Britain taking lead on Syria?

Backing into a maelstrom?

One of these days, the mainstream media will catch up with reality and start reporting things as they are.  In the Libya intervention in 2011, the United States “led from behind” – France and Britain being the leaders out front – as a non-hostile kinetic military action sort of developed.  Reporters and pundits might have learned from that event that the capitals to watch are those of Europe.  They didn’t; but such appears to be the case again.

Britain, France

One watches Obama in vain.  But according to foreign media, if one is watching David Cameron, one is seeing things actually happen.  While U.S. Navy warships are told to prepare to close their ranges with Syria, this report comes out of the UK:

Royal Navy vessels are being readied to take part in a possible series of cruise missile strikes, alongside the United States, as military commanders finalize a list of potential targets, the report said.

Finalizing a list of targets would suggest a strike is actually being prepared for.  The leaders of Western Europe have consulted:

According to the Telegraph, Cameron interrupted his holiday for talks with Obama, French President Francois Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel. After discussions over the weekend, all the leaders agreed on the need for a “serious response”, according to the report.

Government sources confirmed to the Telegraph that military action was among the options “on the table” but said no decisions had been taken.

Prime Minister Cameron has reportedly left behind the passively legalistic approach indicated by Obama in last week’s interview with CNN:

The Prime Minister, however, is believed to have abandoned hope of securing any further meaningful response from the UN amid opposition from Russia, which has already vetoed several Security Council resolutions condemning the Assad regime, including one from last week after the chemical attack.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Monday that a military response is possible even without UN sanction.  So, notably, did his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, who affirmed that Turkey would join a response coalition against Syria whether it had UN backing or not.  (That is to be expected, of course; Syria being right on Turkey’s border, Ankara would hardly stand aside, even if her overall national strategy were more passive than it is.  Whoever takes the lead, Turkey will want to be part of the solution.)

Meanwhile, the UK Guardian reports that locals and commercial pilots are seeing an uptick in military air activity at Britain’s air base at Akrotiri, Cyprus.  As noted in the article, Cyprus would be used as the main base for NATO aircraft participating in an operation against Syria.

France under Francois Hollande plans, at least for now, to wait for the results from the UN investigation of the 21 August chemical attack in Damascus.  (The France that took the lead in Libya in 2011 was led by Nicolas Sarkozy.)


Senior ministers of both Britain and France have discussed Syria with Qatar in the last few days – notable, given Qatar’s high-profile role in the Libya coalition in 2011.

Angela Merkel, a wild card in this hand, has come out uncharacteristically trenchant in favor of a potential military response against Syria.  Germany watchers point out the political risk she incurs with this stance, given the general election scheduled for September, and German voters’ distaste for military actions abroad.  If Germany participated in a Syria strike that began within the next week, the German contribution would be limited, perhaps to air logistics support, or to deployable air-defense or other defense packages for the air base in Cyprus.

Italy, whose bases would also likely be used – unless they were denied – is cautioning against a military intervention without the go-ahead from the UN:

Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said on Monday that ”military intervention in Syria without UN Security Council approval is not feasible.”

Remarking during an Italian radio programme on the Syrian issue occupying the international agenda, Bonino warned of the possible reactions of Russia and Iran, saying ”We should try to avoid making an international drama into a global one.”

”Even a limited intervention runs the risk of becoming unlimited. We must think it over a thousand times, because the repercussions could be dramatic,” she added.


It remains to be seen whether Britain – and presumably France and Turkey, along with possibly the US, Germany, Qatar, and perhaps Jordan – can simply do whatever they want in the Eastern Mediterranean with impunity.  Emma Bonino is actually right on the money: the repercussions of an intervention, in the teeth of Russian objections, could be dramatic.  Russia may or may not intervene directly against a military action, if one should emerge in the next week.  But she will surely amp up her campaign to solidify a power base on her southern flank – amp it up significantly, in ways the whole region will feel – if she doesn’t see herself as being in position for the direct, immediate response.  (Memo to Georgia:  be afraid.)

