Small Wars

This Week at War: Syria as Prologue

The uprising could be the sign of even bigger battles to come in the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Turkish government hosted a conference last weekend in Istanbul to discuss possible international responses to Syria's budding civil war. The conference attendees, including the United States along with dozens of other countries and organizations, called themselves the "Friends of Syria" and declared open support for the rebels fighting the Syrian army. The Friends also announced substantial financial support for the rebellion, including $100 million -- pledged by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) -- to pay salaries to the fighters, a direct inducement to government soldiers to defect to the rebellion. For its part, the U.S. government pledged an additional $12 million in humanitarian assistance to international organizations aiding the Syrian opposition. This assistance will include satellite communications equipment for rebel fighters and night vision goggles. Attending the conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said discussions were occurring on "how best to expand this support."

The broad and growing international support for the Syrian rebels is no doubt motivated by several concerns. On a humanitarian level, Bashar al-Assad's security forces are now suspected of killing more than 9,000 civilians over the past year. From this perspective, non-lethal assistance to the opposition seems the least the international community can do to help civilians cope with the widespread disorder inside the country.

At a more practical level, leaders like Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, host of the Istanbul conference, undoubtedly fear population displacement and cross-border refugee flows as a result of the fighting. Assisting the rebels may help keep them and their supporting populations inside the country. Erdogan's support for the rebels may also be an acknowledgement that Assad's remaining time may be limited. If there is to be regime change in Damascus, Erdogan and other leaders will be in a better position to protect their interests if they already have a supportive relationship with Syria's future leaders.

It is at the strategic level where the stakes in Syria are high and rising. The country has become a battleground in the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its smaller Sunni-Arab neighbors against Iran. Smaller versions of the Saudi-Iran proxy war have played out in Bahrain, Lebanon, and Yemen. The clash in Syria raises the intensity and the stakes to a much higher level.

Should the Assad regime fall and Syria's Sunni majority win control, Iran would suffer a crushing geo-strategic defeat. Not only would Tehran lose a loyal and well-located ally, Tehran's line of support to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon would be imperiled. The arrival of Sunni control in Syria might also boost the morale and material support of Iraq's anti-Iranian Sunni minority, a development Riyadh would no doubt welcome.

The proxy war in Syria provides Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their friends with a chance to develop and employ their emerging capabilities in covert action, subversion, and irregular warfare. Over the past three decades, the Quds Force -- the external covert action arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) -- has achieved remarkable success building up Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and supporting anti-U.S. militias in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the 1980s, Iran has demonstrated great skill at using covert action and deniable proxies to intimidate adversaries while simultaneously avoiding conventional military retaliation. If these techniques are warfare's latest weapons, Saudi Arabia and its allies likely desire to have them in their own armories.

During last year's rebellion in Libya, tiny Qatar punched way above its weight when it sent hundreds of military advisors to assist the fighters who eventually overwhelmed Muammar al-Qaddafi's security forces. Saudi Arabia has called for arming Syria's rebels, an operation that would presumably entail many of the same tactics Qatar employed in its successful unconventional warfare campaign in Libya. If the Saudis are serious about fighting the proxy war in Syria, the kingdom and its allies will have to master the irregular warfare techniques that both the Quds Force and Qatari special forces have recently used.

The emerging civil war in Syria harkens back to the Spanish civil war in the late 1930s. That ugly conflict drew in Europe's great powers and served as both as a proving ground for the weapons and tactics that would be used a few years later in World War II and as an ideological clash between fascism and socialism. For Saudi Arabia and Iran, the stakes in Syria are likely even higher than they were for Germany and the Soviet Union in Spain, which could add to the likelihood of escalation.

It is Syria's rebels that need some more escalation from their outside friends. The Istanbul conference was one small success but the rebels will need more. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has argued that Syria's rebels will never defeat the army, even if they are eventually "armed to the teeth." Without more explicit external intervention, he is very likely correct. In Libya, the rebels benefited greatly from NATO's air power, which attacked massing Libyan security forces in their assembly areas, precluded their open movement against rebel locations, and provided close air support for the rebels during the final drive on Tripoli. The Syrian army faces none of these threats as it maneuvers against rebel concentrations.

Syria's rebels should not look to the sky for the support Libya's rebels received. NATO will not intervene. U.S. support will very likely remain minor, discreet, and indirect. And as much as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE may want to prevail in Syria, their air forces don't have the technical skills to do over Syria what NATO did over Libya.

For now, cash is the weapon of choice in Syria rather than laser-guided bombs. Saudi Arabia hopes to buy the Syrian army rather than bomb it. For this war, the kingdom's oil-financed bank accounts may be more powerful than its squadrons of F-15 fighter-bombers.

Until some event triggers military escalation, Riyadh and its friends will have to perfect the black arts of covert action and irregular warfare to fight the war in Syria. When they master these skills, they will be catching up to where the Quds Force has been for a long time. Syria may only be a preview of Saudi-Iranian clashes yet to come.


Small Wars

This Week at War: The Navy's Pacific Problem

Does the U.S. military have the resources for an Asian century?

