Obama on Syria: Low-quality “jaw-jaw”

Talking naval trash.

It being the silly season in Washington, there had to be a rumor of war.  Well, a rumor of a cruise missile strike.  Well, OK, a rumor that U.S. Navy warships were ordered to “close their ranges” with Syria in case Obama gets permission from the UN to mount an attack, if there’s clear evidence that the Syrian regime gassed its people.

That last point is actually an exact characterization of Obama’s posture, which he expressed in the interview with CNN aired on Friday:

“There are rules of international law,” he told CNN’s Chris Cuomo. “If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work, and, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account.”

So cool your jets, people.  All we’re doing right now is talking about naval force.  Suddenly we’re talking about it a lot, but it’s not clear there’s any big point to it.

A few discussion items.  One, the deepest point of Syria is about 380 statute miles (600km) from the coast, but almost everything we might want to attack, to affect the Assad regime’s prosecution of the war, is less than 100 miles (160km) from the coast.  The Tomahawk cruise missile, in the variant likely to be used (TLAM-C Block III), has a range of 1000 statute miles (1,600km).  The less-likely TLAM-D has a range of 800 statute miles (1,250km).  So U.S. Navy warships don’t have to get closer to Syria than the open waters of the central or east-central Mediterranean Sea.

This, in turn, means that no public explanations would ever be necessary – our warships are often in the central Mediterranean – and that the explanations are therefore being given, as verbosely as possible, for a reason.  Presumably, it is to highlight, with fanfare, the fact that Obama is contemplating using cruise missiles against Assad.  And that, presumably, is meant to warn and/or deter Assad.

Assuming Assad has the means to view clips from the CNN interview, or read transcripts like the bit from Politico excerpted above, he will of course be clear that action by Obama is contingent on permission from the UN.  (If his power blinks out, the Iranians or Russians can keep him updated on matters of this kind.)  Assad has good reason to assume Obama won’t get that permission.  Russia and China have blocked UN Security Council resolutions against Syria on multiple occasions, and continue to defang or veto them.

Of course, making transparently worthless threats to long-time despots has been a pattern with Team Obama.

USS Barry (DDG-52), which might close her range with Syria this month, firing a Tomahawk in 2011 (U.S. Navy photo by LTJG Monika Hess/Released)
USS Barry (DDG-52), which might close her range with Syria this month, firing a Tomahawk in 2011 (U.S. Navy photo by LTJG Monika Hess/Released)

I’m skeptical that we have any intention of taking action against Syria – even punitive action, with no view to an outcome or end-state.  Maybe Team Obama imagines itself to be in a “dialogue” with Assad; i.e., the ball is now in Assad’s court, to send some signal that he’d rather not be hit with cruise missiles, and maybe we can work something out here.

Or perhaps the verbal gambit is intended for Russia, which has way more warships sitting off Syria’s coast than we do.  (Note: from the count at the unofficial Turkish Navy website, Bosphorus Naval News, it appears that there are currently 5-6 Russian navy ships in or near Syria, with one of those being an intelligence collector.)   Hey, Russkiy dudes, we might just think even harder about hitting your boy, if you don’t take some order to him.  Don’t make us escalate this gradually.

That would be the 1960s-era, Robert S. McNamara/Brain Trust frame of reference.  All we need is some evidence-of-our-determination patrols off the coast by intelligence ships – if we still had any – to complete the retro picture.

But there is every possibility I’m overthinking this, and the only thing that’s going on is that the Obama administration is making tough-sounding noises to get the media off its back about Syria.

In other naval notes:

1.  USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75), which finally deployed from Norfolk in July, nearly six months after her originally scheduled departure date, has been in the Central Command area of responsibility since 18 August, when she went through the Suez Canal (video).  So there is no carrier or carrier air wing positioning itself off Syria.  Speculation about using Truman in a strike on Syria is invalid.

2.  You might well have been unaware, given the lack of coverage in the mainstream media, that a Russian naval task force arrived in Cuba on 5 August, marking the first such visit in four years.  The lead warship is the Slava-class cruiser Moskva, accompanied by the Udaloy-class destroyer Vice Admiral Kulakov and an oiler, Ivan Bubnov.  The Moskva task force went to Nicaragua next, where it arrived 12 August for the first-ever visit of a Russian (or Soviet) naval ship to the Central American country.

Moskva is scheduled to visit Venezuela on this deployment as well, and will conduct joint operations with the Venezuelan navy.

3.  China’s navy continues to bolster an active profile in the Pacific, having completed a provocative circumnavigation of Japan in early August.  Circumnavigating Japan is something you do only for its own sake; it doesn’t take you anywhere.  A foreign research ship might have maritime science interests, but when a foreign navy does it, it’s just a provocation.