Some Russian options

Western bases in Cyprus may not be a sure thing for a Syria intervention.  Even though additional aircraft are operating there already – probably from the Royal Air Force – it isn’t certain that Cyprus will ultimately agree to the bases being used for a military strike.  The world lost interest in Cyprus’s financial problems after the EU imposed a harsh bailout deal in March 2013.  But Russia didn’t – and, as reported a few days ago, a consortium of nominally private Russian investors has gained control of the Bank of Cyprus in the less-visible aftermath of this spring’s drama.

Russia is open about wanting access to Cyprus’s airfields and ports.  But she may use her financial leverage over Cyprus for a nearer-term objective, if it looks like the West European nations will indeed try to use Cypriot bases for an attack on Syria.  The outcome of such a showdown is by no means guaranteed; Cyprus is small and weak, and whoever pushes harder will almost certainly get what he wants.  What we don’t know is who will push harder.  Whoever does will have the most important momentum to come out of this situation – and the Russians, less complacent and less fettered by post-modern pieties about multilateralism, see that more clearly than the West does.

Overall, given the threats from Russia and Iran, a real game of “chicken” is forming up in the Mediterranean.  Another option Russia has – one that Western observers might call a “nuclear option” – is to try to shoot down any cruise missiles or drones launched by Western militaries into Syrian air space.

Theater of Syrian operations (Google map)
Theater of Syrian operations (Google map)

The cruise missiles used would be subsonic: e.g., Storm Shadow, Tomahawk; the Exocet, optimized against maritime targets, has too short a range to be useful for most potential targets in Syria.  Russia’s modern air-defense systems, including the S-300 PMU2 and the SA-17 point-defense missile, are well capable of shooting them down, as long as the missiles are tracked properly.  The same is true of drones, whether armed or for reconnaissance.  Considering that Syria is known to have been provided with these air-defense systems, Russia has deniability regarding who actually pulls the trigger.

Limiting the effectiveness of our cruise missiles would force us to do more with manned aircraft.  (If the confrontation actually came to pass, and a significant number of Western cruise missiles were taken out, that would be a game-changing development in and of itself.  Western subsonic cruise missiles have ruled military calculations for nearly a quarter-century now.  It’s only a matter of time before they meet their match; will it be in Syria, this weekend?)

The Russians may consider it a bridge too far, to shoot manned aircraft down.  But Assad might not.  Depending on how the West is behaving, he might calculate – and he might be correct – that he will achieve a better result by shooting some Western aircraft down, if he can.  Between them, Moscow and Damascus have the ability to make us question our commitment to a strike that doesn’t turn out to be quick and easy.

Resupplying Assad’s air defenses, meanwhile – or simply getting Russian forces into Syria and pretending they are Assad’s – is a matter of flying cargo planes across Iraq from Iran.  Will Iraq agree with the Western powers to actually deny her air space to such flights?  The record to date is not promising.  Iraq objects, meanwhile, to any use of her bases or air space for strikes on Syria.  She is not likely to allow Western forces in during a coalition action, for the purpose of blocking cargo flights from Iran to Syria.  Nor is there the smallest likelihood of Turkey trying to force down such flights, or allowing her bases to be used for that purpose by Western fighter jets.

A coalition against Syria can undoubtedly count on using Turkey’s bases and air space for strikes on Syria (which relieves somewhat, if not entirely, the operational burden on Cyprus).  But it will be a separate question, and one with no certain answer, whether Turkey would agree to put herself in the middle of a shoot-out that involved Russia.  What, indeed, will Turkey do if Russia simply moves more ships into and out of Syrian ports, many of them coming from the Black Sea?  What will the Western navies do?

A Western punitive attack may well be of such short duration that no meaningful direct response by Russia is feasible.  Moscow’s priority beforehand will be to avert the attack; it’s hard to predict right now how much she will respond to one directly.  The Russians may decide they would rather provoke their own tectonic shifts under cover of a lingering sense of status quo – and therefore may keep their overt response muted.

But what’s important, if a strike is conducted, is what happens afterward: what Russia and Iran actually do, and whether they do it with impunity.  The smart money is on their resolve and their postures hardening, and their plans accelerating and increasing their focus.

