The Cable

Architect of Syria War Plan Doubts Surgical Strikes Will Work

The United States appears to be closer than ever to deploying a series of surgical strikes on Syrian targets. But a key architect of that strategy is seriously and publicly questioning the wisdom of carrying it out. 

In the last 48 hours, U.S. officials leaked plans to several media outlets to fire cruise missiles at Syrian military installations as a warning to the Syrian government not to use its chemical weapons stockpiles again. On Sunday, Sen. Bob Corker, who was briefed by administration officials twice over the weekend, said a U.S. "response is imminent" in Syria. "I think we will respond in a surgical way," he said. On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to set the groundwork for a U.S. military incursion.

Now, a former U.S. Navy planner responsible for outlining an influential and highly-detailed proposal for surgical strikes tells The Cable he has serious misgivings about the plan. He says too much faith is being put into the effectiveness of surgical strikes on Assad's forces with little discussion of what wider goals such attacks are supposed to achieve.

"Tactical actions in the absence of strategic objectives is usually pointless and often counterproductive," Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said. "I never intended my analysis of a cruise missile strike option to be advocacy even though some people took it as that."

"I made it clear that this is a low cost option, but the broader issue is that low cost options don't do any good unless they are tied to strategic priorities and objectives," he added. "Any ship officer can launch 30 or 40 Tomahawks. It's not difficult. The difficulty is explaining to strategic planners how this advances U.S. interests."

In July, Harmer authored a widely-circulated study showing how the U.S. could degrade key Syrian military installations on the cheap with virtually no risk to U.S. personnel. "It could be done quickly, easily, with no risk whatsoever to American personnel, and a relatively minor cost," said Harmer. One of the study's proposals was cruise missile strikes from what are known as TLAMs (Tomahawk land attack missiles) fired from naval vessels in the Mediterranean.

The study immediately struck a chord with hawkish lawmakers on the Hill who were frustrated with the options outlined by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey that required a major commitment by U.S. military forces with a pricetag in the billions.

"For a serious accounting of a realistic limited military option in Syria, I would strongly recommend a new study that is being released today by the Institute for the Study of War," Sen. John McCain said in July, referring to Harmer's study. "This new study confirms what I and many others have long argued: That it is militarily feasible for the United States and our friends and allies to significantly degrade Assad's air power at relatively low cost, low risk to our personnel, and in very short order."

Not all surgical strikes are created equal, of course. And there's no guarantee that the Obama administration's strike plan would look like Harmer's. Regardless, Harmer doubted that any surgical strikes would produce the desired results -- especially if the goal is to punish the Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons.

"Punitive action is the dumbest of all actions," he said. "The Assad regime has shown an incredible capacity to endure pain and I don't think we have the stomach to deploy enough punitive action that would serve as a deterrent."

He also doubted the effectiveness of taking out Assad's chemical weapons capabilities. "If we start picking off chemical weapons targets in Syria, the logical response is if any weapons are left in the warehouses, he's going to start dispersing them among his forces if he hasn't already," he continued. "So you're too late to the fight."

The Cable

U.N. Inspectors Get Green Light for Syrian Nerve Agent Hunt

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office said Sunday that U.N. chemical weapons experts will conduct an urgent inspection Monday in a Damascus suburb to determine whether chemical weapons were used in an attack last week that left hundreds of people -- if not more than 1,000 -- dead.

The announcement followed high-level talks between Syrian authorities and the U.N.'s high representative for disarmament affairs, Angela Kane, who traveled to Damascus this week to make the case for urgent on-site inspections in the suburb of Ghouta.

Syria has come under mounting pressure to allow the inspectors into the area, following reports that hundreds of civilians were asphyxiated in their sleep on Aug. 21 by unidentified gases. Images of large numbers of children lined up in the Syrian capital's morgues, their skin and lips blue from an apparent lack of oxygen, have generated intense international condemnation and fueled calls for international intervention in Syria.

On Friday, Syria's most powerful foreign patron, Russia, threw its weight behind the U.N. call for an investigation. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, convened an emergency meeting of his national security team to consider options. The Pentagon reinforced its military presence in the region, ordering a fourth naval war ship, equipped with ballistic missiles, into the eastern Mediterranean.

In today's statement, Ban's spokesman said the U.N. chief has instructed the U.N. chemical weapons team, led by the Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, "to focus its attention on ascertaining the facts of the 21 August incident as its highest priority. The Mission is preparing to conduct on-site fact-finding activities, starting tomorrow, Monday, 26 August."

The Syrian government has "affirmed that it will provide the necessary cooperation, including the observance of the cessation of hostilities at the locations related to the incident," according to the statement. "All relevant parties equally share the responsibility of cooperating in urgently generating a safe environment for the Mission to do its job efficiently and providing all necessary information."

Rumors that chemical weapons were used in Syria date back to late December, when reports emerged indicating toxic agents had been used in the town of Homs. The United Nations established a chemical weapons team back in March, following a request by the Syrian government to investigate an alleged March 19 attack against Syrian forces near the city of Aleppo, in a place call Khan al-Assal. The U.N. expanded the investigation to include several other sites where Syrian authorities were accused by Syrian opposition groups of using chemical weapons against civilians.

After five months of negotiations over the scope of the investigation, Syria finally allowed a team of 20 inspectors, including chemical weapons specialists and medical experts from the World Health Organization, into the country. The team arrived on Sunday for a two-week visit to investigate three of some 13 locations where chemical weapons were suspected of being used. But the large death toll around Ghouta has spurred international calls for the investigators to go to the area.

The United States, Britain, France, Israel, and several other countries say that the preponderance of evidence implicates the Syrian government in using chemical weapons. But Syria and its key allies, Iran and Russia, have insisted that it's the Syrian rebels who have introduced chemical weapons into the two and a half-year conflict.

Until now, no internationally recognized agency has definitively proven that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. But an international relief group, Doctors Without Borders, which supports medical centers in the area, said that three of its clinics received about 3,600 patients with symptoms suggesting exposure to chemical weapons, including loss of breath, blurred vision, dilated pupils, and convulsions. Three hundred and fifty five of those patients died.

The U.N. weapons inspectors have a fairly restrictive mandate that only authorizes them to determine whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria, not to cast blame on the culprit. On Friday, the U.N.'s top security chief, Kevin Kennedy, said that the inspectors did not yet have a green light to travel to the area, saying a security assessment would have to be completed first. It remains unclear whether such an assessment has been concluded, but today's announcement by the United Nations that it will begin its inspection tomorrow indicated that the U.N. was satisfied by Syrian government and opposition assurances that its team would not be attacked.

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