Assad.” For all of his Hollywood-style narcissism, Putin has shown himself to be a strong and thoughtful leader. Throughout this whole affair, he made only one serious mistake. A September 11 op-ed in the New York Times criticizing the Obama plan to use “brute force” and questioning American exceptionalism angered lawmakers of both parties, infuriated Obama, and reminded everyone that it’s not quite so easy to publish an unpopular opinion in a Russian newspaper.

Kerry Lavrov Syria

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov share a laugh during a news conference held after the two finalized a framework for the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons in Geneva, Switzerland, Sept. 14, 2013. U.S. State Department photo

For now, the U.S.-Russian agreement appears to give everyone something he wants. Obama can claim, although almost no one believes it, that his willingness to use force caused the agreement to happen. Putin and Assad, ironically, can claim credit for defusing the situation and outmaneuvering the United States on the political stage. Everyone wins except, of course, the tragic people of war-torn Syria and surrounding countries. The “Goldilocks” missile strike can be avoided – maybe.

But wait a minute.


Danger on the High Seas

Although Syria lacks a blue-water navy and has no submarines, Assad’s country has patrol craft and limited-range missiles that might be able to reach out to the four U.S. destroyers or to other ships of the Harry S. Truman carrier strike group, which recently relieved the Nimitz carrier strike group. Although Russia is less a naval power than the United States, it has increased the number of its warships in the Mediterranean. On Sept. 13, Russian Navy commander-in-chief Adm. Viktor Chirkov announced the number of Russian warships in the Mediterranean would increase from seven to ten with the addition of the guided missile cruiser Moskva, the destroyer Smetlivy and the Alligator-class assault landing ship Nikolai Filchenkov. Not to be overlooked is the fact that the Russians have a small naval base at Tartus, Syria, and that Filchenkov is expected to sit at the docks there. Some press reports say the ship, roughly equivalent to an American landing ship tank, or LST, embarked with a secret “special cargo.”

Add to this witches’ brew the near certainty that Russia and Syria have the capability, separately or together, to launch a cyber attack on the U.S. electronic infrastructure with possibly devastating results. Finally, there’s the simple fact that Putin is determined to keep Assad in power, no matter what.

USS Stout Eastern Mediterranean

The guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) in the eastern Mediterranean near Syria, Sept. 12, 2013. Even after an agreement between the U.S. and Russia regarding Syrian chemical weapons, the Mediterranean remains a powder keg. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason Howard

So although things look better now than when the Obama missile strike appeared more likely, the Mediterranean is more than ever a powder keg and the Middle East remains in turmoil. Does anyone remember that the Great War of 1914-1918, later called World War I, started because of a combination of intransigence, accident and miscalculation?

The world may be in a slightly safer place than it was before the “Putin proposal” but the three bears – Obama, Putin, and Assad – still need to stay with the porridge and keep “Goldilocks” off the table.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...