Syria: Kerry Wanted Airstrikes

Jeffrey Goldberg reports that Secretary of State John Kerry wanted President Obama to go much further in his shift in policy in Syria. He wanted Obama to order air strikes at targets inside Syria that are controlled by Assad but the Pentagon was strongly opposed to the idea.

At a principals meeting in the White House situation room, Secretary of State John Kerry began arguing, vociferously, for immediate U.S. airstrikes against airfields under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime — specifically, those fields it has used to launch chemical weapons raids against rebel forces.

It was at this point that the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the usually mild-mannered Army General Martin Dempsey, spoke up, loudly. According to several sources, Dempsey threw a series of brushback pitches at Kerry, demanding to know just exactly what the post-strike plan would be and pointing out that the State Department didn’t fully grasp the complexity of such an operation.

Dempsey informed Kerry that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties. At a time when the U.S. military is exhausted, and when sequestration is ripping into the Pentagon budget, Dempsey is said to have argued that a demand by the State Department for precipitous military action in a murky civil war wasn’t welcome.

Officials with knowledge of the meeting say that Kerry gave as good as he got, and that the discussion didn’t reach aneurysm-producing levels. But it was, in diplomatic parlance, a full and frank vetting of the profound differences between State and Defense on Syria. Dempsey was adamant: Without much of an entrance strategy, without anything resembling an exit strategy, and without even a clear-eyed understanding of the consequences of an American airstrike, the Pentagon would be extremely reluctant to get behind Kerry’s plan.

That would have been a very, very bad idea, far worse than merely arming the rebels (which ones? With what weapons? No one knows at this point). This story causes me to lose a great deal of confidence in Kerry and gain a little bit in Obama because he rejected the idea. Obama has acknowledged that there could very well be a slippery slope leading to more aggressive intervention and he says he won’t do that. I sure hope he means it. I’m also very glad to hear that the military leadership is not gung ho to get involved and, in fact, seem to be very reluctant to do so.

24 comments on this post.
  1. doublereed:

    Wow, Kerry’s always been an diplomat if I’m not mistaken. I didn’t know he had that in him. Sounds like he’s fuckin’ pissed.

  2. Ben P:

    Here’s my worry about this.

    It’s very easy to sit here and say that Syria’s not our problem, and we don’t want to get stuck reconstructing Syria if we intervene, and that because the rebel coalition includes hardcore islamists, and the conflict is deteriorating into a sectarian conflict. Those are all reasonable arguments.

    But where does Syria go from here?

    In the early 90′s the US dithered about while a genocide was ongoing in Rwanda and a million people were killed. US government officials openly admitted that *if* a genocide was ongoing in Rwanda that international law would allow or even obligate the US to intervene.

    But just about a year earlier Clinton had a massive public blowback because we’d gotten involved in the Somalian civil war, it had blown up in our faces and 20 some US soldiers had died.

    So the US government hemmed and hawwed for a number of months saying we didn’t really know if there was a genocide in Rwanda or not, until it became absolutely impossible to deny, then europeans lead an intervention.

    The US’s non action in Rwanda 20 years ago is widely seen as a tragedy.

    Syria has a population of 20 million. It’s estimated that this conflict has killed over 92,000 and displaced more than 2 million people, a full 10% of its population, if not more internally. The UN HRC’s already called it the worst humanitarian disaster since the cold war.

    What happens in Syria from here, and if we say “sorry, not our problem” how do we look back on that in 10 years?

  3. David Marjanović:

    To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties.

    Huh. I’ve learned something.

    Sounds like he’s fuckin’ pissed.

    Of fucking course he’s fuckin’ pissed. So am I! Every day Assad stays in office, more people die – and China and Russia don’t allow anything that might stop this. What would actually stop it, furthermore, is anybody’s guess – especially taking into account that some of the rebel factions are, uh, rather disagreeable people.

    It’s already an international issue, given that Hizbollah is fighting on Assad’s side – that means Lebanon, Israel, and Iran have stakes in it.

