Slam dunks, weapons of mass destruction – and Syria

We're hearing questions we never heard in 2003.

By , Staff writer

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    A Free Syrian Army fighter stands near a damaged military tank that belonged to the forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after they seized it, in Aleppo's town of Khanasir August 29, 2013.
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Before the Iraq war began in March 2003, the elected representatives of the American people, the US intelligence community, and large portions of the American press were in lockstep with the Bush administration: Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in large quantities and something had to be done.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet said US evidence of the danger posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq amounted to a "slam dunk," Secretary of State Colin Powell waived a vial of fake anthrax at the United Nations and went on at length about biological weapons program that could kill tens of thousands of people, and the nation's newspapers battled to carry the most breathless "scoops" possible, spoon fed by obliging but anonymous sources.

It was, of course, all completely false. And as President Obama stands on the brink of military action against Syria over claims that the government of Bashar al-Assad used an as-yet-unspecified chemical weapon near Damascus earlier this month, the press and the intelligence community are doing what they failed to do then: Push back on claims of certainty – and assertions that a military response is warranted.

Recommended: Chemical weapons 101: Six facts about sarin and Syria’s stockpile

The comparison can be overdone. Obama and those speaking for him have insisted that there will be no invasion and that there's no plan to replace Mr. Assad by force. Polling shows a US public that wants to stay out of a war in Syria (a recent Reuters poll found 46 percent of Americans opposed to military intervention if Assad had used chemical weapons to attack civilians, with 25 percent supporting military action). And there's pretty strong evidence that a chemical weapon of some sort really was used on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21, with Doctors Without Borders saying about 350 people were killed and many more injured by what appeared to have been some kind of neurotoxin.

But the history of the Iraq war is informing the discussion of what happened and what the US knows about it in a healthy way. Exhibit A for this is an Associated Press story this morning which quotes unnamed intelligence officials pushing back on Obama's claims.

Yesterday, Obama told PBS "We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out. And if that's so, then there need to be international consequences." Today, AP quotes multiple US officials as saying precisely the same thing: That US intelligence on the matter is "not a slam dunk."

A decade ago, US intelligence was stovepiped to present desired conclusions by government officials, and the reputation of the CIA and other intelligence outfits took a serious hit when the truth came out. This time, a much clearer picture is being presented on what they know, what they think happened and can't prove, and how much they don't know at all.

Most important, US intelligence officials say they don't know where all of Syria's chemical weapons are or whether Assad was involved in giving an order for chemical weapons to be used. That raises serious questions about what exactly proposed air strikes would target. 

And then there's the question of whether attacking Syria serves US interests, or humanitarian ones, at all. Among people who follow the region closely, there are many doubts.

Political scientist Marc Lynch, writing at Foreign Policy, can't see much good in attacking Syria, and worries that it will lead to broader US military involvement, however much Obama insists that won't be the case.

The rumored air strikes would drag the United States across a major threshold of direct military involvement, without any serious prospect of ending the conflict or protecting Syrian civilians (at least from non-chemical attacks). They likely would not accomplish more than momentarily appeasing the whimsical gods of credibility. The attack would almost certainly lack a Security Council mandate. Meanwhile, the response from Arab public opinion to another U.S. military intervention has been predictably hostile; even the very Arab leaders who have been aggressively pushing for such military action are refraining from openly supporting it. And nobody really believes that such strikes will actually work.

... Washington suffers no shortage of suggestions for getting more deeply involved in Syria's civil war. Over the last year and a half, I've read dozens of think tank reports and thousands of op-eds urging U.S. military intervention in some form, from no-fly zones to arming the opposition to air campaigns. Not one has made a remotely plausible case that these limited means will resolve the war in ways favorable to Syrians, the region, or America. The honest ones admit that limited intervention is a wedge toward mission creep (as if Iraq had not proven that full-scale intervention is bound to fail). The rest rely on an alarming series of best-case assumptions that fall apart on close inspection. Seriously, when was the last time any best case scenario actually materialized in the Middle East?

He isn't the only one worried about a slippery slope to war. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in July about the lessons the Iraq war and the law of unintended consequences as he outlined possible US military approaches to Syria. He specifically addressed a mission to contain Syria's chemical weapons: 

This option uses lethal force to prevent the use or proliferation of chemical weapons. We do this by destroying portions of Syria’s massive stockpile, interdicting its movement and delivery, or by seizing and securing program components. At a minimum, this option would call for a no-fly zone as well as air and missile strikes involving hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers. Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites. Costs could also average well over one billion dollars per month. The impact would be the control of some, but not all chemical weapons. It would also help prevent their further proliferation into the hands of extremist groups. Our inability to fully control Syria’s storage and delivery systems could allow extremists to gain better access. Risks are similar to the no-fly zone with the added risk of U.S. boots on the ground.

... All of these options would likely further the narrow military objective of helping the opposition and placing more pressure on the regime. We have learned from the past 10 years; however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. Should the regime's institutions
collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.

Joshua Foust wonders why the US would intervene in Syria when so many other humanitarian disasters are ignored, and worries that US intervention on the scale proposed could lead to more bloodshed, not less, in the country.

And will those bombs alter the growing fracture of both pro- and anti-regime militias, which will promise bloodshed no matter what regime is leftover? There is also a steep credibility gap on the part of U.S. planners. The crackdown in Bahrain, for example, was met in the U.S. government with silence. Ongoing, horrific human rights abuses by U.S. allies in places like Saudi Arabia, Yemen and even Iraq are never met with scorn — just indifference.

Recent human rights atrocities, like the Sri Lankan mass killings of Tamil rebels in 2009, merited barely more than a shrug. And last year’s conflict-famine in Somalia, which killed a hundred thousand people in just a few months, warranted a shrug from the international community. When so many other massive tragedies go ignored, there is no easy answer for why Syria, why now.

To be sure, some in the US think punitive strikes won't be enough and are urging Obama to do far more. A group of 74 pundits and former officials, many of them major backers of the Iraq war, released an open letter to Obama on Tuesday calling for immediate action to help the country's rebels defeat Assad:

Moreover, the United States and other willing nations should consider direct military strikes against the pillars of the Assad regime.  The objectives should be not only to ensure that Assad’s chemical weapons no longer threaten America, our allies in the region or the Syrian people, but also to deter or destroy the Assad regime’s airpower and other conventional military means of committing atrocities against civilian non-combatants.  At the same time, the United States should accelerate efforts to vet, train, and arm moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition, with the goal of empowering them to prevail against both the Assad regime and the growing presence of Al Qaeda-affiliated and other extremist rebel factions in the country.

Signers of that letter include Paul Bremer, Karl Rove, Dan Senor, Doug Feith, and Leon Wieseltier, men inside the government and out who insisted that the invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do and would herald a new era of freedom and peace in the Middle East. They are urging their counsel be taken once again.

Will it? This afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel are briefing Congress on military options for Syria and the US has moved Navy destroyers into striking distance in the Mediterranean.

But at the very least, if the US does move toward war with Syria, it will be with a government and a public whose eyes are far more open to the dangers than they were a decade ago.

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