War With Syria: (3) The Expanding Attack

mccain and grahamLittle doubt remains that this blog is read at the White House. On Thursday, August 29, 2013, I noted two things: one, the planned attack on Syria was an exercise in futility; and, the law of unintended consequences were at stake. A day later my message finally got through to the president as he walked around the White House grounds with Denis McDonough. My great-grandmother was a McDonough so that pretty much seals the deal. 🙂

Earlier on that Friday we heard from Secretary Kerry pounding away at the drums of war but that was before President Obama got the more sage advise from McDonough and others. My sense is they told him Kerry was acting as if he got elected to the presidency and he was way out in front of the president.

Aaron Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars seemed to agree: “If you compare Kerry’s statement with the president’s…there’s a huge gap there. . . . I think Kerry really, really wants to act. He wants to be activist and engaged. But it is really hard…you could make the argument that Kerry’s role is still being undercut.” I wonder if Miller thinks that it is the president who is doing the undercutting.

Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post pretty much laid out what is going on. Rubin questions whether Obama has earned Kerry’s loyalty after his about-face. She says Kerry has to carry the burden of going before Congress because no one else can do it. Susan Rice “has zero credibility with the American people;” Chuck Hagelis viewed as dimwitted and likely could not have survived five Sunday show interviews;” and Joe Biden “is a loose cannon likely to go off message or spill the beans about the internal chaos in the administration.” She sums up by telling us what she thinks of the people around Obama saying: “The problem with having flunkies in key spots is that sometimes you need respected figures.

Rubin agrees with me that the limited strike makes no sense. She says: “the only deterrence that will matter and the only way to end the threat of more WMD attacks on Syrians is to destroy the chemical weapons caches or disable the military forces that will deliver them. And if our aim is to signal to Iran we won’t tolerate their acquiring a nuclear weapon, then anything short of driving Assad from office or significantly tipping the balance in favor of non-jihadists will be insufficient. That is the reality, which I suspect Kerry understands.”

Here is how things stand. Kerry has pretty much failed in bringing other countries on board. Obama for a while said he hasn’t made up his mind on military action but on Saturday he told us: “I have decided that the United States should take action against Syrian military targets. We are prepared to strike whenever we choose. This is not time-sensitive. Could be tomorrow, next week or one month from now.” 

Obama’s dilemma is that to get the votes to avoid embarrassment, he has to turn to the people who have criticized his lack of passion when it comes to war. Yesterday he met with two of the biggest voices for using the military to force to enforce our will, Senators McCain and Graham at the White House. They came away satisfied that the president was going their way. Kerry spoke with Netanyahu on Sunday night. Yesterday I told you what he wants.

This tells me the attack on Syria will be much greater than originally planned and the resolution will be broad enough that it can be argued it gives the president the right to attack Iran.

Jon who has a good command of foreign policy matters wrote to William yesterday calling to his attention to this article that points out how many questions remain unanswered. Most poignantly the article suggests we are fooling ourselves if we really believe once we make war on Syria we’re not going to have to commit American troops into that country.



  1. Matt, I read with great interest Jon’s article (You referenced it and linked it); everyone should read the comments on that article too. I also read Khalid’s informative article and your response. We know the Middle East is very complex. We also know Syria does not threaten us, anyone more so than Borneo Natives with Machetes do. There’s always a risk some American tourist will be hacked to death by a Machete; we don’t bomb to deter slight, remote risks. There’s an equal risk, the bombing will mean Al Queda gets chemical WMD (Mustard Gas and Saran) and we know they’ll use them against us. The bombing is a treasonous act giving aid and comfort to our enemies, Al Queda. SUMMARY STATEMENTS: Skipping the quagmire of geo-political pseudo-analysis and bickering, let’s consider some basics: (1) We have not ruled out a Rogue Syrian General, a Syrian Quizzling, quietly supportive of the REBELS and the U.S., (most likely at the ultra-secretive manipulative behest of the CIA) unleashing the Chemical Attack; note The Rebels benefit mostly and note also Assad’s quick condemnation and allowing UN observers to investigate; the firing on the UN observers was obviously a rebel ploy. (2) If any International Response is warranted, then let it be this: capture and or kill that General and his troops who actually fired the Chemicals; (3) The U.S. military response will kill thousands of innocent soldiers and civilians having nothing to do with the chemical attack (4) the reaction to the US response in the murky Middle East is wholly unpredictable, and could trigger conflicts worldwide with Muslims, Chinese, Russians, etc. and more terrorist attacks at home (of course after the attack the FBI and Homeland Security will demand more power and more staff (more spies to spy on us citizens) and (5) “Limited Intervention” is a lie; Remember Libya: we bombed Khadafi’s homes; we called them CommandAndControl Facilities; We called them COMPOUNDS. I thought of the KENNEDY COMPOUND AND the adjacent SQUAW ISLAND. Surely, if the tables were turned, another foreign power in our Powerful Shoes would be target those homes, killing women and children, because the foreign power would argue that leaders of the US REGIME worked out of the “compounds” in that area; perhaps Bush’s compound in Kennebunc also would be bombed. (6) Wake up, People. Stop America’s Imperialistic War Machine; Put $$ into Detroit, not into Devastation and Death in Syria by American missiles, bombs and drones, and both boots on the ground and our ever present intermeddling loafers on the ground.