  4. Patrick Link:

    Obama has let the Saudis supply the rebels with heavy weapons. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10131063/Syrian-rebels-get-first-heavy-weapons-on-the-front-line-of-Aleppo.html

    Also, we have 3000 troops in Jordan, and 24 F-16s and Patriot missiles are going to stay there, not to mention the Patriot missiles we have on the Turkish border and the huge airbase we have not too far away.

  5. Michael Heath:

    [Joint Chief] Dempsey informed Kerry that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties. At a time when the U.S. military is exhausted, and when sequestration is ripping into the Pentagon budget . . .

    I agree you need a viable post-attack phase prior to committing to attacks. But the above emphasized premises are demonstrably biased analysis and therefore results in my having no confidence we’re hearing the best case to be made for air strikes. I.e., sequestration has not been, ripping into the Pentagon budget and I’m highly skeptical the Air Force and Navy air squadrons are, exhausted. These are also not viable premises from which to make a strategic decision such as this one.

    Mr. Goldberg has reduced an incredibly important decision point into another political soap opera about the characters rather than the meat of the debate. He could have fleshed this debate out by providing us with a sufficient set of actual factual assertions that are or should be critical premises from which to take a position.

  6. ottod:

    Where was Dempsey 11 years ago?

    “Without much of an entrance strategy, without anything resembling an exit strategy, and without even a clear-eyed understanding of the consequences of an American airstrike, the Pentagon would be extremely reluctant to get behind Kerry’s plan.”

    Was Kerry not paying attention when Rumsfeld, the Weed, and the Dick were (not) planning the destabilization of the Middle East.

  7. slc1:

    Re Michael Heath @ #5

    Obama is surrounded with hawks pushing for intervention, including Kerry, new National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and new UN Representative Suzanne Powers. At this point, we apparently don’t know the attitude of Secretary of Defense Hagel.

    What should be obvious to anyone who has paid attention to what has been going on in Syria is that all the options available to us are bad. What’s worse is that this conflict has the potential of degenerating into a Sunni/Shiite religious war. Already, the sectarian violence has spread to Iraq. Think of the 30 Years War fought with 20th/21th century weapons.

    The US and Israel have to shoulder some of the blame for the situation because they have tacitly supported the Assad Regime for 40 years because it kept things quiet on the Golan Highths cease fire line. My reading of the Israeli media indicates that there is great hesitation and uncertainty in that country about whether the West should intervene militarily because of the view that both sides are dominated by bad guys.

    For those who like conspiracy theories (Don Williams I’m looking at you), here’s something on the Huffington Post courtesy of Mike, the Mad Biologist.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-glaser/obama-syrian-rebels_b_3444030.html

    Now there’s a conspiracy theory!

  8. Ben P:

    Where was Dempsey 11 years ago?

    Rhetorical, I know, but I was interested so I looked.

    The answer is actually kind of interesting in terms of Iraq.

    From 1996 to 1998 Dempsey was Colonel and Commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, a position known colloquially as the Army’s “senior scout.”

    From 1998 to 2001 – Following that assignment he was assigned to be a Deputy Assistant Director J-5 with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “J-5″ is “Strategic Plans and Policy.” So he would not have had any decision making authority, but would have been responsible for developing large scale plans and policy and advising the Joint Chiefs during the run up to Iraq.

    From 2001-2003 he was promoted to Brigadier General and made a “special assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and was assigned to Saudi Arabia where he was in charge of US assistance in training the Saudi military.

    From 2003 to 2005 he was command of the US 1st Armored Division in Baghdad.

    From 2005 to 2007 he was the chief military officer in charge of training and equipping Iraqi Military Forces.

    From 2007-2008 he was deputy and then acting commander of US Central Command (an appointed position)

    2008-2011 he was in charge of the US Army training and doctrine command.

    2011 onward he was the chief of staff of the US army, and more recently was the commander of hte Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest ranking officer in the United States Military.

  9. lorn:

    I notice how the two sides are talking past each other. Kerry proposes that the DoD come up with a plan for a so called ‘low altitude deep penetration strike’, presumably intended to crated the runways and, perhaps, destroy some of the Syrian aircraft on the ground. Flying in through defended airspace was what we did in WW2, Korea, bombing North Vietnam, and we had planned to do it to the Soviet Union. We are talking about bombers or fighter/bombers supported by EW (electronics warfare) aircraft and coordinated attacks on key defense/communications sites threading or spoofing their way past defenses or, all else failing, screaming in as fast as possible at low altitude. The later option was depicted in the classic movie “Dr Strangelove”.

    Deep penetration strikes in a hostile environment like Syria are possible. The Israelis pull off small strikes quite regularly. They have advantages in having an intimate understanding of the terrain and opposition air defenses. They have been assumed to have agents on the ground observing and reporting minute by minute any significant movements.

    Given Israeli guidance and intelligence, and noting that Syrian defense forces are not in their prime, airstrikes through hostile territory are not out of the question. More in a bit.

    The DoD would much prefer to use their well proven ‘air superiority’ model. This is based upon a systematic and methodical removal of any and all significant challenges to air power. This typically starts with destruction of radar/EW systems and communications nodes handling regional air defenses. This eliminates the coordination of air defenses as a net and forces all the remaining systems to act in isolation and an uncoordinated manner. Degraded in that way individual sites can be isolated and destroyed piecemeal. Once all significant air defenses are destroyed aircraft can fly the friendly skies and use their freedom of movement to intervene at will, observe, and hold rivals at arms length it they attempt to intrude.

    This is what a no-fly zone is. It is a protracted and violent act of war. No-fly zones are not just lines drawn on maps. They are the violent sanitizing of a territory to give our air forces dominance and free reign.

    The US air forces have made a science of doing this. We are good enough to do it without any great risk to our own forces because the aircraft attack from the clean edge of the sanitary cordon. Any aircraft unfortunate enough to be damaged imposing air superiority can flee to the friendly side of the line. bail out, and expect rapid recovery.

    In comparison penetration air strikes are quick but higher risk for losing plots but they involve only a few aircraft and benefit from surprise. Air superiority is slow, days if not weeks, it involves huge numbers of aircraft and after the initial strike (which is essentially a penetration strike targeting strategic air defenses) there is little surprise as sites are obliterated one-by-one.

    I think that a penetration strike on Syrian airfields could be pulled off with minimal risk of losing a pilot. We could crater their runways and destroy a few aircraft. The psychological effect would be pretty strong but runways can be repaired quickly and the odds of destroying most/all of the Syrian aircraft in one strike is insignificant. And if these strikes are targeting airfields used to launch chemical attacks there is some risk you hit a chemical weapons stockpile.

    Of course, there is a good chance that all this is diplomatic eyewash. The spectacle of Kerry expressing his anger and while being restrained by cooler heads in the military grooms the diplomatic space in specific ways. IMHO the eyewash explanation carried a lot of weight. If Kerry was really pushing for penetration strike the last thing he would do is advertise that fact. If the Syrians know you’re coming they are going to bake a cake.

  10. raven:

    This one is baffling. Neither side is worth rooting for.

    According to wikipedia, Syria is 12% Shiite mostly Alawites, 10% xian, and 74% Sunni.

    If it becomes a religious war which is likely, seems like the Sunnis would ultimately win. Numbers aren’t everything but they aren’t unimportant either.

  11. raven:

    We did learn some very expensive lessons in Vietnam by doing everything wrong.

    1. Have clear, attainable objectives.

    2. Know how much force, money, and lives will be needed and be prepared to commit them. The USA consistently underestimated how much we needed to “win” the Vietnam war.

    3. Make sure we have a compelling national interest.

    4. Have a Cthulhu dammed exit strategy.

    5. From Iraq, have an after the war plan.

    Bush, being an idiot, ignored all that. It was a cosmically stupid and expensive mistake.

    Not seeing that Syria is adding up here. What is our clear, attainable objective here? Can we commit the forces and money needed to attain them? Already the military is dragging their feet.

    What is our national interest. There is one, peace in the region and an end to bloodshed but how important is that to us? It will happen anyway, although it might take a while.