A March 26, Washington Post article discussed a new expansion of the military relationship between the United States and Australia. According to the piece, the U.S. Navy is seeking to expand its ability to operate in the Indian Ocean from Western Australia, which would require a major expansion to a naval base in Perth. The Pentagon also hopes to establish a long-range air reconnaissance base on the Cocos Islands, a remote Australian atoll midway between Perth and Sri Lanka.

This expansion of U.S. military capability into the northeast Indian Ocean quickly follows last year's agreement to permanently station a small force of U.S. Marines near Darwin on the north coast and to expand U.S. access to Australian bases and training ranges.

At the time, I noted that U.S. military power in the western Pacific is concentrated in Japan and South Korea (a legacy of the Cold War) while the emerging area of great power contention -- the South China Sea -- lies 2,000 miles to the south. The U.S. agreements with Australia, combined with a major expansion of military facilities on Guam, are an attempt to bolster the Pentagon's capacity to sustain a larger ongoing presence in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia.

The U.S. interest in the South China Sea is in maintaining free navigation through what is arguably the most important commercial shipping passage in the world. The agreements with Australia and the buildup on Guam are helpful in this regard but insufficient. Ultimately, the Navy will need to provide a sufficiently reassuring presence to the countries bordering the South China Sea in order to prevent various disputes over the sea from threatening routine commerce through it. It remains to be seen whether the Navy will have the capacity and realistic plans to accomplish this mission over the long run.

This week, the Navy sent Congress an update of its 30-year shipbuilding plan, which would continue the trend of an ever-shrinking maritime force. The new plan foresees an average of 298 ships operating over the next 30 years, down from last year's forecast of a 306-ship average. And the plan foresees the Navy buying fewer new ships per year, reinforcing another unfavorable trend. The Congressional Budget Office's evaluation of Navy shipbuilding found those plans underfunded and over-optimistic. A few years ago, the Navy had plans for a 313-ship fleet. The bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel called for a fleet of 346 ships. There are no plans to reach either of these targets.

Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work, in a January 2012 speech to the Surface Navy Association, dismissed concerns about the Navy's shrinking ship count. Work asserted that the Navy's robust plans for long-range air reconnaissance, conducted by new aircraft such as the P-8A Poseidon and a Navy version of the Global Hawk drone, will do much of the routine maritime patrolling previously done by ships. Bases in Australia, the Cocos Islands, and elsewhere in the southwest Pacific would support surveillance of the South China Sea. If ships were required to respond to problems, admirals could send them in as always. But under Work's assumption, fewer ships will be needed for routine patrolling. And with less routine steaming, the Navy will save money and keep its ships better maintained.

The question is whether more aerial maritime reconnaissance and fewer ships making fewer port visits around the South China Sea and elsewhere will provide the reassuring and stabilizing presence that the visible presence of Navy ships has heretofore provided. Work's air reconnaissance doctrine and the Navy's slumping fleet size combine to form a new theory for providing a stabilizing presence in global commons such as the South China Sea. We will know that this theory is not working if the leaders of U.S. allies increase their diplomatic hedging behavior. Regional arms races, another response to a perceived decline in U.S. military power, would be another indication of failure. China's ongoing annual double-digit increases in defense spending and a looming submarine arms race in the region are not good signs.

The Navy's task of providing a stabilizing presence in the South China Sea and elsewhere is further complicated the growing anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile threats. These threats are forcing the Navy and the Air Force to develop new ways of operating against adversaries from longer ranges, where ships and aircraft will be less vulnerable to adversary missiles. The missile threat is also encouraging the Navy and Air Force to rely more on out-of-sight platforms, such as submarines, and long-range stealthy aircraft, which purposely stay as hidden as possible. All of these trends work against the concept of a visible forward presence, which the Navy has used to deter threats to the global commons but which may increasingly become untenable due to adversary missiles.

Ships assigned to "presence duty," for example patrolling the South China Sea and making port visits in the region, will be most at risk from missile attack at the start of a conflict. This fact will increasingly encourage the Navy to hold the most capable and prestigious surface ships, such as its aircraft carriers, out of sight of allies located within adversary missile range. As the missile threat matures, the Navy's new and modestly capable Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), a few of which will be stationed in Singapore, may perform the forward presence mission, showing the flag during peacetime and serving as expendable "trip wires" if shooting breaks out. Meanwhile, the main fleet and other long-range striking power will wait over the horizon and out of sight.

In this case, policymakers in Washington will be counting on the small, fragile, and lightly armed LCSs to inspire awe in U.S. military power. With the new expansion in its relationship with Australia, the Pentagon is groping toward a way to bolster its presence in the South China Sea. As it does so, it will have to figure out how to continue to provide a reassuring naval presence -- something the Navy has done for decades -- while the missile threat to that presence grows. Compounding the problem is a Navy shipbuilding budget under pressure and inadequate for even the now-reduced plans. The Navy's leaders are attempting to devise new tactics and new structures to adapt to a deteriorating situation. But will those measures be sufficient to reassure allies and deter potential adversaries?