Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Shadows of 2003

Once upon a time there was a country in the Middle East ruled by a Ba'athist dictator. This dictator used special intelligence units and his military against his own people, often using horrible weapons to suppress his subjects. This dictator's regime has in the past supported terrorist organizations and is thought to possess weapons of mass destruction. Pundits and academics clamor for the United States to take action. Don't worry, they say, their military is weak, untrained, under-equipped, and not loyal. Don't worry, they say, we have limited objectives and military intervention will be easy against this flaccid force. Don't worry, they say, we won't have to govern this country after we intervene, we'll let them sort that out. Democracy's hard but this will be easy.

This sounded wrong in 2003 when it was said by Neoconservatives. It sounds wrong today when said by liberal interventionists. It feels right to want to help the Syrian people as much as it felt right to help the Iraqi people. But we have to actually be capable of helping them and so far the pro-interventionists are making about as valid an argument that intervention might work as Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, et al did in 2003, even if the current scenario lacks cooked intelligence to give the casus belli. The military concepts are equally bad. And here's why after a quick primer on military planning.

In the Army (I don't know the exact terms in the other services), military planning is focused on objectives. These objectives in high-intensity warfare are usually enemy-focused. But even if they are not enemy-focused, the enemy will play a big role in the ability of the friendly force to achieve its objectives. Therefore the most important assumptions are done through intelligence analysis where intel officers create what are called the enemy's Most Likely Course of Action (MLCOA) and Most Dangerous Course of Action (MDCOA). These are the most important assumptions in any military plan. The first, MLCOA is the best-guess assumption on what the enemy is actually going to do. This is derived from the best intelligence available and analysis and extrapolation of known capabilities versus friendly capabilities. Gaps in intelligence require assumptions, but the assumptions must assume some level of difficulty to friendly forces and cannot be assume away. MDCOA is an assumption on what the enemy could do that would be most dangerous to friendly forces or their objectives. This is not the most likely event to occur, but it's in the realm of possible. Simply stated, your military plan of operations is based upon your MLCOA assumption, but a branch or decision point is in hand in case the MDCOA becomes reality (in some cases the decision point may be to disengage from contact because the price isn't worth the benefit of meeting the objective). Briefly: plan for MLCOA, know what you'll do if the enemy executes the MDCOA.

This gets at why I have not yet heard a viable military option for intervention in Syria. The greatest proponents of intervention, Shadi Hamid and Anne-Marie Slaughter to name just two as an example (and two I very greatly admire on everything except their military operational planning skills), have laid out their ideas for what a U.S.-lead coalition could do militarily to slow and/or stop the killing of civilians in Syria (as well as break the Hezbollah-Iran connection and maybe stop Syria's WMD programs). But their "plans" are based on the Syrian military executing the Least Dangerous Course of Action (LDCOA: see here) with regard to friend forces. They, and they are by no means alone in doing this, have assumed away the Syrian military to the point that they seem to consider a nominally 300,000-man force as negligible. That is exactly what the Bush Administration Pentagon did and what CENTCOM did under their leadership with regard to Iraq. Assumed away the enemy forces. And we see how well that worked out. You cannot plan military operations based on the LDCOA. It must be based off of the MLCOA at a minimum and I don't think the Syrian military is just going to walk away from the field. That may have generally happened in Libya, but it's very rare and unlikely. Also, they cannot assume away a post-conflict environment potentially devoid of government. We did that in Iraq, too.  I think you get the point.

There are a couple of reasons this matter and isn't a mere matter of opinion on the fighting capabilities of the Syrian military. Firstly, by committing forces to fight for American interests we would need to ensure the military plan is viable and established upon a solid set of assumptions. Current intervention proposals simply are not. Their assumptions are based on hearsay or intuition, not analysis, that the Syrian military isn't a serious fighting force. It is almost word-for-word the nonsense I heard in the Kuwaiti desert in March 2003. And I have yet to see any evidence that they will not react, potentially with effect, against any intervention. Without such evidence you must assume that they will be capable of reacting with some effect. Second, any proposal that puts American lives and resources on the table requires some assessment of what point is the intervention worth doing. That's what the MDCOA would provide in this type of situation. How much is it worth intervening? Assad using WMD against his people or against us? What if the civil war expands significantly and the death toll mounts higher and fast than if we had not intervened? Are 10 years in Syria potentially conducting population-centric counterinsurgency worth our doing something, anything now? These cannot be assumed away. They need to be addressed through thorough and dispassionate analysis to determine if they're possible and what the United States would do if they occurred.

These pundits may feel they do not need to convince me on the merits of intervening in Syria and may think this a matter of disagreement. But this is the lowest level of rigor the military will apply to any plan they come up with. If you are so ready to commit foreign troops into harms way because you feel it's the right thing for America and her allies to do, the least you can do is apply the same level of rigor to propose military options. I'm not asking for synchronization matrices. I'm asking for a thorough and rigorous analysis of the MLCOA and MDCOA if we intervened in whatever way you envisioned. If you keep spouting this LDCOA-assumption malarkey, I and many others who possess understanding on the use of force will continue to compare your plans with those of Wolfowitz, Feith, and Franks, even if we agree with the sentiment that drives you to want to execute these plans. Yes, a lot of people are dying. But intervening might cause more deaths. I can't tell because your assumptions are, in a word, useless.


  1. Right on.

    From a military perspective, there are several salient facts that are rarely mentioned in the course of this debate:

    1) We have almost nothing but guesses on which to base a projection of how the Syrian military will operate.

