Former NATO Commander Argues against Syria Strike

To the embarrassment of sane Canadians everywhere, Canada’s Prime Minister Harper is one of a tiny minority of world leaders foolish enough to clamor for military intervention in Syria.

Douglas Macgregor, retired U.S. Army Colonel and director of NATO joint operations for the Kosovo air campaign, argues about why such intervention will probably make no positive impact and more likely make matters worse.


I gather you think it is not a good idea for any kind of a strike in Syria, so let’s begin there: why is that?

We have no compelling strategic interest that justifies the use of force inside Syria.

There are two wars going on right now in the region. One is the civil war in Syria, and that’s between the Sunni Islamists on one side, aligned with Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, funded by Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Turkey — and on the other side, a secular dictator whose protecting the various minority groups inside the country — Christians, Alawites, Shia — who most certainly will be annihilated if the Sunni Islamists expel him from office. We have no interest in, frankly speaking, any side being the victor, but we have spent the last 12 years killing the same people Mr Assad is currently fighting.

And then on a regional level, you have the larger war with Iran on one side, Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the other — the Sunni-Shia War.

What about responsibility to act though? We heard from the White House spokesperson earlier that the world has to act because, as he says, we know the administration in Syria has used chemical weapons more than one time. Is it not a case of having to go in a prevent further chemical attacks?

Well first of all, I don’t think you can, and in fact if you remove Mr Assad and his opponents win (who will benefit from any attacks that we launch) they will certainly gain control of the chemical weapon stocks and turn them against their enemies, which include Israel. So I don’t see how our intervention is somehow morally justified. These people could have just been slaughtered by machine guns and artillery fire. Indeed thousands and thousands of civilians, men, women and children, have died in this civil war since the beginning, so I find this an exercise in hypocrisy frankly.

It certainly sounds as if the US administration is at the ready for some kind of military intervention, so let’s talk about a “what if” scenario then. How would the US work with its allies in the region in that case?

First of all I don’t think we’ll have to work much with our so-called “allies” in the region. We will inform them of our intentions if we decide to launch these strikes, but most of these strikes will be launched from offshore, by naval platforms, various kinds of ships, and various aircraft that can launch cruise missiles without any violation of Syria’s airspace.

The Turks are no doubt very anxious to see the Sunni Islamists win in Syria, and also anxious to see them win in Egypt, will no doubt allow us to fly strikes from Turkish soil if we choose to do so. But these are very limited strikes, strikes designed to attack targets that we think are remote from civilian centers.

So how would they go about targeting? Especially if the goal is to prevent any further use of chemical weapons? That obviously comes with some huge challenges itself.

You’re not going to stop the use of chemical weapons in the future through strikes of the type that we are likely to launch. You would have to use frankly an enormous amoutn of explosive, ultimately even a low-yield nuclear warhead, in order to guarantee the destruction of chemical stocks, because you want to effectively burn them up and make them unusable in the future. We can’t really do that with the numbers of cruise missiles that we might launch. In fact if you are not careful you can make matters worse by causing chemicals to explode and be used accidentally. I think what we’ll do is focus on what we think are Mr Assad’s command and control nodes, his forces — things that we think we can identify with reasonable certainty  are not near civilian centers. We obviously do not want to cause the death of civilians.

As we know more than 100,000 people have lost their lives in this conflict. How tough would it be to avoid civilian casualties?

Well I think it would be very tough, and your point is well taken. We’re trying to tiptoe if you will through a minefield. And again, I don’t see any evidence that strikes will change the facts on the ground. Will they help the Sunni Islamists, allied with Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia? Probably. But will it be enough to bring down Mr Assad? That seems doubtful.

The larger problem is how does the rest of the world react? You mention people in London, Washington, and Paris who are a minority of people who think they should act as imperial policeman, essentially behaving as a large nanny-state in the world arena. Inside the United States there is virtually no support among the American people for this, and we don’t quite know how the Russians will react, or Iran. But we know one thing: If we launch these strikes, Mr Assad has no absolutely incentive to exercise any restraint. In fact the opposite is the case, we are likely to see much worse in the future.

So are you saying that you think the best option for President Barack Obama right now is no option at all? That the world has to sit back and potentially see more images such as those we’ve seen coming out of Syria in the last week — hundreds of people, children, women, killed by chemical attacks?

London, Paris, and Washington are not the world , let’s get that straight. They don’t speak for the world — they speak for themselves. This is a small minority of people who think they are morally superior to everyone else. There is nothing nice about civil wars. The civil war in the United States was far worse than anything you’ve seen in Syria. Civil wars are “no quarter given” conflicts. There are no good guys in the civil war. There is a winner and a loser. If you don’t like what you’re seeing, you probably shouldn’t watch. But as far as our intervention is concerned, the only thing we can do is make matters worse and then ultimately look ridiculous at the other end of the strikes, when things get worse and we end up changing nothing.

You talk about the limited of capacity of airstrikes to have any effect on the chemical weapons. I wonder if the US does see a scenario where there is intervention, if there was boots on the ground — and the White House says “that’s not our plan” — but in your opinion would that be a better way to go to try and get at those chemical weapons and make sure they don’t get in the hands of anyone?

If you intervened in Syria, you’d have to use a lot of armor — tanks and armored fighting vehicles — to get into the country and execute the kind of mission you’re outlining. If you use boots on the ground, that is men with rifles, you’ll simply get large numbers of people killed and you won’t accomplish very much.

The real question is why would we do that to begin with? Where is the strategic interest on the part of the United States to do that? I don’t think there is one. The country in the region with an interest in what you’re describing is Israel, and the Israelis have been very prudent so far. They see no reason to intervene in this conflict for the reasons we’ve already covered. They understand if they embroil themselves in this they’ll be shot at from every side by everyone, as we would be. So I don’t see any good options and I think that’s why the president has said there will be no ground forces.

You touch on the effect on the region if there are strikes, and President Assad in Syria has warned that the entire Middle East would be affected. What kind of scenario would we be looking at then on the neighboring countries in the region?

We have to be careful of the hyperbole. Russia has said this would be a military catastrophe. No, I don’t think that’s accurate. Quite frankly the people who are most interested are those in the immediate vicinity: the Turks, Lebanon, Iraq. Their interests vary tremendously. They’re the ones with the greatest interests, they’re the ones dealing with refugees, Jordan as well. Israel has an interest. But beyond those countries, no one really cares what happens in Syria to be perfectly blunt. It just doesn’t affect the rest of the world. So I discount the regional war scenario. I think this is hyperbole designed to persuade everyone to stay away. I happen to agree that we should all stay away from it. But having said that, I don’t see a major regional war erupting as a result of all this.

 — Watch the interview at CBC — 


Leave a reply, question, or criticism

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: