Sen. Corker: Monday Morning Quarterbacking Syria

December 5, 2014

Senator Robert Corker (R-Tenn) stated this week at the 2014 Foreign Policy Initiative Forum that the United States had a ten-hour airstrike planned and ready to execute against Syria in 2013. In the Senator’s words,

I think the worst moment in U.S. foreign policy since I’ve been here, as far as signaling to the world where we were as a nation, was August a year ago when we had a 10-hour operation that was getting ready to take place in Syria but it didn’t happen.

The senator later remarked that the attack was intended to be “very targeted, very brief, and hopefully have an impact.” He concluded by saying “In essence — I’m sorry to be slightly rhetorical — we jumped in Putin’s lap, and we are where we are today in Syria.”

There is a great deal of irony in this short account of the Senator’s comments. Senator Corker suggests that if President Obama had ordered this strike, we would somehow be in a better place in Syria today. This argument should be examined carefully. It is a powerful example of the dangers of “Monday morning quarterbacking.”

Using military force with the intent that it would “hopefully have an impact” and demonstrate national unity is a good example of unsophisticated strategic thinking. The use of military force should be tailored to maximize the chance of accomplishing political objectives, and to minimize negative outcomes and consequences. The United States has some history in this region of making ineffective military strikes (for example, Desert Fox and retaliatory strikes against Al Qaeda in 1998) that have not only called our commitment and unity into question, but have actually emboldened our adversaries. The use of uncalibrated military force simply because the United States has the capability is a tendency we should discourage, rather than support.

The ten-hour strikes could not have achieved U.S. policy objectives, however “hopeful” the senator might be. To be clear — the stated objective was to prevent the use of chemical weapons (CW), either by deterring their use with threats of U.S. retaliation or by eliminating the stockpiles. Chemical weapons were used by the Syrian regime against its own people (so deterrence had failed). So the United States planned a retaliatory attack to destroy all of Syria’s chemical weapons, but this too would have failed because the intelligence community did not know where those stockpiles were located! At the last moment, for a range of reasons, the attack was cancelled. President Obama then, with Russian support, created an arms control effort that effectively eliminated Syria’s chemical weapons program and stockpile.

Some (including the senator, apparently) insist that this was a failure because the United States backed down and refrained from using military force. The critique consists of two main points: America failed to punish Syria for chemical weapons use and the White House failed to back up a public “red line,” damaging our reputation. This critique, however, does not consider U.S. political objectives in Syria.

The fact is that intentionally or not, the United States achieved its core objective of eliminating the possibility of further Syrian chemical weapons use, and at very low cost. The use of diplomacy accompanied by the threat of military force to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons complex is, in fact, a significant policy success. This is something we should actually celebrate, rather than condemn.

Moreover, it is hard to argue that U.S. interests would be better off in Syria today if we had launched that airstrike. By launching the airstrike, the United States would have weakened the strongest opponent of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL): the forces loyal to the Assad regime. Assad is responsible for the murder of thousands of his citizens, and his removal from power remains a key element of U.S. policy in Syria. Nevertheless, in the absence of Assad’s regime, ISIL would be a much more powerful and influential player in Syria today.

And yet there would still be chemical weapons in Syria. In fact, after a U.S. air attack specifically aimed at punishing Syria for chemical weapons use, it is extremely likely that weapons would have been dispersed from centralized storage units in order to maximize the chance of their survival in future attacks. Dispersed weapons in the hands of commanders might be more readily used. Thus, a retaliatory U.S. strike for Syrian chemical weapons use might have made chemical attacks more likely in the future. More importantly, however, keeping track of weapons in a civil war is never easy, and as we have found already weapons move from faction to faction, and from government to rebels, with surprising regularity. ISIL or other rebel groups could therefore have gained access to chemical weapons after they were dispersed.

The results of a ten-hour airstrike might actually have been disastrous. The past fifteen months might well have seen the use of even more chemical weapons, by both government forces and possibly by rebel factions. The Assad regime and its military forces would have been weakened, creating new opportunities for ISIL and Al Qaeda. The United States would have faced significant pressure to re-engage if not escalate air strikes after the first ten-hour strike failed; and Washington might have then pursued the other objective of overthrowing Assad more directly. The resulting political and military vacuum would have empowered the radical Sunni factions we are most concerned about. If the U.S. military had launched that “very targeted, very brief” and hopefully effective air strike in 2013, the United States might, be dealing with a Syria today that was run by ISIL with access to Syria’s extensive chemical weapons stockpiles and no qualms about using them.

That is the definition of a nightmare scenario.


Timothy D. Hoyt is Professor of Strategy and Policy and John Nicholas Brown Chair of Counterterrorism at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author alone, and not the views of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or any other body of the U.S. government.