During his emergency press conference today Foreign Minister Lavrov said something to the effect that attempting to predict the future is not a helpful exercise and I will not argue with this wise man. However, Lysander did ask an interesting question today: Is it possible that a NATO air campaign might still fail in removing the government? I think that while attempting to predict the future is, indeed, a useless exercise, a few general guesses can be made based on past experience and this is what I would like to do here. For this purpose, I will use the following seven specific cases of US/NATO military attacks against sovereign countries:
- Iraq 1990-1991
- Bosnia 1992-1995
- Kosovo 1998-1999
- Afghanistan 2001
- Iraq 2003
- Lebanon 2006
- Libya 2011
Before looking into the lessons we can draw from these wars, I feel that it is important to begin by stating a few basic principles applicable to all of them.
First, wars have two dimensions: a purely military one and a political one and Clausewitz was quite correct when he said that wars are the continuation of politics by other means. Because of that, political factors always trump purely military ones. For example, in purely military terms I think that it is quite undeniable that the USSR ‘won’ the war in Afghanistan. In political terms, the USSR was humiliated and comprehensively defeated. In looking at these wars we need to keep these two level of analysis completely separate from each other or we risk confuses causes and effects.
Second, and this is crucial, we have to understand a simple fact: the United States does not negotiate with anybody except another superpower. In the seven examples above, the USA had an immense superiority in pretty much any form of power and, therefore, even though the State Department was “kinda negotiating”, what was really taking place was this: the only option given to the other side was unconditional surrender. In every case where the two local sides wanted to actually negotiate the USA sabotaged these negotiations. For the US imperial mindset, to really negotiate with a smaller party would be a humiliating admission of weakness. Keep that in mind when discussing all the seemingly endless “negotiations” which took place before each of these wars.
Third, for all the militaristic antics Americans like to engage in, the US culture is not a true warrior culture. It is a *merchant* culture. While Anglos have sometimes fought with great skills and valor, the military aspect is always subservient to the economic one in British and US history. Therefore the preferred, and most effective, weapon of the US empire is not nukes, but the sly use of the ‘almighty dollar’.
Having said that, let’s now look at a short summary of what happened in each of these wars from a military and political point of view.
Military level: the Iraqi military was comprehensively defeated and its units either destroyed or rendered unable to function. This crushing military defeat was due to the fact that the US warfare doctrine was at least a full generation ahead of the Iraqi one
Political level: Saddam’s regime was comprehensively defeated and had to basically accept all the terms imposed upon it by the USA.
Military level: the Bosnian-Serbs were defeated by a skillful combination of US/NATO air operations and Croat ground offensives. The Yugoslav military provided no help, and the Bosnian-Serbs had no access to their heavy weapons stores (under UN control).
Political level: even though the Bosnian-Serbs had been betrayed by Milosevic, they still represented a big enough force to deter the US and Croats from a complete invasion of Bosnia. The Bosnian-Serbs lost all their lands in Croatia but got to keep some of it in Bosnia proper.
Military level: even though NATO used over 1’000 of its front-line aircraft during a 78 day long campaign, with 38’000 sorties flown and over 10’000 airstrikes, combined with numerous cruise missile attacks the Serbian Army Corps stationed in Kosovo suffered no meaningful damage at all (14 tanks, 22 APCs according to US sources).
Political level: the combination of a vicious campaign targeting the civilian population of Serbia and Montenegro and a promise made to Milosevic that he would be left in power convinced Milosevic to surrender and betray the Serbs of Kosovo (just like he betrayed the Bosnian-Serbs previously).
Military level: faced with a major air offensive by the US and NATO combined with a ground offensive by the Northern Alliance, the Taliban did not fight much and basically withdrew in the mountains.
Political level: while the Taliban regime was booted out of Kabul and most major cities, the US/NATO never succeeded in seizing an effective political control of the country.
Military level: though this is disputed, there is pretty good evidence to indicate that the Iraqi military never intended to resist the invasion and that it basically dissolved itself with the intention of morphing into an insurgency.
Political level: Saddam was captured and murdered, but the US political control over Iraq outside the Green Zone was spotty while Iran became the most influential actor in the country.
Military level: for Israel (acting as an agent for the USA) this war ended in a defeat even worse than the one suffered by the US/NATO in Kosovo because unlike the US/NATO which only used airpower, the Israelis also used artillery and ground forces. One of the worst military defeats in history.
Political level: a complete disaster for the US and Israel. Not a single objective declared by Netanyahu was achieved and Hezbollah came out of the war even far more powerful than before the war began.
Military level: a combination of US/NATO airpower and insurgents on the ground yielded a rapid and rather easy military victory over the rather clueless Libyan military.
Political level: Gaddafi is gone, but the country is in complete disarray and chaos reigns.
Now, lets summarize this all as seen from the US point of view:
Iraq 1990-1991: military victory – political victory
Bosnia 1992-1995: military victory – acceptable political outcome
Kosovo 1998-1999: military defeat – political victory
Afghanistan 2001: military victory – political defeat
Iraq 2003: military victory – political defeat
Lebanon 2006: military defeat – political defeat
Libya 2011: military victory – acceptable political outcome
So we see that the record of recent US/NATO operations is a very checkered one. Most importantly, we can draw two conclusions from the above: a) the military and political outcomes do not correlate b) the political outcome is not decided by the military outcome but by the personalties of the leaders.
If we think of Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Mullah Omar, Hassan Nasrallah and Muammar Gaddafi we can immediately see that Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were absolutely incompetent but courageous leaders, Slobodan Milosevic a born traitor (what else to expect form an ex-Communist and ex-banker?) while Mullah Omar and, especially, Hassan Nasrallah were principled and determined leaders who understood that simply because the Americans want short wars this is hardly a reason to give it to them.
How does all this apply to Syria?
Well, first and foremost, there is no reason at all why the Syrian military could not adopt the same basic tactic as the one used by Hezbollah in 2006: do not present a lucrative target. This is also, by the way, the exact same tactic used by the Serbs in Kosovo, and in both of these wars it was devastatingly effective in negating the US/Israeli advantage in firepower.
Another lesson of history is that the US failed to kill Saddam Hussein, Radovan Karadzic, Slobodan Milosevic and Hassan Nasrallah even though they tried very hard. They did get Muammar Gaddafi, but only thanks to special operations forces on the ground and local insurgents. They might get lucky this time, but chances still are they they are not going to be able to murder Assad.
Again, all of the above applies only to a determined US/NATO operation including a campaign of airstrikes lasting a week or more followed by either close air support operations for the Wahabi liver-eaters or even a ground invasion. It is still possible that Obama might decide for a feel-good, symbolic, action, like Clinton’s bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan but I am not holding my breath on this one.
My sense is that the Syria-Hezbollah-Iran-Russia alliance will prevail, but, unfortunately, at a great cost, just as what happened in Lebanon in 2006. As of now, I am not even sure that the Americans have a clear exit strategy other than an arrogant assumption that they, being Americans, will prevail one way or another.
The key issue will be the response by Hezbollah and Iran. If they are willing to proactively counter-attack both on the ground and in neighboring countries from which the strikes will be coming, then the situation might run out of control and frighten the Americans and the Israelis. But if Iran and Hezbollah remain passive then the insurgency will have the opportunity to use this US attack on Syria to regain much of what it lost, eventually threatening the regime.
We shall see very soon, alas.