    2) Syrian intelligence analysts and military planners have had ample opportunity to observe the American military at war in recent years, including in scenarios (like Iraq 2003) that would presumably be very similar to a regime-change campaign in Syria.

    3) American doctrine is available to the public.

    4) Countermeasures for airpower and other extremely effective, historically validated (if basic) tactical methods are well-known to anyone with access to a library. Many of them require a high level of discipline or training; few require a lot of resources (which, incidentally, the Syrian government HAS dedicated to procurement).

    5) Hizballah had a great deal of tactical success in 2006 using some of these methods against a modern military that used similar equipment and doctrine to the U.S. Presumably some of the lessons-learned from this conflict have been passed on to the Syrian military; either way, Syrians can see and read and think.

  2. Good post overall, but I think concerns over the potential level of resistance by the Syrian military are misplaced. The Syrian military reaction to an intervention will present tactical and operational problems that can and likely would be overcome.

    Instead, the biggest issues with an intervention are strategic. Josh Landis does a good job of laying out the issues there, and back in February, I did a quick analysis of limited military options which I think holds up well today.

    I think a core difference between the two camps comes down to problem identification. If one believes the root problem in Syria is the brutal Assad regime, then it makes sense to go after that regime to protect civilians, or punish Assad, or replace him with someone else. The assumption is that Syrian society would readily accept a change of government and that military force is a tool that can either overthrow Assad or compel him to change. If, however, one believes the problem in Syria is a deeper and more fundamental part of Syrian society, then taking on the regime could produce a lot of unintended consequences. Which, incidentally, is what happened in Iraq. If, as Landis suggests, Syrian society is fundamentally broken and divided, then that is a problem that US military intervention cannot fix regardless of actions taken by the Syrian military.

  3. Well done, Jason.

    Parochial plug: I think my old post on this holds up pretty well.

  4. Bravo!

    The problem is not the US cannot topple Assad, it is the variety of costs involved in doing so at a time when we can ill afford it and the subsequent utter lack of endgame if Syria ends up without a functioning state, as happened in Iraq and Libiya. Then the next order of effects in further destabilizing the region.

    States are easier to break than put back together and the latter is usually an extremely expensive and failure prone endeavor.

  5. Thanks for the comments all.

    To Andy, please explain: "The Syrian military reaction to an intervention will present tactical and operational problems that can and likely would be overcome." I think this is overly simplistic and ignores the potential for the Assad regime to leverage irregular methods against Western/intervening forces. Or their ADA capabilities. You presume success but that does negate the possibility that we should not count the Syrian military and their proxies as irrelevant.

  6. Hezbollah invested an enormous amount of time and effort in task organizing, training and equipping (not to mention constructing the infrastructure) to wage sophisticated irregular warfare against Israel. My impression - and perhaps I'm wrong - is that the Syrian Armed Forces have not done anything like that level of dedicated preparation for irregular warfare. I don't see a basis to assert that they'll be able to adapt to such a different mode of warfare under fire. Moreover, if they do so, they'll be relinquishing most of the capabilities that give them overwhelming tactical superiority over the FSA (e.g. armor, artillery).

    The supposed parallel between Israeli and American doctrine and capabilities also strikes me as spurious. I don't see any evidence that the U.S. military suffers from the sort of deficiencies and illusions that Matt Matthews documented so well in his report on the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.

    That's not to say that they wouldn't leverage Hezbollah as a proxy in Lebanon, but that's a different and messier issue.

  7. MK — I appreciate the point that you're making, and you're certainly correct to say that we don't have evidence that the Syrian army has made preparations to wage irregular warfare.

    The problem is that what made Hizballah successful in 2006 had less to do with irregular warfare than with developing essentially conventional capabilities: the ability to reduce the exposure of their own forces while concentrating firepower on the enemy. What made Hizballah fighters dangerous to the IDF wasn't so much expertise in guerrilla warfare as expertise in ground combat tactics.

    Infrastructure helped on this front, of course. Hizballah's ability to fortify the border area between 2000 and 2006 was vitally important to the cover, concealment, dispersion, and mutually-supporting fields of fire that made it so difficult for the IDF to take ground. We don't know if Syrian forces have done a great deal of work to make their own likely routes of invasion so well-defended, obviously, but we should fairly assume that they have. And it is a relatively simple task to reduce exposure to air-power if you know what you're doing, both as a matter of how you operate and of physical preparation. (The Syrian army is said to have surprisingly competent engineer units, which is not nothing in this regard.)

    Let me pause for a second to make a concession: the application of military force WILL, with 100% certainty, force the Syrian army to operate in ways that made it less efficient at killing people. This is indisputable, if only because the measures it would have to take to reduce its exposure would both take time and slow its movement. That said, this isn't really an end state.

    As for the doctrinal issues, a number of people make the case that the Israeli doctrine shift was overstated. Matthews is among those most vulnerable to this sort of criticism, which may be neither here nor there.

    I tend to view the Lebanon war as more of a strategic failure than a doctrinal one (though poor training, equipment shortfalls, bad leadership, and ineffective tactics are all to some greater or lesser degree responsible, and related in no small way to doctrine). The IDF had an unrealistic concept of how the application of military power could or would contribute to the accomplishment of both military AND political objectives. (The first is a doctrinal problem; the second is a strategic problem.) Many American advocates of intervention or the use of force in general are prone to the latter failing, and I think it's important that we not gloss over this.