Syria: Now, the run-up to whatever ‘it’ will or won’t be

Syria: Now, the run-up to whatever ‘it’ will or won’t be

RAF Typhoon in provocative posture, Akrotiri Air Base, Cyprus (Reuters photo)
RAF Typhoon in provocative posture, Akrotiri Air Base, Cyprus (Reuters photo)

What the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has voted to authorize is a military operation not to exceed 90 days in duration, and without U.S. troops in a ground role.  The purpose, per the “stronger language” amendment demanded by John McCain (R-AZ), is to “change the momentum on the ground”; i.e., shift it against Assad and in favor of “moderate” opposition forces.

Who knows what might actually be done based on this authorization – if anything.  What would Congressional votes mean, in the end?  Has the McCain amendment made the beefed-up resolution harder to pass in the full Senate?  Is there a realistic chance that the House will pass a resolution authorizing military action at all?  Will Obama refrain from mounting a strike if Congress doesn’t agree?

Does anyone else notice the inanity of putting a 90-day limit on this thing – as if 89 days of doing something as yet undefined would be just right, but 91 too many?

Has anyone checked to make sure China will keep a steady course on holding our Treasury securities if we go through with this?  We’ll have to borrow money to do it, after all.  Maybe the Saudis will step in, as much as they can, if China and Russia go fiscally nuclear on us.  That wouldn’t, of course, color our purposes – i.e., whom we favor in Syria – or anything.  (Extra points for budgetary excitement:  an operation running past 30 September would cross fiscal years.  With more sequester cuts due to kick in next quarter, that would actually matter.)

Speaking of the cost of military action:  all of this is still the case.  Our forces have not magically improved their readiness in the last week.  We have no force depth to take to war in Syria.  Merely adding funds to the Pentagon’s operational accounts will not suddenly make up for the thousands of hours of flight training lost in 2013, or the maintenance not done or the parts and weapons not purchased.

We can’t actually expand on a limited cruise missile strike against Assad – unless we assume away all potential pushback from Assad or his patrons, Russia and Iran.  If there’s pushback, we are not in a position to deal with it; certainly not decisively.  Adding allied aircraft to the inventory for the campaign might help.  But it might not: only France, to date, is offering to actually join the U.S. in playing an offensive role over Syria – if the UN comes back with an indictment of Assad.

The U.S. and France together don’t have an overwhelming advantage over Assad’s Syria, backed by Russia and Iran.  The Russians have long had a useful method for assessing this operational dynamic: the “correlation of forces.”  What matters to our decisions about campaign intent and combat options is not the sum total of national GDPs and armed-force sizes on either side.  What matters is the character of the problem at hand – Syria, her armament and combat conditions; her geography and allies – versus what the U.S. and NATO can bring to bear on an operationally meaningful timeline.  Syria doesn’t have to be better than the United States.  She and her allies just have to be more than we can reasonably propose to take on, in the conditions we’d have to in September or October 2013.

Realistically, that’s precisely what they are, if they bestir themselves against us: more than we can handle with what we can bring.

I don’t believe Russia (or Iran, for that matter) wants to come to direct blows with us right now.  Russia, meanwhile, has zero interest in dealing with an inflammation of sentiment in the Islamic world, which reaches into her southern doorstep (Chechnya, Dagestan), and is already in turmoil in Egypt, increasingly so in Lebanon and Iraq as well.  Russia would have justifiable concern, moreover, about the U.S. and an increasingly Islamist Turkey colluding to back factions in Syria whose “moderation” could not possibly be vouched for – especially not in a 90-day operation-of-some-kind-but-no-American-boots-on-the-ground.

But it doesn’t have to be a direct confrontation between Russia and the United States that sets a match to the powder keg in the Eastern Mediterranean or Middle East.  Indeed, it almost certainly wouldn’t be.  The region is one of long-simmering conflicts, which have survived unresolved in recent decades because of the order imposed by overwhelming American power and the Pax Americana.  In our absence, the stronger in each given situation would have imposed some kind of resolution long before now, most likely a brutal one: in Lebanon; in the Arab-Israeli conflict; as regards Kurdish nationalism; as between the Serbs and Muslims in the Balkans; as between Greece and Turkey and their maritime claims.

