The threat of military strikes against Syria has receded for now as the U.S. and Russia prepare for Geneva gestures over whether and how President Bashar al-Assad would turn over his chemical weapons.
But if the talks fail, the U.S. will be back to square one — Tomahawk cruise-missile strikes launched from four Navy Arleigh Burke class destroyers, with each destroyer carrying as many as 45, according to the Navy. That doesn’t count U.S. subs in the region capable of firing up to 90 apiece — if they aren’t tied down monitoring Russian vessels.
That’s where the clarity ends and confusion begins if you’re following the military debate.
Secretary of State John Kerry didn’t help things much this week when he said in London that the planned U.S. military assault would be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.”
The president in his remarks last night to the nation was more techno-macho: “Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pin-pricks.”
Said the president: “Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver” as “a targeted strike can make Assad or any other dictator think twice before using chemical weapons.”
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, sitting next to Kerry at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, tried to flesh out the military options intended to deter additional chemical weapons attacks and “degrade the regime’s military capability” to launch more.
“We’ve assembled target packages in line with those objectives,” Dempsey said. “We have both an initial target set and subsequent target sets should they become necessary.”
“The planned strikes will disrupt those parts of Assad’s forces directly related to the chemical attack of Aug. 21, degrade his means of chemical weapons delivery and finally degrade the assets that Assad uses to threaten his neighbors,” Dempsey said.
“He will know that if he were to do it again that worse could happen to him,” Kerry said with a booming voice and straight face.
All of this with Tomahawk missiles which, analyst Anthony Cordesman reminds us, have “limited payloads.”
Kerry, operating in the realm of “unbelievably small,” also added at the hearing that strikes “are not calculated to be the game-changer” tipping the balance in the Syrian rebels’ favor.
We asked several analysts if they could square the different statements: Essentially the U.S. — if all else fails — will launch “unbelievably small’’ strikes that can “‘degrade and deter.’’
“You can’t reconcile those statements,” said Institute for the Study of War Syria analyst Christopher Harmer. An “’unbelievably small,’ limited kind of strike has no deterrent value at all.’’
Said David Deptula, a retired lieutenant general who headed Air Force surveillance and reconnaissance: “On the one hand, how can he state ‘limited action’ and on the other say ‘if he were to do it again that worse’ could happen?”
Jeff White of The Washington Institute For Near East Policy criticized the “very careless and imprecise language being used.”
“The regime has fought for over two years” with “tens of thousands killed and wounded. Hundreds of armor vehicles lost, at least tens of aircraft, large damage to regime facilities — a small strike seems unlikely to impress” and “would only add marginally to the damage the regime has already suffered.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin gave Kerry benefit of the doubt.
“I think he probably was talking about the length of time being ‘short’ rather than the effect being ‘small’ because the effect will not be ’small,’ ” Levin told reporters today. “The effect will be real.”
The president’s “right. Dempsey’s right and I think Kerry probably — I’m guessing — was talking about the length rather than the impact,” Levin said. “That’s the best I can do to reconcile.”