Syria’s Strategic Angles

The Strategic Need

President Obama has been taking a lot of flack by pundits and peers. Many are asking the President to explain Syria in a strategic context before committing their vote. After rummaging around social media, I think I have may found an argument that cleverly suits this context.

First, we define strategic:

Next we see if we can find anything that might identify some sort of long-term plan to achieve a goal.

On my quest to find any sort of strategic reasoning concerning the US Middle Easten policy, I came across this video of General Wesley Clark which has been getting a lot of virality, mostly by anti-war types.

At the three minutes and fifty second mark, General Clark spills out a plan that seems to provide a strategic angle concerning Syria. In 1991, after the Gulf War, General Clark was introduced to the idea that the Russians won’t retaliate if we use military force in the Middle East. He was told that it was essential that we “clean up those old Soviet client regimes. Syria, Iran, Iraq. Before the next great superpower comes along to challenge us.” Fast forward ten years, Gen. Clark seems to think this plan has been taken into action by then Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, after he heard from an unnamed source working with the SecDef on the 9/11 response strategy, which called for the overthrow of seven Middle Eastern countries. For the record, General Clark resents the idea and calls this a “policy coup”.

Despite General Clarks objections to the policy, we can still see that somewhere in the DoD world, a long-term plan was drafted with the goal of strategically positioning ourselves in the Middle East before we are challenged by a global competitor out for superpower recognition.

Aha! We found a plan, but is the justification just? To find out, we must take an assessment of Russia’s strategic goals.


Dr. J Michael Waller,  successfully defended the case for Russia becoming a strategic threat back in 2007 at an Intelligence Squared debate titled, “Russia becoming our enemy again”.

Waller stated, that due to our turning a blind eye to the corruption within the government of post-Soviet Russia, the old Chekist apparatus was able to hijack the newly established democratic experiment of modern Russia. He goes on to note that, not only did the old secret police take power, but they also took great steps to reassert themselves as a dominant force to challenge the US on the world stage. Waller used examples such as the oppression of reformers to consolidate power, Putin’s mandates on ideological controls that are hostile towards the US over history and geography classes for public schools to prep the next generations, and the modernization of their strategic arsenal to eventually use in battle against us to help make this claim.
An article written by Waller in the 5 September issue of Investors Business Daily went on to tack one more point to that threat list. That point being that Russia’s increase of cyber operations against the US government and US companies as a means of “trying to modernize their strategic weapons”, a quote he used by Fmr. NSA Director General Michael Hayden, put’s our nation, its military, its people, and its companies in harms way.

Private intelligence company, Stratfor, has also done a great job of chronicling the Russian Resurgence since 2010. You can see the timeline: Here.
Their overview states:

Despite ongoing demographic, economic and geopolitical problems, Russia is using every tool at its disposal to reassert itself in the former Soviet Union. Rather than taking back its former position as the patron state of many Central Asian, Caucasus and Eastern European countries, the Kremlin is attempting to exert softer control over its former republics.

Going back to General Clark’s understanding of the US’s understanding of Russia’s sphere of influence we can get the idea that Syria also falls into this category. So let’s look at Syria and Russia’s relationship.

Russo-Syrian Relations


Russia and Syria enjoy a healthy relationship. Both have economic and military needs and desires that the other can offer. The icing on the cake for Russia is their deep-water navy base they have in Tartus. However, since the Arab Spring uprisings, the role of the Tartus base has nearly diminished. Russia’s desire for warm water access is crucial to their geostrategy, especially as it is their only warm water port for their northern fleet. Although, the Russians have pulled out most of their personnel * , Russia would very much like to retain this port, which they would most likely lose if Assad were dethroned. According to the 1991 estimate stated by Gen. Clark, the Russians won’t use military force to hold it. The reality of that claim is a bit iffy, as Russia has also taken moves to stack the Mediterranean with their boats and engage in the world’s largest military exercises.  Syria’s greatest benefit of the Russian relationship is their nearly $20 billion dollars combined in investments and trade deals, mostly in the energy sector. Of that $20billion, a fifth of that is thought to go towards arms deals. Since the Politically speaking, Russia appears to have taken the role as Syria’s retainer, this can be seen by Russian Foreign Minsister, Sergay Lavrov’s, actions in regards to Syria’s positioning. Assad seems to have become a proxy for Russian foreign policy.



New aircraft carriers, long range bombers, stealth unmanned fighters, and cyber warfare operations are not instruments of peace. They are instruments to project force unto another. Despite China’s ability to properly manage their economy, the Chinese market has had tremendous growth. This growth has caused China to go on a quest for raw materials. As China pushes to take more control of Asia, they will increasingly rely on their military options to project force and coerce their foes.

Sino-Syrian Relations


The Chinese and Syrians also enjoy a healthy relationship. Since 2004, Assad has worked to increase Syria’s trade capacity with China. Tearing down the trade walls has allowed China to grow to become Syria’s number one trade partner. Chinese goods fill the Syrian shelves, while Western goods are a scarcity. It is also worth noting there is a heavy trade imbalance here which favors China. Senior Adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Bonie Glaser was on quoted in an NPR article saying, “If the regime falls, then the Chinese will quickly become silent.”  Her reasoning was that “The Chinese historically never supported external intervention and particularly the use of force against a regime”. Developing Tomorrow doesn’t completely agree with that being the soul justification for backing China taking Assad’s back. It is our view, that in order for China to maintain such a favorable trading partner, it is necessary for China to maintain a pro-Assad stance despite the fact he has killed nearly 100k of his people. China’s track record on human rights abuses cast little doubt that China will not interfere with Assad indiscriminate killing Syrians. The likelihood of China taking a stern stance on Syria’s human rights abuses would also illuminate China’s wrongdoings, a move that could upset their stranglehold over the people domestic tranquility.



