Would a US strike really be ‘effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now’?

Senior ex-IDF officers are divided as to whether a postponed attack may yet ‘paralyze’ Assad’s army, or if Obama has shown an underlying lack of desire to stage a meaningful strike

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

President Barak Obama boarding Air Force One after a March 2013 visit to Israel (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)
President Barak Obama boarding Air Force One after a March 2013 visit to Israel (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)

On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry delivered the sort of rousing speech that readies a nation for war, warning the world “against the temptations of looking the other way” and “the risk of doing nothing” in Syria. Less than 24 hours later, President Barak Obama told the world that while the US “should take military action,” [emphasis mine] he will first seek the approval of Congress. The shift, pundits said, came on account of [choose one]: a desire to put off action and backtrack on his own red line; a desire to force Congress into a non-Benghazi-like stance; a realization that such approval would be necessary further down the line, when addressing Iran’s nuclear program, and might, therefore, begin with Syria.

But Obama, after putting forth his belief in a government of the people, by the people for the people, said his decision was also rooted in the military advice he received from his top military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “…the chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive,” Obama said, “it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now.”

Several Israeli generals in reserves and other high ranking officers have been grappling with the veracity and implications of that statement, in light of Assad’s near-certain attempts to hide and fortify key components of his military arsenal.

None was more supportive than the former head of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate and the current director of the INSS think tank, Maj. Gen. (res) Amos Yadlin, who told the Times of Israel that we should “remember the waiting period in 1967 – the stuttered speech by [Prime Minister Levi] Eshkol and the two-week waiting period, which allowed the IDF to better prepare and to win in impressive fashion.”

INSS director Amos Yadlin, the former head of the IDF's Military Intelligence Directorate (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/ Flash 90)
INSS director Amos Yadlin, the former head of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/ Flash 90)

Yadlin has said that of the two military options – a punitive, symbolic strike or a sustained assault that would weaken the regime’s grip on power – the US has likely chosen the former. This sort of attack, he wrote in a recent analysis, could “restore some American deterrent power against the use of chemical weapons” and could “influence decision making in Tehran” on one condition: that it is “successful.”

An unsuccessful attack, such as the ones in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon in 1983, or the Tomahawk missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, Yadlin argued, would weaken American deterrence against the use of nonconventional weapons, cause further damage to US standing in the region, green-light Assad to deploy those weapons in the future, encourage Jihadi rebel organizations to seize chemical weapons in order to reach a balance of power and, finally, signal to Iran “that the strongest superpower in the world is fearful of using its power to promote its interests.”

the delay allows for a tactical surprise and, in the interim, it “paralyzes the Syrian army, which is busy with survival and hiding in schools and universities.”

Asked by The Times of Israel whether the decision to seek Congressional approval for action and the subsequent delay did not strip the US military option of its significance and doom it to failure, he demurred. “The delay enables the arrival of additional forces, like aircraft carriers or intercontinental bombers – if they had attacked last week they would have been restricted to Tomahawks [cruise missiles] from destroyers,” Yadlin wrote in an email response.

In addition, the delay allows for a tactical surprise and, in the interim, it “paralyzes the Syrian army, which is busy with survival and hiding in schools and universities.”

Finally, Yadlin said that “what’s important is not the timing of the attack but its scope and its quality” – the two parameters that will allow it to attain “the desired strategic goal of significant punishment and deterrence against future use of chemical weapons in particular and the murder of civilians in general.”

Maj. Gen. (res) Uzi Dayan, a former head of the National Security Council, who unlike Yadlin believes that an Assad victory is preferable to a Sunni-extremist-led victory, agreed that time would have little effect on a possible US offensive.  “The nature of the targets has virtually no importance,” Dayan said. “What’s important is the shape of the attack.”

Contending that Iran is watching the US’s every move, he said that the US needs to ask itself what its goals are and act accordingly. “If the goal is to punish Syria, then the volume [of the attack] has to be such that Iran, too, will be deterred. As things stand now, Syria believes the war has ended without it ever having started.”

Dayan said the US could not destroy all of Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities – Assad is said to have amassed 1,000 tons of nerve agents – without putting forces on the ground, but that other strategic components of his military capacity could be wiped out. “His entire ground-to-ground missile capacity could be destroyed. And it can’t be hidden in the meanwhile under a bush,” Dayan said. The same is true of Assad’s air-defense systems and his palaces, he added.

Col (ret) Gabi Siboni, the director of the Military and Strategic Affairs Program at the INSS, put it succinctly by saying “you can’t take all of the targets of the Syrian state and shove them 40 meters underground from today to tomorrow.” And even if the regime could do that, Siboni added, “the Americans have some very heavy capacities.”

Others, however, contended that while the major targets remain vulnerable, the fact of the delay speaks to a prevailing lack of will to strike them. Furthermore, they said, it has given Assad time to disperse or empty the lesser targets that fall in line with the stated punitive goals of the attack.

“They never intended to bomb, said Maj. Gen. (res) Amiram Levin, a former head of the Northern Command and deputy director of the Mossad, said of the US.  “The whole thing was just a signal to the Russians. And even if they did mean to bomb, they never intended for it to get any results.”

Former head of the IDF's Northern Command, Amiram Levin (Photo credit: Flash 90)
Former head of the IDF’s Northern Command, Amiram Levin (Photo credit: Flash 90)

Levin, who called Assad’s attacks on civilians over the course of the war “a holocaust,” said Obama was “a weak leader” and that, beyond the humanitarian necessity of ceasing the killing, it was in Israel’s interest that the entire episode blow over. “From our perspective, it’s best that there be no developments and that they [the Americans] leave the little energy they have for Iran,” he said.

As opposed to Dayan, Levin claimed the US has the ability to neutralize Assad’s chemical weapons capacity without ground troops, even if Assad spreads his assets far and wide during the coming days, but that “for that you have to be willing to take a risk.” As an example of risk, Levin, who incidentally served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first commanding officer in the elite IDF commando unit Sayeret Matkal, indicated that the US would have to be willing to bomb chemical weapons stores, risking an Assad trap that could result in the deaths of thousands of civilians if, say, the toxins were thought to be in their unmixed state but were in fact already operationally deployed.

Maj. Gen. (res) Emanuel Sakal, a former head of the IDF Ground Forces Command, was equally dismissive of the US targets and goals after the president’s announcement. Both he and Levin agreed with Gen. James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told ABC News on Sunday that, “most of the targets associated with this particular strike are fixed. They are buildings, they are facilities, they are areas.”

“Those targets were emptied out a long time ago,” Sakal said. “The whole thing was Abu-Ali” – a character in an Arab children’s story who is simple but seems scary – “the flexing of a muscle. It has no military significance.”

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