US-European Airstrikes Against Syria, the Offence-Defence Balance, and the Left

The war in Syria is simply an obscenity, waged by weak and miserable men.

That observation is how any discussion on developments in Syria should proceed, and so it is that I begin this discussion of the April 14 air and missile strikes launched against targets in Syria by the United States in association with the United Kingdom and France, two traditional regional colonial powers with the third, Turkey, conducting its own operations against the Kurds in the north. Another regional colonial power, Israel, conducted standoff missile strikes of its own, for its own reasons, from Lebanese airspace days previously.

The strikes were made, according to the White House, in response to the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces.

The air and missile strikes appear to be more substantial than the previous Trump administration strike against an airfield in retaliation for alleged chemical weapons use by Damascus although reports, and official statements, suggest that they will remain limited and are one-off.

The US and the predictable European poodle and attack dog are reported to have struck

• A scientific research facility in Damascus, allegedly connected to the production of chemical and biological weapons
• A chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs
• A chemical weapons equipment storage site and an important command post, also near Homs

Future use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime will attract further, perhaps more substantial still, military action it has also been stated. We see here the potential workings of an “escalation ladder” much reminiscent of strategies of intra-war deterrence promoted by nuclear strategists. That is, we could be seeing gradual the unfolding of a strategy of “escalate-to-deescalate” as it were. There exists the possibility that such implicit, indeed explicit, commitments might lead to an escalation of an obscenity that is best stopped.

I would like to make three points here, two regarding the strikes themselves and the third on the left’s attitude to the war in Syria. Some aspects of the Western’s left’s position on Syria is most unfortunate, indeed at times outright vulgar and distasteful.

The military strikes against Syrian targets were limited, certainly limited as compared to some of the supercharged rhetoric that preceded them, and the use of anti-aircraft fire appears to be limited to less capable Syrian, as opposed to Russian, surface to air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. That too is limited compared to the Russian bombast that preceded the limited US-European strikes, and the inflated rhetoric following them.

That suggests that the air and missile strikes and the response to them reflects a prearranged modus vivendi reached between Washington and Moscow, not unlike the previous strike one might add.

For those interested in military history this is interesting from a narrow technical perspective. During the October 1973 War between Israel, on the one hand, and Egypt-Syria, on the other, Soviet supplied SAMs played an important tactical, and strategic, role in the conflict. The IAF lost a relatively high number of aircraft to Egyptian air defences protecting the Egyptian ground forces that successfully forced the Suez Canal, unlike the Six Day War of 1967 when the IAF carried all before it. That was important for one feature of modern Western dominance in international relations, ever since the colonial use of air power in policing roles prior to World War Two, has been air superiority indeed, at times, air dominance.

Technical advances in the suppression of SAMs following the experience of October 1973, such as antiradiation HARM missiles that home in on SAM radar, led to the turkey shoot in the Bekaa Valley against Syrian air defences in 1982 when the IAF knocked out the same type of Soviet origin SAMs used by Egypt in 1973. This, but also changes in air power doctrine in the 1980s, prefigured the displays of Western air dominance, not air superiority but air dominance, from the Gulf War of 1991 onward. The attainment of air dominance in regional contingencies has had a significant effect on the offence-defence balance and subsequent strategic history. For one, I would argue, it has made the use of military firepower more likely.

I should add, as a minor note, that the air defence forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during NATO’s aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999 retained their integrated character even though they were based on Soviet ‘70s era technology. By contrast, Iraqi air defences did not retain a unified whole.

The use of air power against Syria might again reveal insights regarding the impact that technological advances in air defence and air power are having on the offence-defence balance and so thereby international relations more broadly. In particular, I refer to the Russian S-400 SAM system, deployed by Russia in Syria, and its purported capabilities against advanced Western aircraft and missile systems. Something akin to a Bekaa Valley type battle of the SAMs in Syria today might reveal much.

By potential impact I do not mean so much that Western aircraft would be interdicted in large numbers. A drop from air dominance to air superiority in regional settings would be significant, especially as advanced SAM systems proliferate. This is mainly because air dominance supports the strategy of “rapid dominance” which seeks to inflict “shock and awe” upon the enemy, given that, post Vietnam, it is understood by planners that foreign expeditionary military action attracts thin political support at home.

Air dominance is important for US foreign policy because it acts as a break on democracy. I think you should find that the US is one of the world’s least militaristic societies, a claim some might see as odd, but this fact explains why it is that US military strategy is so mindful of the potential impact of democracy on the conduct of expeditionary military operations.

That was a large digression, for which I apologise, but alas I had to get that off my chest.