    • William:
      1. I rule out a rogue general because had there been one he would have been disciplined.
      2. The general doesn’t exist. The culprit is Assad/
      3. True but that’s the punishment people get for not being born in America.
      4. True, more terrorists will be made and the response is unpredictable.
      5. We may intend a limited intervention, those intervened against may not.
      6. American like war. It has brought them many goodies and little hardship.

  2. If US forces don’t strike at the Hezbollah units fighting in Syria there’s no point in launching any missiles. Perhaps, a more subtle approach is called for. This is a proxy war, so, the US must find more effective proxies than the Iranians employ. Lebanon is a great place to recruit Hessians. I have in mind the Lebanese Forces (LF), a Maronite militia led by Samir Geagea. LF is based in the town of Bisharri high atop Mt. Lebanon. Khalil Gibran Khalil grew up there.
    Geagea was the only warlord jailed after the Taif Agreement. For ten years he was kept in isolation, confined in a small airless cell in the basement of the defense ministry. He kept his sanity by reading the works of Sartre, Merton, Gabriel Marceau, etc. He and I have that type of monastic experience in common. I guess that’s one of the reasons I like him. Geagea is a complex guy. I think of him as cross between Reinhard Heidrich, and, Michael Corleone, mellowed by a rich leavening of Eastern Christian mysticism. He’s quite the fighting man. Geagea commanded at the siege of Zahle, and, later, led a large scale military invasion of the Chouf. He competes for political leadership of the Maronite Catholic community with Michel Aoun. Auon, a member of the March 8 faction, is in alliance with Hezbollah. Geagea belongs to the March 24 Alliance which is opposed to Hezbollah.

    If Geagea wins in the up-coming Lebanese elections for president, he might be persuaded to cut the Bekaa main roads in two vital places, between Baalbak, and, Hermel, and, between Baalbak, and, Damascus. That would block any re-supply, or, reinforcement, of Hezbollah units in Syria. Should Geagea lose the election, he might still be able to complete this mission with LF troops alone. I also suggest that certain septs of the Jaafar crime tribe residing in Baalbak and Dar al Wasa would be amenable to doing the bidding of the US. They had a few dust-ups with Hezbollah toward the end of the civil war, and, are spoiling for a return engagement.

    If Hezbollah can be kept busy defending itself in Lebanon, the FSA might be able to handle Syrian government forces, and, best of all, there’d be no need for boots on the ground, just a couple pairs of Reboks.

    • Khalid:
      I expect we will have a much broader attack hitting targets in all of the country. I’d also think Irael under the cover of our rockets might be interested in taking out some of the Hexbollah units in Syria with its planes if the chance presents itself.

      I don’t see a Christian army coming in on the side of the insurgents. The Syrian Christians are behind Assad seeing how the Christians were driven out of Iraq once a new Muslim group took over. I think Geagea will sit this one out as will the other Lebanese Christians. They still have to live with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

      I have a sense this will escallate relatively quickly although that sense goes against my rational analysis that it is not in any one’s interest to have it expand since Assad has no good targets to vent his fury against, Hezbollah in Lebanon is keeping its head down, and Iran is having enough trouble. Russia will bark but won’t bite. Of course we will have our special forces operating there and somehow they are not considered American ground forces.

      Listening to someone from NSA talk last night on television from what I heard him says my conclusion is the Government has not intention of informing the American people about anything that is going on. We’re left with these behind closed door meetings called top secret. Another war conducted just like Iraq with the population treated like so many dunces.

  3. Matt,

    For all our disagreements on Syria, this was an excellent post. And I think you lay out very well the concern with military action.