The import of a decision to strike

Emma Bonino is right in her dire assessment, because we have reached the limit of the Pax Americana’s ability to hold together without enforcement.  There is no longer a reliably enforced status quo backstopping the European powers and their proposal to ignore Russian threats.  The context has already changed around them and their operational planning.

If they assume they can bring off a strike without altering everyone’s strategic reality in the mid-term future – call it the next one to five years – their assumption is faulty.  In fact, a coalition strike on Syria will be the trigger event for a sea change in geopolitical relations.  Although I do not believe it will “start a war” any time soon, failure to plan for the sea change could turn out to be the biggest miscalculation since the summer of 1914.

Of one thing we can be certain.  The driving factor in shaping this situation will not be the policy of the United States.  That day is done; we have the president we have.  If we want American primacy back, we will have to bestir ourselves to establish a new order.  It’s not post-1991 anymore.  Indeed, it’s not post-1945 anymore.  All things old are new again.  The question, as the potential for a strike on Syria dominates the headlines, is whether the West’s leaders see that or not.

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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12 thoughts on “Britain taking lead on Syria?”

  1. “…All things old are new again. …”
    is so true.

    I have been studying Afghan and Pashtun (“The Pathans”) history, and, last week spent four hours following the course of empire with DK Publishing’s “Timelines of World History”, mostly to better comprehend the ebb and flows of the great land empires of the Moghuls and Ottomans, and Byzantium.

    Got distracted by the Mamluks 🙂

    And noticed that Britain had been almost continuously engaged in a very long string of wars since mid-18th century.

    Russia must be factoring in the threat of biological or chemical attacks at Sochi2014, which could create a surpising twist in the next few days.

    Or, maybe PM Cameron thinks it is time to answer the final letter the people of Circassia sent to Queen Victoria, dated 9 April, 1864,

    “…We therefore invoke the mediation and precious assistance of the British Government and people – the guardian of humanity and centre of justice – in order to repel the brutal attacks of the Russian Government on our country,,,then we pray to be afforded facilities for removing to a place of safety our helpless and miserable children and women that are perishing…”

    Instead, the starving Circassians sold their children to the Ottomans, for the harem and the army, for boat transport to a place of safety from the shores of Circassia’s Sochi.
    The Ottomans did resettle the survivors. They are always loyal to the head of state in those countries. There are more than 100,000 Circassians in Syria.

    Western media will not notice these two quandaries for Russia, ironically both relate directly to Sochi. Sochi2014 is the 150th anniversay of the Tsarist genocide and expulsion of indigenous Circassians in 1864, motivated by the Tsarist loss of the Crimean War.

    At the very least, someone should tell the Chechens to stop claiming it is their bones buried in Sochi. The Chechens have a totally different history and geography of “.. the brutal attacks of the Russian government…”

    Well then. I just realized the best old school diplomat today is Russia’s Lavrov, so, please step up to the podium, Britain’s FM Hague.

    *Circassian letter from page 103, Oliver Bullough, 2010, “Let Our Fame be Great”

    Great post, J.E. Dyer.

  2. Do you know if there is any good guide available to how the lay user can gauge whether a strike is a serious attempt at changing the balance on the ground or just a “wrist slap” (personally hope its the former, but worries that it’ll be the latter)

  3. Dr. Partridge — I can’t think of a particular lay guide to assessing the purpose of military strikes. You ask an important question, however. I think the image in most people’s minds is of the proposal in this case being a single-event punitive strike, or a “wrist-slap.” That said, there are wrist slaps, and there are wrist-slaps.

    An effective wrist-slap, one that didn’t get into going after ground-war equipment, would be blinding the regime as severely as possible. Take out every radar we can find, especially early warning and air and coastal defense radars. This wrist-slap was the first one administered to the Bosnian Serbs in 1995, in the ramp-up after Srebrenica.

    A less effective wrist-slap would be on the targeted, retaliatory model, i.e., seeking to attack chemical stores and/or the artillery systems used for their delivery. Assad has had so much time now to break the stores up and secret them away, we would find it very difficult to get a big bang for this buck.

