September 1, 2013

Obama "blinks" - a gift to Bashar al-Asad

President Obama "blinking"

If you watch/read Syrian and other Middle East media, as I do, the perception is that President Barack Obama "blinked" in the face of Syria's claims that it will defend itself and wreak havoc on American forces in the eastern Mediterranean. Yes, we all know that it is meaningless bluster from Damascus, but our understanding is not what matters in the region - their perception becomes the reality.

What we might regard as cautious deliberation over the use of military force - a good thing by many standards - is regarded as weakness and indecision by those in the Middle East. Al-Thawrah (The Revolution), the official newspaper of the Syrian Ba'ath Party reported, "Obama announced yesterday...the beginning of the historic American retreat."

It is difficult to find fault with Syrian media account. Despite Secretary of State John Kerry's tap-dancing semantics, the President has handed the ball off to the Congress, who may vote against military action, tying the President's hands. The President can't go to Congress and, if the authorization fails, later ignore the vote. This is not leadership - this is the Pontius Pilate school of politics.

I normally try to stay out of political analysis, but this was purely a political play on the part of the President. If, like their British counterparts, Congress refuses to authorize military action (although I do not believe Congressional authorization is required), the President has an out.

I firmly believe that Barack Obama has no desire to take any military action against Syria but has put his - and more importantly, American - credibility on the line. He can say, "I was ready to pull the trigger, but Congress would not give me the authority." If they approve it, then he may look for another excuse not to act, but he will have kicked the can down the road at least 10 or more days. If Congress votes no, it does set a precedent that this president and future presidents may regret.

In making this announcement, President Obama has given Bashar al-Asad and the Syrian armed forces a gift. Rather than having to allocate intelligence resources to determine when an American attack might occur, the Syrians know that they have at least 10 days in which to prepare for whatever military action President Obama might order. Of course, given the recent failure of British Prime Minister David Cameron to secure Parliamentary approval to participate in military action against Syria, the Syrian may feel confident that their American counterparts may do the same.

The Syrians also know, thanks to the Secretary Kerry's pronouncements, what targets the United States has taken off the table. There will be no strikes aimed at regime change, no attempt to change the situation on the ground and no strikes of chemical weapons depots (for fear of dispersing the chemical agents). That leaves military garrisons, command and control facilities, and air bases as potential targets.

While all of these potential targets in the country are vulnerable, the Syrians have at least 10 days to prepare for strikes. It is possible - and militarily prudent - to disperse high-value equipment (combat aircraft, for example), move transportable radars to alternate pre-surveyed locations, move sensitive equipment into hardened shelters that are not vulnerable to the Tomahawk warheads, and deploy tactical air defense systems with an anti-missile capability (such as the Pantsir-S1, NATO: SA-22 GREYHOUND) to protect static sites.

Wouldn't it be nice to have 10 days notice before an attack? Well, that's what the President has just done for Bashar al-Asad. Meanwhile, there are over 2000 American sailors and marines in the eastern Mediterranean, whose positions are fairly well known.