    The only way I’m seeing any hope is if the entire world just says enough and forces them to negotiate a cease fire. This would include all stakeholders, Russians, neighbors, Europeans, UN etc..

  12. slc1:

    Re raven @ #10

    The problem is that the regime in Syria is now being propped up by the intervention of Iran and Hizbollah. As I have pointed out in previous posts on this blog, the current success the regime is having is heavily due to the intervention of thousands of Hizbollah fighters who, unlike the regular Syrian armed forces, are highly motivated. These folks gave a good account of themselves against heavily armed elite Israeli units, which were supported by total air cover. If heavily armed elite Israeli regular forces supported by total control of the air had trouble against them, what are the chances of lightly armed irregular troops which comprise most of the rebel forces?

  13. raven:

    unlike the regular Syrian armed forces, are highly motivated…

    Not seeing why they should be highly motivated.

    They are fighting Syrian Sunnis, not Lebanese xians or Israeli Jews. It’s not that much their fight.

    Although if that is the case, I see an easy strategy. Strike at the Shiite bases in Lebanon. While they are off fighting in Syria, they would be vulnerable where they live. That should send them scurrying home.

  14. Marcus Ranum:

    This is what a no-fly zone is

    It also means a lot of antiaircraft systems crews and aircraft/munitions maintenance workers die horribly. Admittedly they’re the ones supporting the aircraft that are flying out to bomb civilians. But if we make a habit of striking the air forces that are flying out and bombing civilians, we’d have to start by bombing our own bases, first.

    At this point, the US’ credibility as a fair enforcer of what’s right has gone to zero. If it ever was more than zero, at any time. I don’t think we’d be wise to do anything without popular support and that would have to include Russia. I lot of people in Syria are dying because the US has used them as political pawns. And now our puppet dictator has left us backed into a corner of our own devising. USA! USA! USA!

  15. Marcus Ranum:

    Strike at the Shiite bases in Lebanon

    Yeah, go just attacking countries all over the place. Because that’s highly moral. This isn’t some kind of fucking chess game.

  16. Marcus Ranum:

    This is a diplomatic problem. The US has already made a hash out of the situation by arming the rebels covertly and loudly socializing its intent with the media. That put Russia in the position of having to oppose whatever the US does. Our stupid fucking tendency to ask “who can we kill or bomb to solve this problem?” instead of, I dunno, trying to sit down with all the stakeholders and talk it out – that tendency amounts to escalation. It forces Assad and Putin and everyone else involved to oppose the US’ direction because otherwise they look like patsies that the US pushes around without even bothering to talk to. Which, by the way, is exactly what’s happening and how it looks. “HEY let’s do some REGIME CHANGE!” – what amaaaaaaazing diplomatic skill!

    Obama just had a chance to actually talk to Putin, rather than lecturing at him. But that didn’t go so well. At this point, the only thing that would save the situation would be for Obama to talk to Putin, put some concessions to Russia on the table, and ask Putin to agree that neither the US nor Russia were going to arm either side, and that they’d jointly pressure Assad to sit down and have a 3-way talk. Assad would have to be offered some serious economic incentives to back off on the killing and perhaps schedule a shift to a democratic regime(*) when he’s ready to retire. The reason Assad is acting the way he is is because he’s got absolutely nothing to lose and the idiots in the US Government told him that even the nothing he has to lose: they want to take it away. This is the most unskillful diplomacy, ever. For fuck’s sake.

    If I were Obama I’d go on bended knee to Putin (fuck, I’d let them photograph me that way for all it matters) asking Putin to pledge alongside the US that Russia and the US would give the Assad regime reconstructive economic aid EQUAL TO OR EXCEEDING the cost of the smuggled weapons, bombs and sorties we’d otherwise both spend. I’d ask Israel to maybe chip in some flowers, too. Because the fucking fact of the matter is that peace is MUCH LESS EXPENSIVE than war.

  17. Marcus Ranum:

    I left out the (*)
    It’d be ironic for the US and Russia, neither of which are democratic regimes, to try to foster democracy in Syria, wouldn’t it?

