Sunday, December 19, 2004

A Prudent Plan Of Action? Or A Failure To Connect With Reality?

Bill Kristol has shifted his fire (well, sort of...) from Don Rumsfeld to Syria. Apparently it's time to "get serious" about "dealing with" Syria. The case for this pressing necessity is largely provided by Kristol via this Daily Telegraph article (unlike Kristol, I've dug out the link for you - you need to be registered though).

I don't hold any brief for the Syrians. I've never found the notion that young Mr Assad is a closet reformist very convincing. But it seems to me that there are a couple of problems with Kristol's analysis.

A solution in search of a problem?

First off, it seems to rest on the idea that our main problem in Iraq is foreign insurgents. It almost certainly isn't, though it's a mark of the woeful state of the intelligence situation that it's so difficult to pin down precisely what the makeup of the opposition the Coalition faces is. The fact that fewer than 1% of the insurgents encountered in the recent Fallujah operation were foreign fighters is, however, highly suggestive. If foreign jihadists made up a substantial proportion of the oppositon, huge numbers would have to have escaped the city prior to the battle. This is hardly inconceivable given the fact that the operation was flagged up weeks in advance of its commencement and the fact that Coalition forces failed to maintain a secure cordon and the fact that not sticking around to fight in the face of a massive but localised conventional force build-up is Counterinsurgency 101, but it still seems unlikely.

If our main problem is not foreign jihadists - and to some extent even if it is - Kristol's proposals seem to involve using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, especially as he openly acknowledges that troop levels are a problem.

Where's Prudence?

Kristol argues that the Syrian regime is in a weak state. It is fairly clear that he believes that a short, sharp shock would be enough to coerce the powers that be in Damascus to get a grip. He may be right but his specific proposals all seem wildly unappetising:

What to do? We have tried sweet talk (on Secretary Powell's trip to Damascus in May 2003) and tough talk (on the visit three months ago by Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman and Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt). Talk has failed. Syria is a weak country with a weak regime. We now need to take action to punish and deter Assad's regime.


We could bomb Syrian military facilities.

This would certainly send a message. However, Kristol seems to be operating in a political vacuum. Setting aside the fact that the potential for escalation is certainly present, the political impact of military strikes against Syria without clear and unequivocal proof of wrongdoing could completely outweigh any positive effect gained. The Coalition is currently in a delicate diplomatic dance with both NATO and the Arab League over financial and military support for the reconstruction and stabilisation effort. I think it's fair to say that if American warplanes suddenly start unloading a rainbow array of explosive death onto Syrian government facilities we can kiss all that goodbye. I think it's also fair to say that it will further strain Anglo-American relations (this is not a personal endorsement of British policy toward Syria - I am merely calling it as I see it) and make things even tougher for the Prime Minister in the forum of British public opinion.

we could go across the border in force to stop infiltration

Us and which army? I thought we already didn't have enough men! On top of this you have the abovementioned points and the fact that if foreign jihadists are not the main force threat in Iraq it would represent the employment of scarce forces in what is effectively a sideshow (meanwhile, indigenous insurgent forces will no doubt take the opportunity to play merry hell in our "rear").

we could occupy the town of Abu Kamal in eastern Syria, a few miles from the border, which seems to be the planning and organizing center for Syrian activities in Iraq

Re-read the above criticisms, if they are not already burned onto your retinas. One also cannot but feel that this idea seems to demonstrate that Mr Kristol is not entirely appraised of how insurgents tend to operate. If you're Johnny Insurgent, the town of Abu Kamal itself is irrelevant because you can always leave and set up shop again somewhere else in Syria - it's annoying but it's doable. In layman's terms - they'll see us coming and bugger off. As long as alternative sanctuaries are available - and they are, in abundance - occupying a tiny nook on the Syrian border will achieve the square root of bugger all. Except to drive us into a major league political and diplomatic s*** storm. We'll have undertaken an operation at significant cost and risk to ourselves in order to inflict the strategic equivalent of scraping our keys down the insurgents' car door.