China also wasn’t getting enough attention in Washington for her naval intelligence collection against Hawaii and Guam, so one of her naval officers announced it baldly at a maritime conference in early June 2013.  The Washington Times spoke with a U.S. analyst who confirmed that Chinese naval ships have entered the U.S. exclusive economic zones off Hawaii and Guam.

Chinese aggression in the South China Sea has the Philippines arming up – and Japan, under geopol-activist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, stepping in to offer help.  All worms turn eventually.

The launch of Japan’s biggest new warship, a helicopter-carrying big-deck, in early August, did get plenty of attention from the MSM.

Carrier qualifications for J-15 fighter jets on China’s aircraft carrier in June got less of an MSM focus, as did revelations from independent media, in early August, that China indeed has her own indigenous aircraft carrier in construction.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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18 thoughts on “Obama on Syria: Low-quality “jaw-jaw””

  1. So, the Russians are carrying out naval exercises and visits to Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, all close friends and close allies of the US of course, and all of them hitting well above their weight class, as Obama would characterize them (OK, that’s how he would characterize anybody he is buttering up…). While this is going on, the Chinese, landlords of the Panama Canal thanks to our other terrific president, Jimmy Carter, and soon to be the owner/operators of another great canal through Nicaragua, are strutting close to Hawaii and Guam while circling around Japan just because they can.

    OK…cool! And so reassuring too…

    Now, please tell me again why, in the midst of this tolerant, trusting, inclusive, get-along-with-everybody attitude, are we so deeply concerned about Syria…?

  2. Nothing much is going to happen from our end, agreed.

    Although, “someone” is lobbying their damnedest to force an Western intervention in Syria.

    The way I see it. It doesn’t make any sense that Assad would gas civilians while he’s winning on the ground..And it doesn’t make any sense that (as insane as most of them are) the ‘rebels” would agree to gas their own people to force an outside intervention either. Yet clearly some form of chemical weapon has been used on a non-military target. It could be as simple (and ironic) as a Syrian Army shell randomly hitting a rebel chemical arms cache. It could be much more sinister than that.

    Recent reports suggest the the Russians are urging Assad to cooperate with the UN experts. Why would they do that if Assad is guilty?

    Thanks for you other naval notes, I missed the Japan-Philippines Maritime co-op thing.

  3. What happened to the MEU, including the USS Kearsarge (? – hard for me to keep track) that was in the Red Sea when Egypt changed horses? I assumed that was in support of the Suez Canal and Egypt’s counter-terror deployments in Sinai, and thus assume it is still there, but not for anything about Syria)

    Yeah, I thought all the ‘news’ about keeping a fourth destroyer, the USS Mahan, in the eastern Med was a ‘we’re doing something’ moment.
    If Obama is hiding behind international law, you can bet he is hoping Israel or Jordan (are USAF amongst the deployment in Jordan?) will do his dirty work.

    Thanks for the update on China’s naval exploits, which I see as a projection of power. Russia is violating the Monroe Doctrine, but, I no longer assume this president has any respect for commitments from previous presidents.

    Michael Weiss has a very convincing report today at RCW on the most recent chemical attack being done by Assad.

    And, Russia is smart enough to jaw-jaw about expanding the UN inspectors brief to include the new chem attack.
    Too much of a coincidence that the bodies appeared same time the UN team arrived.
    Crikey, when are we going to hear about pink lines 🙂

  4. “There are rules of international law,” (Obama) told CNN’s Chris Cuomo. “If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work, and, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account.”

    BHO better watch out. Samantha Power (2001 version) might call him a bystander (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/09/bystanders-to-genocide/304571/ ).

  5. What’s happening in Syria is none of our business, regardless of whatever sorts of weapons are being used. And should we somehow decide it is our business I have no faith in anyone (of either party) in Washington to choose which side to back. Finally, if we do back one side or the other that backing will not be appreciated. We need to stay out of it.

    1. You are just about spot on, in one sentence, what JE spent an entire article outlining. It’s always good to have a good paper summed by one clear statement.

      I do have a tiny quibble. This is not an Administration. We have not been governed by an Administration since January 20, 2009. We are currently “ruled by a regime”. We have no president, just a figurehead operating at the top of a Marxist/Fascist dictatorship.

      Our votes no longer count… Our opinions are monitored and if they look to some heuristic algorithm to be in the least bit threatening to the Regime we will receive a knock on the door… or an extra bit of scrutiny in our tax returns for the last decade…. just to see if there is something interesting to use to discourage us.

      What is happening is that the Regime is about to light off some buzz bombs, and shoot off some drone launched rockets… to make some sort of Libyan “Beau Geste” so that the National Defense Conservatives and Republicans will dutifully shut up, fall in line, and do as they are told.