    Actually trying to change the balance on the ground would entail things like going after Assad’s military aircraft and airfields, his air defense and AD coordination capabilities, his ground formations (which are relatively dispersed at this point, and would take a while to service as a target set), and of course his tanks, personnel carriers, and general-purpose artillery.

    Before the Western allies fully agree to launching a strike, they will consider precisely the question of what it would do the most good to attack, and whether it’s possible to bring off an attack that would fulfill a meaningful objective. The military always wants to know what the objective is first, and the political leaders always want to know, “What can you hit?” first, and what it will take to do it. Although technically — ideally — the political objective is determined independently, as the prime mover for the event, in reality it’s a two-way street to develop the objective(s) and the target set.

    What has to be factored in, based on our experience with the Libya intervention, is the peculiar set of priorities and constraints envisioned by Obama’s top advisors on this topic: Samantha Power and Valerie Jarrett, who played such a role in scoping the Libya operation. Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton, the others who were key in that operation, are no longer in the jobs they filled then. Power and Rice, between them, gave us the successively filtered concept of the “non-hostile kinetic military action.” We are likely to see a determination in this case as well to trim our objective(s) defensively so as to avoid trying to influence the outcome of the civil war, per se. Power quite seriously thinks force can be calibrated in that way.

  4. K2K — thanks. I think it’s too early to tell if the era of US dominance will turn out to have been a brief 70-year blip on the gigantic radar scope of history, or if we will merely have an intermission, in the next decade or more, from a long-term trend of liberalization, to which more nations will ultimately cycle back over time. There are arguments for both propositions.

    But the patterns of history do tend to recur. The thing about America is that if miracles didn’t happen, we would never have been born. We wouldn’t have survived our early squabbles or our civil war. Our idea of liberty and limited government wouldn’t still animate so many of us today, after nearly 100 years of relentless Frankfurt-School-ism and growth of prophylactic government.

    We have beaten the odds with each step we have taken, and there is no hand of fate that says we have to go down in a smoke-puff of pathetic banality like the late-Roman empire. The last chapter of our tale has by no means been written.

    That said, it IS amazing to investigate the histories of the Eastern hemisphere and see how little ever seems to change. Especially at the intersection of East and West in the Middle East.

  5. Due to the administration’s red lines and posturing, we are now in the position of having to incur either a major loss or a major loss.

    If Obama backs down, or pops off a few Tomahawks with his equally incompetent current British lap dog, it will show our adversaries that that they can continue banking on our withdrawal from the region. Major defeat.

    If he escalates to the deployment of ground forces, which he must do if the objective is to exercise influence on the outcome of the Syrian civil war, then we will be dragged into a quagmire. Our adversaries will be able to pick and choose where and when to counterstrike. Tbilisi won’t be the only apprehensive capital in this case, but so will others stretching from Pristina and Riga, to Seoul and Tokyo, and several ME capitals in between.. Also recall we haven’t extracted ourselves completely from Afcrap yet, which is an additional complicating factor (among many too long to list)..

    Surely recent events in Egypt have taught us the current limitations of our power and influence in the death duel between Islamic-based-dictatorial repression and Military-based-dictatorial repression in the Sunni societies of the MENA. Yet, we risk a extended ground engagement in Syria to bolster the very destabilizing forces that wish to eject us from the region (al-Qaeda et al).

    We no longer have the will, wealth, or endurance to unilaterally be the only heavy lid on this boiling pot of a region.

    Major defeat. Unless, it leads to some heretical opportunist looking into, heaven forbid, something like playing the damn Iran card…or, starts talking some good ole-fashioned 19thcent. geopolitical horse trading with you know who..

    A lot of good could come out of that.

  6. Feeling your pain, jgets. Obama is way out of his league here. He literally cannot handle this situation. It’s impossible to predict what he will do. He has a ward-heeler’s political survival instincts, but he has no judgment whatsoever when it comes to geopolitical conditions and using power.

    I honestly think that if McCain were in exactly this situation, as president, he would find a way to avoid a military confrontation. In spite of all his rhetoric over the past several months, his view at the precipice would be shaped by the urgent imperative to minimize risk. He might choose a relatively ignominious course, but there would be realism and reason behind his choices.

