Desert Fox 2

[caption id="attachment_55245021" align="alignnone" width="620"]A US Navy officer walks in front of a 5754 gun on the deck of the USS Milius DDG69, a multi-mission capable guided missile destroyer ship. (NOEL CELIS/AFP/GettyImages) A US Navy officer walks in front of a 5754 gun on the deck of the USS Milius DDG69, a multi-mission capable guided missile destroyer ship. (NOEL CELIS/AFP/GettyImages)[/caption]With the stage seemingly now set for a US military strike on Syria, possibly with the assistance of the UK and France, the question is no longer “Will the US attack Syria?” but rather, “What will an attack look like?” In truth, this question cannot be separated from the political objectives of the military operations that are probably being planned right now.

The political dimensions of the issue, with the permanent members of the UN Security Council split between anti-Assad and anti-intervention factions, have led some to speculate about a re-run of the Kosovo War of 1999, where NATO bombed Serbia for over a month without a UN mandate, until Milosevic’s government capitulated to demands to pull its forces out of Kosovo.

It is deeply unlikely that anything on such a scale is being contemplated, even if the US and its allies go through the UN first. The stated goal of any action currently on the table is not the maximalist goal of getting rid of Assad (though of course no tears would be shed in Western capitals if he were to disappear tomorrow), and a well-planned military operation is defined by its objectives. Instead, as things stand right now, it appears the most likely objective of the governments of the US, UK, and France is to deliver as strong a message as possible to Assad to avoid chemical weapons in the future, without being dragged into the internecine warfare in the country at the same time.

Although there are of course profound differences, perhaps the closest parallel to past events is Operation Desert Fox, the US-UK attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in December of 1998. This too was a retaliatory operation, which, in public at least, aimed to punish Saddam Hussein and demonstrate Western resolve in the face of non-compliance with UN weapons inspectors. Over the course of three days, US and British forces launched a series of bombing raids and cruise missile attacks on various targets in Iraq, with the stated aim of “degrading” Iraq’s ability to manufacture weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and the less public aim of showing American strength in the face of the Iraqi dictator’s decision to defy the US by ending cooperation with the UN’s weapons inspectors.

A similar campaign is probably in the works right now, with the likely difference that any attack on Syria in the immediate future will be carried out with cruise missiles and other “stand-off” (I.e. long-range) weapons, with little involvement of conventional attack jets, given that Syria today is probably a much more dangerous environment for them to operate in than Iraq of the late 1990s, after two wars and years of sanctions. The fact that the US Navy has not sent an aircraft carrier to the Eastern Mediterranean—at least not yet—lends weight to this point of view. Instead, the forces usually cited are the four cruise missile-armed destroyers currently on station, and perhaps an unknown number of submarines. The US also has a number of aircraft able to launch long-range missiles, which can be fired without entering Syrian airspace. Britain has military bases on Cyprus that could be used for this purpose, which also allows for the involvement of French and British jets, taking off from bases on the island and firing cruise missiles from a safe distance over the Mediterranean. Turkey has also indicated that it is willing to take part, which suggests that it will allow strikes to be launched from airbases on its territory. If the Americans feel really adventurous, they could even use their vaunted B-2 stealth bombers, invisible (and therefore untouchable) to Syria’s air defenses, which are capable of flying all the way to Syria from their bases in the US and back with air-to-air refueling.

But what would all these hi-tech war machines attack? The obvious target would be the facilities that allow Assad to carry out chemical attacks—stockpiles and manufacturing plants—and the air defenses that protect them. The headquarters and bases of the specific Syrian military units accused of actually using chemical weapons are also presumably on the list.

Overall, then, among Washington’s aims in any strike at Syria are to bolster its own credibility as much as to do damage to Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure and force Assad to think twice about using them in the future. It remains to be seen if either will be accomplished in the coming days.