    It seems necessary to distinguish between Obama seeking to preserve his credibility and America having to preserve its credibility. Unfortunately, the president must make the decision for the U.S., so the president is America in that regard. But the distinction helps us to see what this might ultimately be about, and that’s not a good reason. However, it is still true that this is about American national interests in the sense that lack of action signals weakness that emboldens rogue regimes. Iran being emboldened to continue building its bomb is not in the national interest of the U.S. Don’t forget Iran’s role in the Hezbollah plot to bomb a restaurant in Georgetown a year or two ago where a Saudi ambassador likes to dine.

    All that said, I think I am seeing that your concern all along has been that the only way this strike is effective is if significant involvement follows, and that could very well end up meaning boots on the ground to secure weapons and such. And that’s not a good scenario given the seeming lack of long-term strategy coming from the administration and the complexity of the geopolitical game in the Middle East.

    As you know, I am more hawkish in foreign policy given my overall adherence to the mantra of “peace through strength”. And I am inclined to support military strikes if there is a good strategy behind them. But you lay out the concerns very well.

  4. This female writer for the Washington Post wrote what? Joe Biden was a United States Senator for 36 years and I feel a big part of the Obama team. Who would she feel more comfortable with? I feel as someone who is almost fifty that the role of media coverage has changed so much in the past 5 to 10 years that whatever the process is on something major it is always being picked apart.Anyways best of luck to you as your move along your blog to other aspects of the world and I hope you continue as I have found your writing to be full of courage and conviction and a thought process that makes me take another look at issues I thought I already had my mind made up on. regards,

  5. What bothers me about this is how futile it all seems to be. We stand hundred of miles off and launch missiles that will kill people who had nothing to do with the gas attack which is the reason we are attacking. It’s like someone who is upset at Mayor Bloomberg shoots a couple of sanitation workers. I can’t get over the idea we’re walking into a trap. You can’t have a war where only one side suffers all the losses; eventually something will come back at you.



    And not just the workers but their randomly chosen grandchildren as well.
    It’s beyond my ability to understand that there is not another possibility besides this.

    There are no politics
    no economic pressure
    no apologies for stoking the fires of jihad
    no working with Putin
    no working with governments of all the -stans
    no joint embargoes
    no softening of this and strengthening of that

    but more American bombs.

    It’s amazing to me to learn from this that all the contiguous countries are not intervening.
    Apparently it’s in their self interest to do nothing.
    The gas has not united THEM to do anything.

    If it’s in their self interest to do nothing, what about our own self interest?

    It’s as if Canada up and decides to gas a village of secessionists and rather than the US stepping in and turning its defense weapons on the insane Canadians, we sit back while Turkey decides to attack Canada for the benefit of the world.

    I agree this seems like a trap.

    I cannot understand why the United States is asked to unite behind more war when the very people who surround this country choose to do nothing.

    • Firefly:

      Your points are well made. The president and Kerry say we are upholding the standards of the world yet no one else in the world except a handflul of countries think what happened is sufficient to start a war over. If these are truly international matters then the international body set up to address such matters should be involved with any response. It’ll be important to see how the resolution comes out – right now it looks like we will be doing all we can to maintain the status quo of the civil war because Assad was starting to gain the upper hand. A white house spokesman said toda we are doing the attack so that Assad will go to the negotiation table and agree to leave office. He also said that things important to Assad are at rish. Like with Iraq we have a fluidity of explanations justifying the unjustifiable. We’re also hearing we have given more arms to “the resistance.” He said people should not think this is open ended, it will be focused and targeted and time sensitive adventure.

      We know our action is risks, according to this spokesman. We believe not acting will have greater consequences. We want to enforce a norm that has been around for 100 years and send messages to other nations in the area that we will act.

    • Firefly,

      It’s not as if the national security team is sitting around the table figuring out how to maximize civilian casualties.

  6. Wow! Another great post, Matt.

    I watched Kerry’s speech with my jaw on the floor. I could only think, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
    I am tired of half measures. Are we a nation that now ONLY elects men who lack conviction (either side of the argument, is fine, by the way – I’m no longer picky, I’m just dying to hear absolute decisiveness from ANY President, when it comes to issues like this)?

    What we WILL do, is go into Syria, half-assed, with no clear objectives. People like my brother (an Army medic reservist), will get deployed for a fifth or sixth time in ten years, and yet it will achieve nothing but lukewarm press, no real results, and stump speeches for the next election cycle.

