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The Military Case Against Syria Strikes

By Jon Soltz  |  Huffington Post  |  View story in the original context
PUBLISHED: September 04, 2013

The question of what to do, if anything, regarding Syria is a difficult one for me, especially as the Chairman of the largest progressive group of veterans in America, VoteVets.org, which represents over 360,000 supporters. This past week, we polled our supporters on whether or not they supported missile strikes against Syria. Roughly 80 percent said we should not. Though cut and dry for many, this issue is more complex for me, because of my history with some of the people now pushing for action.

The entire reason I become involved in politics and policy work is because, as a young veteran returning from my first tour in Iraq, I met then-Senator John Kerry. I felt lost - angered by a war in Iraq that I could no longer support waging, but with strong doubt over whether I could make a difference. John Kerry, one veteran to another, talked to me about the importance of becoming involved, and of the impact I could make, if I directed my energies into something constructive.

Along the way, I met another veteran in then-Senator Chuck Hagel. Like Kerry, he understood where I, and other veterans, were coming from, and was always willing to sit down and speak with me, and mentor me. It went beyond politics and party labels, in a way that might be hard to understand for those who don't have the ties of brotherhood that veterans do. There are few people on this earth that I respect and admire more than Kerry and Hagel.

Now, Defense Secretary Hagel and Secretary of State Kerry are leading the argument for limited missile strikes, aimed at Bashar al-Assad's regime. By now, we've all heard the arguments from the administration and others: Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people is a humanitarian tragedy, and very likely a war crime. The United States must send a message to others who may aim to do the same against their own people that the United States will not let it stand. Therefore, we must take this action. It is not easy for me to say, but I disagree.

First, there is no doubt that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is a horrific tragedy, and a violation of human rights. But, I think back to Carl von Clausewitz, who we all study in the military. He said, "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."

Missile strikes, as limited and justified as they may be, are an act of war against the Assad regime. Yet, I get no sense that the United States has any clear idea of our strategic or operational endstate. We want to deter the regime from using weapons but, according to the hearings yesterday, we don't want to conduct decisive actions against Assad that could lead to his defeat by Syrian insurgents.

If our goal is to eliminate Assad's chemical weapons cache, then missile strikes, alone, won't achieve that goal. There is a 100 percent chance that we will not eliminate his chemical weapons. Using airstrikes on chemical sites can create disaster of its own, leaking the dangerous gases into the air (a possible root cause of Gulf War Syndrome in our veterans). But, it's the ability to deliver chemical weapons that is critical. Missiles or artillery rounds could be used. These weapon systems are legitimate targets, but many could be deployed throughout populated areas as the Syrians prepare for an attack, making them extremely hard to target.

Therefore, ground troops would be required to seize chemical weapons, a consideration that is "off the table" (although we are currently building a large military installation in Jordan, that has parts of the 1st Armored Division's staff deployed).

If, as the administration says, our goal is to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again, strikes won't achieve that, either. This was also the stated goal several months back of why Syrian insurgents were armed, another action VoteVets.org opposed. And yet, here we are again. There is a reason why sending arms to the rebels wasn't a deterrent, and why strikes will not be a deterrent, either. Because neither action truly threatens Assad's grip on power.

In Syria, Assad has selected certain units most loyal to him that protect the regime (much like Saddam Hussein did). This is his operational center of gravity; his regime's defense. High percentages of these units are from the Allawite Sect, and are commanded by his personal relatives. They will fight until the end. Until these units are destroyed, the Syrian civil war will remain an asymmetrical stalemate. And so, even if we strike, Assad will continue to hold to power, and the civil war in Syria will continue. 

We must not ignore the warning of our senior military leaders, like we did in the lead up to the Iraq War. In a letter to Congress several weeks ago Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey's words speak for themselves.

"We can destroy the Syrian air force," he said. "The loss of Assad's air force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict. Stated another way, it would not be militarily decisive, but it would commit us decisively to the conflict.... The use of U.S. military force can change the military balance. But it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict."

In short, any military action without a decisive end, like strikes, further obligates the United States military to another war, either because the regime will continue to kill in large numbers, use chemical weapons again, or because we feel we must tip the balance of the war. Then, in the aftermath, we must deal with the post-Assad Syria, only without many of our allies. In Syria, where many of the rebels have ties to terrorist groups, the enemy of our enemy also happens to be our enemy. Both sides fought US troops in Iraq, and both sides would fight US troops in Syria.

I fully understand that President Obama has painted himself into a political corner, but VoteVets.org cannot support this rush to conflict. At this point, if we want to help without committing the United States to another war, humanitarian assistance to bolster a moderate opposition still represents our best course of action in Syria.

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