THE BLOG
04/29/2013 07:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Playing 'Decider' on Syria

In all the news about the opening of the new George W. Bush presidential library last week, what was apparently the whizziest feature of the library was highlighted by many -- a sort of "decider room" exhibit. You go into the room, are presented with a crisis that Bush faced, and then the clock ticks down and you have to make a decision about what to do. A video of Bush then appears explaining why he either agreed with your decision or disagreed with it.

Bush made the word "decider" famous, when he described his job as being "Decider In Chief." His point was that, at some point, decisions must be made and the hardest and toughest decisions in America are the ones that came across his desk. Fair enough. Decisions made in the Oval Office involve risks most Americans don't fully appreciate or think through -- including those involving life or death for Americans in uniform.

We seem to be at one of those "decider" moments on the world stage. President Obama stated that use of chemical or biological weapons by the Assad regime in Syria would be a "red line" or a "game changer" and that America would respond to such use in unspecified ways, with serious consequences. The evidence is now in, and several intelligence agencies (in several countries) now say it is likely that Syria has indeed used such weapons, most likely the poison Sarin. This is the decision point Obama now faces.

No decision has been made, quite obviously. The pundits this weekend seemed to assume that Obama had indeed made a decision because of a vague quote from him last week, but the reality is either (1) no decision has yet been made and the options are being studied, or (2) a decision has been made, but so far it is being carried out covertly. Which means the subject is still an open one, and not (as many are assuming) settled policy in any way.

Obama's never had much of a Syria policy, one way or another. As opposed to what happened in Libya, Obama has mostly sat on the sidelines while 70,000 people have died in Syria's fighting. He says we're for regime change, and he says humanitarian aid is acceptable, but that's as far as he's gone. Except for that statement about the chemical or biological weapons, which is probably why the pundits are pushing the point.

The big problem -- not just for Obama, but for America -- is that there simply aren't a whole lot of good options in Syria. So I thought it'd be worthwhile to go through them, in the spirit of Bush's "decider room." Here's what America can do, along with the risks and costs, in Syria. If you were President Obama, what would you do? None of these options are very good, I should warn you at the outset. But that's the nature of being Decider In Chief -- sometimes you have to choose between a lot of not-very-good options with plenty of risks attached.

 

Get the Arab League and Turkey on board

This one should really be a precursor for any action America takes. In Libya, for instance, the Arab League was in agreement with overthrowing the regime and helped in all sorts of ways, including in ways we were not prepared to (such as shipping weapons to the rebels). The Arab League has been in the background during the Syrian crisis, because the issues are more complicated in terms of their outlook. But getting them on board would give any other option taken a lot more legitimacy in the region.

Turkey is even more important, because unlike some of the Arab League, they're right next door to Syria. If any military option is chosen, having Turkey on board would be immensely important -- again, both for legitimacy and for logistic support (airfields and ground routes into Syria, for instance).

 

Lightly arm the rebels

That first choice was a diplomatic one. The rest of these are military, to a varying degree. The first of these is to arm the rebels, but only in very limited fashion. Bullets, military rifles, maybe some anti-tank weapons -- but no more. This wouldn't "escalate" the war in any way, it would preserve the balance of weaponry which currently exists, but it would allow the rebels to resupply and expand their forces, perhaps.

Of course, the problem with this option (and the next one) is the important question: which rebels would we be arming? There are a number of groups fighting in Syria. Some of them are not exactly our allies outside the country. Some of them are even Al-Qaeda affiliates. In any situation as chaotic as a civil war or insurrection, it's going to be very hard to accurately track which weapons go where and who has their hands on them at any one time. This is precisely the reason Obama hasn't taken this step yet.

 

Give the rebels heavy weapons

Of course, preserving the balance of weaponry of the two sides in the conflict isn't a very satisfying answer, militarily. The official Syrian troops have an overwhelming advantage over the rebels, including such things as jet fighters and bombers. If the rebels are going to have any chance of actually winning, the balance of weaponry must shift more in their favor.

So the option exists not only to arm the rebels, but give them some arms that will actually do them some good -- like antiaircraft guns or portable missiles that are capable of downing the aircraft that are bombing civilians. There are other things we could give the rebels as well, but this would likely be the first step -- some sort of capability to fight back against the aircraft Assad is using.

Of course, this leads to the same problem as the previous option, except on steroids. Anti-aircraft weapons or missiles are really the last thing we want to be handing over to a group like Al-Qaeda, when you stop and think about it. But doing so might shift the balance of power decisively enough to give the rebels a chance of winning a lot sooner than other options.