Now to return to my other two points regarding the strikes in Syria. Firstly, it must be stressed that chemical weapons are not weapons of mass destruction and the WMD concept itself, to a certain degree, functions as an ideological concept. Chemical weapons should not be construed as weapon of mass destruction because their effect per unit weight is many orders of magnitude less than nuclear weapons and biological weapons (even biologicals we can argue about). This was well put by Wolfgang Panofsky, the founding director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory, in an important 1998 paper for Arms Control Today

There is little question that the lethality of chemical weapons-as measured by per unit weight of delivered munitions-is lower by many orders of magnitude than it is for nuclear weapons or the undemonstrated and inherently uncertain potential of biological weapons. Thus, it is misleading to include chemical weapons in the category of WMD; “weapons of indiscriminate destruction” or “weapons of terror” might be a more appropriate designation

It is therefore misleading analytically, but also practically or policy wise, to use the expression “weapons of mass destruction,” the singular is more apt, and to, furthermore, lump chemical weapons into that category. By putting chemical weapons into the WMD category we risk lowering the bar on the permissible use of military firepower in international relations, which is precisely what an expansive conception of weapons of mass destruction has done, and does, I would argue.

The other point relates to that phrase we have often heard in recent times regarding a “rules based world order.” The US and the UK adhere to the norms of a rules based world order, whereas Russia and China, amongst others, do not. But the rules of the system of world order are clear here. Under those rules the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons investigates allegations of chemical weapons use. Following that investigation the OPCW reports on their findings, and the evidence used to support those findings. Thereupon the matter is referred to the United Nations Security Council which passes a resolution of action on the matter, which could be of a military nature.

In the case before us the procedures of a rules based world order were not adhered to. Now Russian obstructionism is a very serious matter, and is contrary to the tenor and spirit of a rules based world order, but a refusal to follow through on the procedures to the letter is also contrary to a rules based world order. In fact, preempting the tenor and spirit of the rules based world order, by the US and its European satellites, is not in response to Russian obstructionism so much as it is a bold statement that Washington refuses to be bound by a rules based world order and that is precisely how it should be understood.

The mystifications, including the profundities of normative international relations theory, are for the mob who always threaten to intrude in an excess of democracy.

In reality we should speak of the technical rules of world order, consisting of fine proclamations and such, and the operative rule of world order which is; “what we say goes.” The concern with Russia and China, and not just them, is not so much that they aren’t abiding by a rules based world order in the technical sense, which of course they are not, but because they refuse to follow the operative dictum of “what we say goes.” That is the problem.

The alleged humanitarian impulse behind the strikes can be easily dismissed. Not far from Syria, in Yemen, the United States and the United Kingdom are directly supporting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who are responsible, using US-UK weapons it might be added, for one of the world’s leading humanitarian disasters. For Yemen, the “responsibility to protect” is neither here nor there and Western humanists appear more interested in the performance of the Patriot Advanced Capability ballistic missile defence system more than anything else.

The final point of the promised concerns the war in Syria and the left. In some quarters the left analysis of the war, better still the obscenity, borders on or explicitly is based on an apologia for the Assad regime. It is argued that the conflict started as some Western conspiracy directed toward regime change, not when Assad turned his guns on the Syrian chapter of the Arab Spring as he in fact did. It is argued that Damascus is defending Syrian sovereignty against the machinations of Western imperialism and its proxies.

Consider for example this distasteful account by Jeremy Salt, published by Arena Magazine one of Australia’s leading left wing publications

If there is one thing the Syrian war is not about it is the best interests of the Syrian people. The Kurds, the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are all trying to get what they can out of it. They have overlapping interests as well as separate interests. Seven years later, the United States has made it clear that the war is still about the overthrow of the Syrian government and confrontation with Iran, which it is pursuing on other fronts, in coordination with Israel

Notice what is excluded from the list? By excluding the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad Damascus is taken to be fighting for the best interests of the people of Syria, and so is Vladimir Putin and Russia. Everybody else is attacking Syria, but it is clear that Damascus and Moscow are also attacking Syria. By sovereignty we should mean the sovereignty of the people of Syria not the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad. Furthermore, Russia’s involvement in the war in Syria reflects not the interests of the people of Syria but rather reasons of state. One of those reasons of state is the development of leverage for any future grand bargain type negotiations directed toward ending the current round of great power tensions on terms favourable to Moscow. The people of Syria for Putin are little more than a bargaining chip.

Salt and others would argue that Assad was elected President in an election by the people of Syria. However, that election, run by a murderous regime with a brutal track record, was conducted in the midst of a bloody and catastrophic war that the regime itself cynically started. That election was an act of desperation for Syrians who want the obscenity to end, not an expression of the general will. To use it as an example in support of the thesis that Assad enjoys popular legitimacy is, frankly, the height of vulgarity.

As for including the Kurds, that is a topic too broad and deep for discussion here but it too reveals a pro Assad regime bias.

The weak and miserable men responsible for the obscenity, I would agree, are Donald Trump, Recep Erdogan, and King Salman of Saudi Arabia. But they include, crucially, Bashar al-Assad the most miserable, Ayatollah Khamenei, and Vladimir Putin.