    Nothing more.

    I can predict exactly what we’ll do. I’ve seen this movie before.

    Rock on, sir. Looking forward to you covering this, bc I can’t watch.

    • Kristi:

      Thanks for the post and thank your brother for his service. I think the medics are under valued in all of these battles since they are not doing the fighting but doing the hard part of risking their lives for those who do. I firmly believe one of the worst things this country did was to give up the draft which made wars something that had the potential to affect everyone. Now 99% or more of us go about unmindful of the sacrifice of those who volunteer to serve like your brother. The vets complained that during Vietnam they came back and people were hostile to them (although I never saw any of that) but that seems better than now when people just ignore those who serve.

      What bothers me about this is how futile it all seems to be. We stand hundred of miles off and launch missiles that will kill people who had nothing to do with the gas attack which is the reason we are attacking. It’s like someone who is upset at Mayor Bloomberg shoots a couple of sanitation workers. I can’t get over the idea we’re walking into a trap. You can’t have a war where only one side suffers all the losses; eventually something will come back at you.

      • Thank you, sir. I wholeheartedly agree. The same reservists are getting sent time, after time, after time. This last deployment was supposed to be his last and he came home around Halloween of last year after about a year and a half. That promise lasted about a month and then he heard word by December ’12, that maybe it wasn’t their last deployment.

        What makes this really stink, is that there is no clear ‘out’ and no clear objective. At least none that I’ve heard verbalized. Obama ended up throwing Kerry under a bus while coming across as fairly non-committal, last I checked. If we are going to fight a WAR, and send these guys out again, why on earth do we have no clear strategies, anymore? I don’t buy that we are going to shell the hell out of the place and leave. I just don’t believe that.

        All the Best, sir… Hope you are enjoying your breather from the epic ‘Big Show’.

        • Kristi:

          The idea of using the reservists in the Iraq, Afghanistan and Syrian war was something no one thought would ever have happened prior to the start of those wars. The reservists were always considered a home army to respond if America itself was endangered. It will be touch and go whether we put our troops into Syria. Congress can pass all the resolutions in the world but it does not affect how other people may behave. I don’t think the odds are great but this could spin out of control.

          You are absolutely right there is no clear end game. The resolution that will come out of Congress will be so vague that it will probably allow us to attack Cuba. I think Kerry threw Obama under the bus and forced this war. It is all part of his plan for peace in the Middle East which drives him on. I just hopes he recognizes that our interests do not mirror our allies.

          You can’t have a strategy without a long term plan. Our greatest secretary of states were not politicians looking for something to do to keep themselves in the spotlight. Kerry who did nothing in the Senate of any great moment took the job believing he could settle the Middle East and he’s made a mess of it as we’ve seen in Egypt which has the generals back in charge killing the people; Hillary took it further her ambitions. Looking back we were best served by those who did not want to enhance their egos.

          What we need now, and we may have because the State Department leadership has not brought them forward, is a plan for the future. George Kennan drafted a plan in the 1940s or 1950s that served us well for decades. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 was the time for a grand plan into the future but the caliber of presidents and secretary of states from that time on has led to the present day. It’s not too late. There are some brilliant people in our State Department who should be listened to. I only wish some of them would speak out.

  7. Matt — I thought Senator Lindsey Graham was staunchly opposed to an attack on Syria. Where did you learn that he was “satisfied that the president was going their way”? The WaPo article you linked made no reference to the two senators. Perhaps there was another article that did; if so I missed it.

    Thanks, Louie

    • Louie:

      I summed up what was said in that Post article where it reported: “Meanwhile, McCain and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) indicated that Obama has given them new assurances addressing their complaints that the Syrian battlefield is tilted against the forces opposing Assad’s government. They strongly suggested that the White House may further expand its help for the rebels, who now receive very limited U.S. military supplies and advice, and that the administration will be articulating a more comprehensive strategy this week.
      “There seems to be emerging from this administration a pretty solid plan to upgrade the opposition, to get other regional players involved,” Graham said after their session with Obama on Monday.
      McCain added: “Before this meeting, we had not had this indication. Now the question is whether that will be put into a concrete strategy that we can sell to our colleagues and that we agree with.”

      It was reported today that: “Arizona’s McCain, a leading Republican voice on national security, said he wants to include provisions for arming Syrian rebels and assurances that military strikes would be able to deter further Syrian use of chemical weapons with an emphasis on forcing Bashar al-Assad from power.