 

No-fly zone

This is a catchy little phrase. Just rolls off the tongue. Seems like an easy answer to the balance of weaponry problem, too. Declare a "no-fly zone" and shoot down Syrian aircraft if they attempt to fly. Worked in Libya, didn't it?

Well, yes, it did indeed change the battlefield in Libya. But Libya had some incredibly out-of-date weapons, when it came to defending against air attacks. These defensive weapons were obliterated in the first days, and a no-fly zone was successfully enforced thereafter.

Syria, on the other hand, is not living in the 1950s. They have up-to-date air defenses. They could, to put it bluntly, probably shoot down some enemy planes. So that is the cost, right up front. We would likely lose some American pilots. Dead (or captured) pilots is the cost of choosing this option.

The question then becomes how many pilots is it worth to maintain a no-fly zone? Perhaps within the first week we could cripple the Syrian air defenses in large part, but after the initial period, what would the American public think if one or two pilots were being lost every week to missile fire?

Lesser costs would be financial. A no-fly zone isn't cheap -- it requires patrols to be flown constantly over the country. It would likely require an aircraft carrier or two, as well as some Turkish airbases involved. It would require a lot of planes, a lot of pilots, and a whole lot of support staff to keep them flying.

But it could give the rebels the breathing space they need to achieve a victory on the ground. Take away the air power from Assad, and his position gets a lot weaker. If he could be overthrown quickly, then a no-fly zone might achieve the same end as it did in Libya.

 

Drone warfare

This is an attractive option, of course. Declare the no-fly zone and then send in the robots to enforce it. The problem with this option is that it is really only a partial option. We cannot create and enforce a no-fly zone with just drones.

Perhaps one day we will be able to, but in the present, drones have never taken on more than a limited mission -- that of stealth information-gathering and stealth bombing. Drones have never been used for air-to-air combat, or for directly taking on air defenses such as missile or radar installations. There is no "fighter pilot" drone, or at least there is none that has been publicly announced or ever used in combat.

So while this might be a way to lessen the impact of any other military options we have in the Syrian skies, by perhaps performing patrols over airfields or the rest of the country after air superiority has been won, drones all by themselves can't win that superiority in the first place. Meaning there will still be a big risk of some dead or captured pilots.

 

Bombing campaign

This would likely be the initial phase of any no-fly zone strategy. Airfields, planes on the ground, and anti-aircraft defenses could all be targeted and wiped out with a bombing campaign involving cruise missiles and stealth (and other) bombers. Destroying a big chunk of the Syrian military from the air would likely be the best option for the rebels on the ground, in terms of setting the scene for a dramatic turnaround on the battlefield. Continued bombing would also aid the rebels, as was done in Libya, but it would involve coordination between the rebels and the air commanders.

Again, though, such a bombing campaign -- especially in the initial phases -- would likely involve risking the death or capture of American pilots by the Syrians. Cruise missiles would help abate this, but cruise missiles aren't exactly cheap, either. And they can only hit targets which have previously been identified. Even with cruise missiles and drones, pilots' lives are still going to have to be risked, against a modern air defense system.

 

Assassinate Assad

America could always decide that assassination isn't such a bad idea, after all. When you think about it, we're already edging towards being in the assassination business, at least against non-state leaders. We've been fighting drone warfare for over a decade now, and if dropping a bomb on someone who isn't even aware you're in the sky above him isn't assassination, it is pretty close, by anyone's definition.

President Obama could announce he's signed a new presidential directive that assassination will now be part of the American arsenal. This could have a chilling effect on Assad, and (in the rosiest scenario) convince him that it's time to retire.

Of course, to be a credible threat, we'd either have to be bombing Syria (or have a no-fly zone in operation), or send some CIA or special forces into the country as a "hit team."

 

Secure the chemical and biological weapons

This one is an attractive option for pundits, until they are confronted with what it would actually mean. It's easy to suggest "secure all the chemical and biological weapons in Syria," but it's not so easy to actually do so.

In the first place, this would require at least a limited ground invasion by American troops. And that's a pretty serious ball of wax, right there. In the midst of a civil war, our troops would have as their mission to take, hold, and secure all weapons sites with chemical and biological weapons. How many troops is that going to require, and for how long? And where will their supply routes be?

In the second place, where are all those weapons? When the conflict began, American intelligence was pretty confident that they knew where all these weapons were stored -- in something like 16 sites around the country. Two years later, we have no idea where they all are, as the Syrians have been moving them around in the meantime. So the list of possible sites is now approximately the entire country.

