National Security

History Repeats Itself as Tragedy

The must-read secret Pentagon memo on Syria's 1982 massacre.

Cut the dates from this just-declassified Defense Intelligence Agency paper and it reads like an analysis of the current 18-month-old Syrian civil war, as if it could have gone to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta yesterday. But DIA analysts wrote this paper in April 1982, 30 years ago -- just after the horrific Hama massacre by then-Syrian leader Hafez Assad, who used jets and artillery to level the city and wipe out a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising.

The similarities are striking. The regime -- Assad the father then, and Assad the son now -- uses the same brutal tactics of repression. It rains indiscriminate violence from the air, from cannons, and from tanks on the urban centers of the uprising, regardless of civilian casualties. The opposition -- including the Muslim Brotherhood cadres described in this document -- pursues a strategy of violent rebellion that "would also force the Damascus government to become even more oppressive" and thus "cause greater alienation of the Assad government from the Sunni Muslim majority and within the Alawite community," from which even Syrian military might defect, thereby hastening the fall of the regime.

About the Hama massacre, the DIA analysts concluded:

The Muslim Brotherhood leadership was fully aware that they had the Assad regime in a 'no win' situation over Hama. If Assad had not acted forcefully against Hama, the rebellion might have spread to other cities which in turn might have led to a full-scale rebellion. Assad's liberal use of artillery in breaking the resistance in Hama served notice to other cities that he has both the will and the means to retain power. By the same token, however, the government's actions have appalled and sickened a wide spectrum of Syrian society. Nonetheless, Assad's strategy continues to be based on the realization that most Syrians, regardless of their differences with the present government, do not want the Muslim Brotherhood in power, although they would undoubtedly prefer one dominated by Sunni Muslims [instead of Assad's Alawite sect].

The one factual discrepancy in this DIA report, compared to what we know now, is the casualty count on Hama. The document says 2,000 dead, but independent observers (ranging from the British journalist Robert Fisk, who visited Hama, to the Syrian Human Rights Committee) determined after the fact that between 20,000 and 40,000 died at Hama -- all killed in the month of February 1982, within just a few weeks.

The Syrian civil war currently raging has only now reached that level of casualties, nearly 30,000 total deaths over 18 months, according to the Centre for Documentation of Violations in Syria and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. August 2012 was the bloodiest month, with more than 5,000 deaths. Most of the Syrian dead are civilian; the total includes about 3,000 fighters on each side.

What has changed, obviously, is the geopolitical context: There is no longer a Soviet Union (one of the main concerns of this DIA document), Iraq has a very different government, this time Iran is supporting the Assad regime instead of inspiring the rebels, and the Muslim Brotherhood has actually come to power in Egypt.

But the long roots of the current civil war are clearly visible in this 30-year-old analysis, which includes as its last paragraph the prediction that the "covert war, therefore, is unlikely to stop, although there may be periodic lulls in the struggle." Reading this intelligence report makes one rephrase the famous saying about history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. In Syria, the second time has been tragedy too.

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National Security

How to Fight a Nuclear War

Revealed: Jimmy Carter's strategy for Armageddon. (We're still using it.)

Presidential Decision Directive 59 -- presented here on Foreign Policy's National Security channel and on the National Security Archive's website for the first time -- was one of the most controversial nuclear policy documents of the Cold War, yet until now it's never been made public in its entirety.

Signed by President Jimmy Carter on July 25, 1980, the directive (titled "Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy") aimed to give presidents more flexibility in planning for and executing a nuclear war -- that is, options beyond a massive strike. Leaks of the document's Top Secret contents, within weeks of its approval, gave rise to front-page stories in the New York Times and the Washington Post, alleging that its changes to U.S. strategy lowered the threshold of a decision to go nuclear.

With other recently declassified material, PD-59 shows that the United States was indeed preparing to fight a nuclear war, with the hope of enduring. To do this, it sought a nuclear force posture that ensured a "high degree of flexibility, enduring survivability, and adequate performance in the face of enemy actions." If deterrence failed, the United States "must be capable of fighting successfully so that the adversary would not achieve his war aims and would suffer costs that are unacceptable."

Perhaps even more remarkable than this guidance is the fact that, although the Obama administration is conducting a review of U.S. nuclear targeting guidance, key concepts behind PD-59 still drive U.S. policy to this day.

The National Security Archive obtained the virtually unexpurgated document in response to a mandatory declassification review request to the Jimmy Carter Library. Highly classified for years, PD-59 was signed during a period of heightened Cold War tensions owing to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, greater instability in the Middle East, and earlier strains over China policy, human rights, the Horn of Africa, and Euromissiles. Press coverage at the time elicited debate inside and outside the government, with some arguing that the directive would aggravate Cold War tensions by increasing Soviet fears about vulnerability and raising pressures for launch-on-warning in a crisis.

A key element of PD-59 was to use high-tech intelligence to find nuclear weapons targets in battlefield situations, strike the targets, and then assess the damage -- a "look-shoot-look" capability. A memorandum from NSC military aide William Odom depicted Secretary of Defense Harold Brown doing exactly that in a recent military exercise where he was "chasing [enemy] general purpose forces in East Europe and Korea with strategic weapons." That is, he was planning how to use large nuclear weapons to defeat conventional troops. Drafters of PD-59 like Odom did not believe that deploying weapons in this way would necessarily result in apocalypse -- they believed they could control escalation during a nuclear war.

In part, the United States took this approach because the architects of PD-59 believed the Soviets had a concept of victory in nuclear war and already had limited nuclear options themselves. But post-Cold War studies have shown that the Soviet leadership realized neither side could win a nuclear war and had little confidence in the Soviet Union's ability to survive a nuclear conflict.

The directive is presented below. For other relevant documents and more analysis, please visit the briefing book at the National Security Archive web site.

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