Since 1979, Iran has been a thorn in the side of US Middle Eastern Policy. This is in large thanks to the Russians who helped train and project many of the Islamist Revolutionaries into power, including the Ayatollah. Iran and the US suffer from many policy hang ups. Most notably is their nuclear program, aiding of terror groups, increased hostility towards Israel, and oppressing any form of democratic dissent. We can’t leave out all the wonderful Great Satan rhetoric aimed at us either. It is safe to say that as long as the Ayatollahs run Iran, we will always be their sworn enemy.

Iranian-Syrian Relations

James Reynold at BBC best explained it:

But after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the two countries found that they had considerable mutual interests.

They needed to come together to fight their common rival, Saddam Hussein of Iraq. They also allied in order to check Israeli advances into Lebanon and to prevent any American attempts to enter the Middle East.

Each provided support to the Lebanese armed movement Hezbollah and to the Palestinian armed groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Syria has consistently provided Iran with an element of strategic depth. It gives Iran access to the Mediterranean and a supply line to Iran’s Shia Muslim supporters in southern Lebanon next to the border with Israel.

(Yes, NPR quoted that same article and the same quote, but he hit the nail right on the head. Props to you James!)

Seeing as they both funded Hezbollah in Lebanon, it is to no surprise that Hezbollah has been active in protecting Assad. Hezbollah leaders, staying true to their over the top statements, said that they will attack Israel and fight to the death, if the US strikes Syria.

Making the Case for US Strategic Interests


It would be foolish to think that the United States will remain unchallenged as the most powerful nation the world has ever seen. IT would be nice, but the neighborhood is starting to get a little rough. Russia is having a dangerous identity crisis that pits us back in the same old Cold War, China has a dangerous inferiority complex that poses multiple threats, and Iran is dangerous because they are a bunch of religious crazies who are trying to build a nuclear weapon to fire at the Great Satan. But just because it’s dangerous, doesn’t mean that the US shouldn’t act.  What better way to figure it out,than a good ol’ fashion pros and cons list?!


Pros of action:
Better positioning for an inevitable conflict between superpowers
Bolstering those who agree to promote tyranny-free policies that account for unalienable rights
Showing the world we are serious about the use of WMD’s
Hindering the strategic positioning of those who wish to do us harm
Reformed Syria after “The Bounce”


Cons of action:
Collateral damage, accidental deaths  by US actions
Possible need for more military action
Sectarian war
Post-Assad power vacuum, “pre-Bounce”


Pros of inaction:
No collateral damage or accidental deaths by US action
Save Money
Showing the world we can find a diplomatic solution
Our enemies kill each other without us dying


Cons of inaction:
Losing a strategic foothold for the inevitable conflict between superpowers
Appearing weak with empty words and showing we aren’t serious about the use of WMD’s
Terror groups become more entrenched
Innocent people exposed to violent sectarian war
Diplomacy failures lead to prolonged killing



Each one of these variables, though not evenly distributed within the chart, for necessary reasons of course, have a strategic characteristic attached to it.

The ‘strategic foothold‘ deals with a country’s ability to project power in a diplomatic, informational, military, or economic form from a given location in an attempt to produce favorable outcomes in future conflict.

The use of chemical weapons is an act that naturally triggers international condemnation. The US government has made the case that the Syrian government was behind the attacks, the Syrian government blames Sunni-led rebel factions. The White House has said that the US will go at it alone if need be; however, he has since gotten the approval of 33 nations. Iran is watching how the US handles the chemical weapons issue concerning Syria, as it will set a precedent on the US’s seriousness towards WMD’s.

Collateral damage is not good by any means, but in war it is inevitable. However, modern day precision strike weapons are just that, but they can’t tell the difference between a good guy and a bad guy. Which means, there must be some kind of boots on the ground to assure targets are cleared to be hit. If our levels of collateral damage get too high, then our legitimacy for action will tarnish, which leads to bogged efforts, and public mistrust. If those levels are pushed, then all of our efforts would be wasted.

Sun Tzu covered the costs of war in his book, The Art of War over 2,500 years ago. To this day, costs of war are still a factor. However, the old Arab adage, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”  sometimes pays off! The Sunni-ruled Kingdoms of the Arab Gulf States have agreed to finance a military incursion into Syria, if the US so desires.

The sectarian violence in Syria should be a variable of concern. If these groups manage to get too big, then it will take longer to achieve the period of normalcy after the bounce. However, a well planned counterintelligence program can fracture these groups so that the secular-moderate majority can take reign.

The Bounce. The bounce is a phenomena seen in post-revolution states. This is the era between the deposing of the leader and the restoration of everyday life. It could be good, it could be bad. It all depends on how dedicated the supporting states are to helping stabilize the “new” country.

Value the weightings for yourself. Is it worth it?


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