 

American troops on the ground

I threw this one in there just on semantic grounds, as it is identical to either the previous option or the following option. But the phrase "boots on the ground" is beginning to bug me. All the politicians and all the media have latched onto this phrase, in order to sound more "military" in their off-the-cuff comments.

If "boots on the ground" were really an option, then we could solve the problem with one drop by a B-52 over Syria. But dropping 200,000 boots onto Syria would solve nothing, even if it did give all the Syrians underneath something to wear (those that didn't get klonked on the head by a falling boot, that is).

My point is, we're not talking about "boots," we are talking about "American troops" or "American soldiers" or "young men and women who may shed blood, lose limbs, or die for this mission." Let's not trivialize what it is we're actually advocating, in other words.

 

Full-scale invasion

Of course, the ultimate "troops on the ground" scenario is a full-scale invasion of Syria, followed by a full-scale occupation of Syria until a new government and military can be built up or created.

This option is, quite simply, not going to happen. We're not jumping into another Iraq. Ain't gonna happen. I merely mention it here for completeness' sake.

 

Do nothing, hope it all works out

This is, largely, what we've been doing for the past two years. Do nothing, and hope for the best. Give moral support to the (good kind of) rebels, denounce the (bad kind of) rebels and the Syrian government. Maybe send humanitarian aid, especially to the refugees in neighboring countries. But that's it.

This option's risk to America is intangible -- on the order of "we won't be as feared or as respected militarily as we used to be." The real risk, however, is to the Syrians. Over 70,000 of whom are already dead. Will we sit back and watch for another two years while that number hits 100,000 or 150,000 or a quarter-million? That's the price we're going to have to pay for doing nothing -- again, an intangible price to this country, but a severe price for those affected.

 

Ask Congress to declare war

I will conclude with what really should be an obvious choice but is no longer even considered in the realm of possibility by most analysts. If Obama really wants to see Assad gone, and if he chooses pretty much anything on this list other than "diplomacy with the Arab League" or "do nothing," then the United States of America will be involved in acts of war against the previously-legitimate government of another sovereign nation.

Even sending bullets to the rebels is, by definition, aiding one side in a war. Which, in itself, is an act of war. A no-fly zone or Americans on the ground is a direct act of war -- no hedging possible.

Well, our Constitution has a way for this to take place. There's no real rush -- Syria has been in conflict for two years now, so we can afford to wait (whatever we do) for a few more weeks or months. If President Obama (or you, in this game of "Be The Decider") truly thinks that dominating the airspace over Syria or securing the chemical and biological weapons with American soldiers is the right thing to do, then the first step should really be to go to Congress and ask them to declare war on the Assad regime in Syria.

Since pretty much every option on this list fits the international legal definition of "war," then force Congress to do their constitutional job. Let's have the debate. Let John McCain get out there are try to convince others of his stance. Let the peaceniks have their say. Let all the critics of President Obama -- left, right, and center -- duke it out in the Senate.

More importantly, let's have the American people have a voice in the debate, this time. If the hawks can't convince enough in Congress and enough of the public to support a war -- no matter how limited -- then it's going to be doomed from the start. So let's have the debate.

In modern (post-World War II) times, America has held the notion that the president, in his role as Commander In Chief, is supposed to be the "decider" as to whether the country goes to war or not. This is a mistaken belief. It is wrong. In Cold War times, it made sense to allow the president to order troops or even attacks very quickly -- either in retaliation for attacks against us, or because there is some immanent threat which can only be acted upon quickly.

Neither of these things is true in Syria. Even allowing for Obama's "game-changing" statement, there is plenty of time to have Congress approve any military actions before they are taken. So, again, let's have the debate.

The president is supposed to -- by our Constitution -- be Commander In Chief. That means he gets to direct the military, either (as previously noted) in defense of an immediate attack, or in an immanent situation. Or in a declared war. But it does not mean that the president is the one who gets to decide when America goes to war -- far from it. The framers of the Constitution put that power in Congress' hands.

I know we haven't actually used this part of the Constitution correctly since World War II. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't. I personally think that whatever option Obama chooses (other than diplomacy or doing nothing) should be laid before Congress and the entire country for debate. I think it's time to get back to having such far-reaching options like waging war actually debated in this country. So let's open the Syria debate up to everyone. Let's let the American people actually be "the deciders" on this one. What do you say?

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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