      The fact is that our military is eviscerated, snake bitten by political correctness, run by political flag/general officers. Our equipment is old, some of it several generations. Our troops are tired, over committed, and often committed to dangerous situations with little hope of support or reinforcement. We are walking them into potential death traps.

      At some point National Defense types are going to come down off of their adrenaline high, and notice that they aren’t defending anything recognizable anymore.

      As Michael Ledeen keeps pointing out. Syria isn’t the problem. They are puppets. The problem is IRAN… and the current Regime threw away (purposefully I might add) all of our hard earned leverage when it ran out of Iraq, and made a mess of Afghanistan.

      We are now in the position of being impotent observers, “leading from behind”. No good will come of it, and this saber rattling is pointless… our enemies are using bombs… they don’t fear our rusty cutlery anymore.


      1. I agree with everything you have said, and yes, we do not have a presidential administration, which is why I constantly refer to it as the “Obamanation Administration” and yes, Obamanation is a word play on Abomination.

      2. To: The Mighty One

        First of all, the sort of government that you allude to is impossible in a…wait for it…DEMOCRACY! Right?

        I mean, as long as the “Regime”, as you call it, is expressing the will of the people as represented by the past two, count them, two free elections, then everything is as it should be. Right…? We are indeed free and self-governed and the bull that emanates from Washington is the obvious result of our pristine representative government. RIGHT…RIGHT…???

        Now, then, as for everything else you are saying…I couldn’t agree with you more. Except for one little tidbit as follows:

        The real problem is not that Barry screwed the pooch in Iraq and Afghanistan by retreating and cow-toeing, the problem is that we went there to enforce our own versions of culture and government upon a people that didn’t want or need it in the first place. The great surprise came when, unlike the robots at home, those guys were willing to fight and die to preserve whatever structure, political and religious, they believed in. When that resistance began and the casualties started to pile on the robots at home finally understood that war is a bad, bad thing; particularly when you are forced to fight it with one hand tied behind your back as we are doing “over there”.

        As for everything else you rightly point out, power has two viable options and only two: The first, the one that avoids conflict for a long time at least, is the one where you intimidate the opponents into believing clearly and without doubt that all hell will break lose if they as much as look at you wrong. That one option has got to be supported by the second option, the one by which you demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that they will receive ten times whatever they dish out, economically, diplomatically and, when that avenue is opened up by your opponents, militarily. You do that a couple of times and you show the world that you don’t give a rat’s a** about international opinion, coalitions, permissions or ‘by your leaves’ and maybe the respect (read ‘fear’ here) for your anticipated reaction will start to sink in and will keep you somewhat safe.

        If you think about it, it’s all a bit like dealing with bullies in school. Lower your head and give them your lunch money and you can bet your last Oreo cookie that they will come back every day for more. Break a nose, crack a one by four across somebody’s back or bend a tail pipe over somebody’s head and I can promise you that you will be seen as some sort of crazy, ‘leave him alone’ kind of guy. On the other side of that picture, start to give the bully warnings that never happen, tell all his friends when and how you are going to make him pay, back down once, twice and more from phony ‘RED LINES’ and, then, when you are ready to act, make sure that whatever you do gives the other guy plenty of chances and that you play by some chivalry bull-crap rules and I can also guarantee you that it will be your sorry butt that will end up on the floor and that it will be your nose that will get bloodied by a sucker punch when you least expect it. When that happens go ahead and cry ‘foul!” all you want but I can promise you that you won’t be eating your Oreo cookie’s at lunch time…not with those broken teeth.

        You know I love ‘ya, Mighty One.


  6. Obama will huff, and Obama will puff, but he won’t blow the House of Assad down. Frankly, although he is going to do nothing because of his fecklessness, I’m OK with it. The more those assholes that kill each other, the better off we’ll all be.

    Harsh, I know, but remember the truth only hurts those it’s about.

  7. Thougthful analysis, Opti.

    But Barry doesn’t do thoughtful. He primarily does “how are my poll numbers and would this help them?”

    So I say he throws a few Tomahawks (say, why hasn’t Barry yet changed that racist name?), kills a few of Assad’s soldiers and lots of innocent civilians, and calls it a day.

    Then Barry goes back to focusing like a laser on whatever. The man is ADD. Dangerous but ADD dangerous.

  8. Do we really think that your average Iranian, seeing the Western support of fundamentalist Sunni regimes and Sunni revolts in the form of the MB, Salafis, al-Qaeda, the Turkish AKP, Bosnia and Kosovo, not to mention the support given to Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war… will somehow be inspired to peacefully “rise up” and open up his country to invasion and partition as some neocons believe?

    They might rise up against the mullahs, but they won’t magically stop being Persians.

    You all really think the Persians are going to stop furthering their interests in the region if they just replaced the theocracy?

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