    We can’t make that assumption about Obama. I’m concerned about the apparent lack of sound instinct we’re seeing with Cameron & Co as well. They should be able to see that they can’t throw their weight around in Syria and not put a match to a powder keg.

    This one’s gonna hurt.

    1. Shoulda coulda woulda (on McCain), water under the bridge now.

      R2P will be the death of us unless we kill it first.

      It’s a matter of time before some adversary judges the time is ripe, collects a bunch of vassals and invokes R2P to further their own interest, possibly interfering in our internal affairs as well.

  7. Highway to the danger drone…

    This is always difficult to discuss because risk adversity seems to be a major hallmark of human nature. This makes us impose some sort of moral high ground on using robots to conduct warfare. I always get those “looks” and the condescension when I plainly tell them that robot warfare is dangerous, and ultimately a losing strategy.

    Look, let me put it this way, and it seems harsh, but if we risk nothing we gain nothing, and warfare once embarked upon must be won… or it is lost. draws are losses, especially if nothing is accomplished at great cost. There is one other non-victory, and that is nothing being accomplished at no cost, or relatively low cost.

    We face an adversary from an earlier social ethos (10th century or thereabouts). A large part of war consists of the esprit or elan of within the ranks of both the troops fighting, and the home front supporting them. A man of that social ethos, who is confronted by a machine might die, but his death becomes largely an “accident” of war, not a direct result of a human actually risking himself to accomplish the task. Regardless of what we think of as honor in the 21st century west, the 10th century Middle East, has its own form of honor, and the two do not match. In fact they are diametrically opposed.

    There is no honor in launching zero risk buzz bombs and drone based missiles at an adversary, where there is no intention of following up the action further. Air doctrine failed in World War II. It also failed in Korea and Vietnam … Bombing was deadly and inconvenient. It stretched enemies’ wills and enurance… but it never won anything. The Germans were producing more just before the end of the war, than when it started (there were quality issues, but quantity was not a problem. In Korea, strategic bombing did nothing at all to cripple the North Koreans, and was never implemented against the Chinese (that option was foreclosed by the nature of the limited war). In Vietnam, strategic bombing in the South did nothing to stop the build up before Tet, and did little to control the countryside. It did have impact in forcing the North to the Paris Peace talks… but it never won the war.

    Air power only works when used in support of ground or sea based operations where actual military objectives are achieved by men occupying and holding enemy territory. It also works when spoiling offensive operations by the enemy, and interdicting his supply lines and depots.

    The point is, that all a Buzz Bomb attack on Syria will do is further inflame the situation. It risks spreading the conflict openly, and without any controlling military force on the ground, will amount to blowing up dirt, civilians, and buildings…

    What’s worse is that to our enemies it is looked upon as an act of cowardly impotence to use robots to do what men should be doing.

    We are about to do something horribly provocative with almost no ability to back it up, and no will to follow it up. It’s just a self-righteous self-indulgent action of an incompetent regime to silence its internal adversaries and look tough at NO RISK to itself.

    It means nothing to us, and everything to our enemies… the Regime looks weak and feckless…

    Which invites attack.

    Dumb… really atrociously dumb…

    1. “There is no honor in launching zero risk buzz bombs and drone based missiles at an adversary, where there is no intention of following up the action further.”

      Equally important: no prospect of victory in it either, or even just of “achieving a desired end-state.”

      In fact, no valid purpose at all. It corrupts our minds, to imagine we can use bombs in some mechanical way to make points with people. Military force has its own logic, but not its own purpose. It is a tool of will, not a substitute for it.

  8. We need to have some confidence in King Abdullah II of Jordan because I see how he influences Kerry.

    I do wonder if Obama realizes how much damage he did to USA-Russia relations when Obama, during the GM bailout, stopped the deal that Merkel and Putin had worked out for [private] Russian purchase of Opel before the GM bailout.

    JE: thank you. I prefer studying west Asia to the USA, so I have no settled opinion about the duration of Pax Americana. Workin’ on it.

    moderating myself online. so much to write, but not online.

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