One such conflict is that of Cyprus, where Turkey invaded in 1974 and has since maintained, by dint of military occupation, the fiction of a separate nation in the northeastern side of Cyprus.  The dispatch of NATO aircraft to support a Syria operation has promptly collided with the ad hoc arrangements of the 40-year Cyprus stand-off – and has thereby begun to choke the canary in the coal mine.

UN buffer zone between the Cypruses
UN buffer zone between the Cypruses

The indispensable Aviationist reported on Tuesday that RAF fighter jets operating out of Cyprus came close to a confrontation with Turkish fighters from Incirlik Air Base on Monday, 2 September.  The news reporting is unclear on which jets were first reacting to which – but that confusion is actually inherent in the problem itself, since neither the UK nor the Republic of Cyprus recognizes the Turkish claim to sovereign air space for northern Cyprus.  A long-running Notice to Airmen warns aircraft that Turkey claims the air space for northern Cyprus, but that doesn’t mean RAF pilots are bound by their nation’s policies to treat it as the sovereign air space of a recognized nation.

We can assume the Brits are exercising prudence and have no intention to present a provocative profile while their fighters are in Cyprus.  But that doesn’t mean the Turks won’t read provocation into what they do.  While we can hope everyone will keep his head, it’s worth noting that Turkey has had her navy out harassing and warning off third-party research vessels from international waters off Cyprus (in Cyprus’s EEZ) during the summer.  Ankara has been loaded for bear on this issue since Cyprus delineated an EEZ boundary with Israel in 2010, and began soliciting bids for maritime oil and gas exploration in her own EEZ.

Russia has a major stake in this issue as she has in Syria, with a lot of Russian money invested in gaining control of the Bank of Cyprus, whose fortunes will stand or fall on the oil and gas offshore.  In both Cyprus and Syria, Russia and Turkey have wound up on opposite sides.  The stakes are high, and they mean limits or options, perhaps poverty or prosperity, to everyone on both sides.

It’s one thing for the United States to hover over the multivariate Eastern Mediterranean, way better armed than anyone else and determined the keep the peace.  It’s another for us to wander into it with limited capability, proposing to shoot off missiles and back factions on the ground somewhere.  The latter posture is an invitation to the regional nations to challenge us: to give us a black eye, gain leverage over us (e.g., take our airmen prisoner), damage our credibility, exploit us, make us leave.

We never had to provoke the situation in those terms.  But that’s what we would now be doing with any military action we undertake in Syria.  This isn’t Libya, floating chaotically, perhaps a bit comically, in a vague playpen of NATO nations and NATO clients.  This is a thoroughly geography-bound situation in which there is no such option as limited action that doesn’t gore the ox of a heavily staked antagonist.   Everywhere you look, there’s the unresolved past, stretching back to before Mohammed walked the earth – and beyond; manifested today through barbed wire, walls, insurgencies, air defenses, fateful maneuverings, armed patrols.

If you go into this situation wanting to change someone’s momentum, you’d better go in invulnerable, purposeful, and remorseless.  Yet if we go, we go in none of these things.

The problems have already started.  If we’re lucky, Turkey and our allies in Cyprus will consider it wise to make tacit accommodations there, in the interest of keeping the focus on Syria and getting out of this whole thing as lightly as possible.

But Turkey may see opportunity.  If her NATO allies look importunate and confused enough, now may seem like the perfect time for her to wangle precedent-setting concessions on usage in “northern Cypriot” air space.  Something like that would be too much for Greece to swallow (and Russia, for that matter); Israel wouldn’t like it either, and even Egypt would oppose it in principle.

On this and a dozen other matters – or two – we may not need to worry about when the match will be set to the powder keg.  Quite possibly, it already has been.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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