we could covertly help or overtly support the Syrian opposition (pro-human rights demonstrators recently tried to take to the streets of Damascus to protest the regime's abuses)

I agree wholeheartedly! Let's do it, Bill! Let's saddle up and promote us some human rights! But Bill, call me a bluff, ornery old curmudgeon (sort of like Slim Pickens on Whizz) but I've always sort of felt that when it comes to supporting "pro-human rights demonstrators" when they "protest the regime's abuses" and to making our rhetoric about "moral clarity" flesh, one of the first steps might be for us to end the practice of "rendering" detainees to the regime's security services even as we condemn them, so that they can attach electrodes to their genitals and smash out all their teeth to get us information. I guess it's kind of pedantic, but I see a certain degree - just a certain degree, mind - of "disconnect" between some of our rhetoric and some of our actions. So I'm well up for marching hand in hand (sorry, side by side, I know you don't like that whole man-on-man holding hands thing Bill) with you on this one.

Oh, hang on Bill. Guess we aren't entirely of a mind on this one. 'Cos if we were it seems to me that you wouldn't be publishing stuff like this in your publication. And this. Oh well, I guess the moral crusade is off. Put the kettle on, eh?

This hardly exhausts all the possible forms of pressure and coercion.

That's lucky. I was really getting into a bit of a downer there for a minute.

Snarky comments aside, it really does seem to me that even if we agree with Kristol's stance in principle (and making nice with people like the Syrians sticks in my throat), his prescriptions for solving the problem are unrealistic and likely to result in a massive rupture between means and ends. Given that he has spent a lot of time recently arguing that the Iraq operation is resource-starved, one might expect him to have an eye on expending limited resources in a more economical fashion.

It's exactly like the Sonic Death Line in "The Running Man". Only completely different.

If cross-border incursions are a problem demanding resources, one of the possible solutions I have been considering is whether a latter-day version of the Morice Line would be a practical proposition. The Morice Line was a French response to one of the numerous problems they encountered in Algeria - namely, cross-border traffic by insurgents finding sanctuary and training in Tunisia. The Line was 200 miles long and consisted of a 5,000-volt, 8 feet high electrified fence with barbed wire, a 120 foot belt of antipersonnel mines on either side and an internal road network was subject to constant patrolling. The Line also featured a number of manned blockhouses. Sensors were built into the fence which, if activated, triggered a response by pre-registered artillery. If the Line was breached heliborne rapid reaction forces were able to respond with speed and precision. Not only was the Morice Line highly effective, notching up an estimated kill rate of 85-90% but it also ultimately had a strong deterrent effect, eroding the attractiveness of Tunisia as an external base and seeing insurgent traffic tailing off dramatically.

I am reliably informed that a man cannot father a pebble and that a fish has no use for a tricycle.

Unfortunately - as is ever the way in these situations - there are serious problems in taking the Morice Line and trying to employ it wholesale as a template for action in Iraq. First of all, the French enjoyed certain geographical advantages that the Coalition in Iraq does not. Geography allowed the Line to be limited to 200 miles in length, as it could be anchored at one end by the Mediterranean and at the other by impassible desert. The Syria-Iraq border does not provide for this (at least as far as I can tell from the maps I have access to - I'm happy to be corrected). In addition, the Morice Line required 40,000 troops to man and support it. If we accept that foreign insurgents are a secondary issue in the Iraq problem then an Iraqi Morice Line still poses the problem of a potentially massive rupture between ends and means - especially in terms of manpower. Whether advances in technology since the Algerian insurgency would mean that a substantial reduction in required manpower would be achievable I am not equipped to judge.

However, if it's a choice between being informed in our attempts to formulate a solution by the historical example of something like the Morice Line or by the "expeditionary" style solutions posited by the likes of Bill Kristol, I know which broad avenue of inquiry I would favour prancing down. I never thought I'd say this - but maybe technology actually is the solution to this particular sub-problem.


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