  18. iangould:

    “The problem is that the regime in Syria is now being propped up by the intervention of Iran and Hizbollah. As I have pointed out in previous posts on this blog, the current success the regime is having is heavily due to the intervention of thousands of Hizbollah fighters who, unlike the regular Syrian armed forces, are highly motivated. These folks gave a good account of themselves against heavily armed elite Israeli units, which were supported by total air cover. If heavily armed elite Israeli regular forces supported by total control of the air had trouble against them, what are the chances of lightly armed irregular troops which comprise most of the rebel forces?”

    Hrzbollah calims to have up to 65,000 fighters but that includes essentially every adult male of miltiary age who votes for them.

    A more realistic estimate is a standing force of around 1,000 full-time fighters, 10,000 reservists and an undetermined number of potential volunteers with some limited military training.

    There are almost-definitely not thousands of highly-trained, motivated Hezbollah fighters in Syria because there simply aren’t enough of them go around, especially not with the threat of renewed sectarian violence inside Lebanon.

    What you probably have in Syria is several hundred Hezbollah regulars, a couple of thousand reservists (who are nowhere near the level of training and experience as the Hezbollah forces who fought the Israelis) then you have a much larger force made up of Lebanese volunteers with minimal training and the mostly-shia Syrian militia known as the National Defense Force (NDF).

    It suits the rebels’ propaganda to ascribe every defeat to the intervention of “thousands” of Hezbollah fighters but in reality the Hezbollah regulars appear mostly be being used in a training role and as a force multiplier (inserting a couple of Hezbollah fighters into a platoon-sized or larger NDF formation to improve discipline and transfer skills in specific areas such as street-fighting and disarming IEDs.)

  19. iangould:

    “Yeah, go just attacking countries all over the place. Because that’s highly moral. This isn’t some kind of fucking chess game.”

    After all, it’s not like there’s a Security council resolution calling for Hezbollah to disarm which they’ve been defying for the past five years.

    Next people will be criticizing them just because they fire a couple of thousand missiles into Israel.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/13/us-lebanon-un-idUSTRE80C1YV20120113

  20. iangould:

    ‘Obama has let the Saudis supply the rebels with heavy weapons. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10131063/Syrian-rebels-get-first-heavy-weapons-on-the-front-line-of-Aleppo.html

    As usual, The Telegraph is full of shit.

    http://eaworldview.com/2013/06/21/syria-video-special-story-behind-saudi-arabias-anti-tank-weapons-to-insurgents/

    “According to the Telegraph, insurgents told them that Saudi Arabia had sent Soviet-made Konkurs anti-tank missiles, as “the White House has lifted an unofficial embargo on its Gulf allies sending heavy weapons to the rebels”.

    The problem with the article? There was no evidence other than the claim of a few insurgents that (a) the Konkurs weapons reently-arrived; that (b) they have been supplied by the Saudi government and that c) they have now shown up because Washington lifted a de facto embargo.

    What is the real story here?

    The 9M113 Konkurs is a semi-automatic command to line of sight (SACLOS) wire-guided anti-tank missile. It was developed by the USSR and entered into service in 1974. The Syrian Army also possesses the Konkurs, supplied by Russia.

    In contrast to the Daily Telegraph’s presentation of the Konkurs’ appearance as a recent development:

    1. Syrian insurgents have been using Konkurs anti-tank weapons since about December 2012, the same time as Croatian weapons — likely supplied by Saudi Arabia and supported by a covert multilateral effort, including the US, Britain, and France — were first spotted in Syria.

    2. Video shows the use of the Konkurs in Idlib, Hama, Aleppo and Homs Provinces.

    3. Video shows that Islamist factions possess and have used the Konkurs anti-tank weapons.”

  21. dingojack:

    Iangould – and speaking of UN Security Council resolutions, when was Resolution 446 passed again?
    Dingo

  22. iangould:

    I’m in favor of enforcing that one too.

  23. dingojack:

    Just so we’re absolutely clear here:
    both (or really all) sides should comply with the law.. They don’t or won’t, but they should.
    Dingo

  24. iangould:

    “both (or really all) sides should comply with the law.. ”

    Well obviously.

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