Argument

No Surrender

The Syrian president’s speech at the Damascus Opera House shows that he still thinks he can win this war.

Only the setting of Bashar al-Assad's Jan. 6 speech was new. The Syrian president spoke from the Damascus Opera House, a cultural landmark built by Assad that many mistook as a sign of his progressive outlook -- a pose now belied by his responsibility for the deaths of more than 60,000 people.

Unsurprisingly, the tone, substance, and theatrics of his address echoed the provocation, defiance, and political maneuvering that has defined his public remarks since his first address to parliament in March 2011. "Is this a revolution? Are those revolutionaries?" he asked the assembled crowd. "They are a bunch of criminals."

What was Assad thinking? Some will agonize over the president's words, searching for a political opening -- they will argue that he is escalating his rhetoric to build leverage ahead of possible negotiation. Unfortunately, that's too optimistic: It is about time we accept that Assad believes what he says, including that he will prevail and that any dialogue can only occur on his terms.

Last July, three Syrian and Lebanese regime sympathizers -- two of whom had just returned from meetings with senior Syrian officials -- told me in Beirut that the regime had settled on a "2014 strategy." Assad's objective was to survive militarily and hold key cities, roads, and infrastructure until then. In the meantime, the regime could at best propose an improbable multi-year process designed to keep internal and external actors distracted by hollow politics rather than the fate of Assad himself. The "peace plan" laid out by Assad in his speech seems designed to do precisely that.

Why 2014? The muddled reasoning I heard was as follows. A presidential election is scheduled to take place then, at which point the regime could come up with an elaborate show of arguably fabricated legitimacy (my question about the feasibility of holding such an "elaborate show" under current circumstances was ignored).

More importantly, the regime expects the opposition to fragment and falter within that timeframe. The armed rebels will come to blows over territory, resources, tactics, and ideology, they believe, and the political front will bicker among each other as they struggle for power. Assad and his aides probably realize that they cannot decisively reverse the rebel advance, but checking it may be enough to generate discord within rebel ranks. This may not be Assad's preferred option -- but he can afford to be the country's strongest warlord as long as he benefits from foreign assistance, faces a divided opposition, and can blackmail his foreign foes into inaction.

Assad seems to be sticking with this game plan: His war talk, his insistence on blaming all the violence on takfiris and Salafis -- code words for his Sunni opponents -- and his jabs at the Gulf states and Turkey were enough to rouse loyalists. Even as the regime behaves like a militia, Assad also still aims to embody a functioning Syrian state, thus placating urban fence-sitters who are still attached to that illusion, as well as Syrians who have been alienated by the rebels. It costs him little to inundate this audience with promises of political progress, however meaningless they may be.

Even as Assad demonized his opponents, he proved he could also brandish the language of reconciliation, ticking off several boxes in his speech: national conference, constitution, referendum, and "broadened" government. If any of this sounds new, it shouldn't. In the past two years, he has repeatedly uttered the same words, and Syria has gone through exactly the same process, with negligible impact. This is because power in Damascus never resided in formal institutions, which have become even less relevant as the uprising has dragged on and Assad increasingly depends on clan and sectarian loyalties.

The process of "reform" Assad announced Sunday is also aimed at keeping the international community busy with meaningless motions, preempting any new discussion about his fate. His speech comes after weeks of frenetic diplomatic activity centered on the Geneva plan, a transitional framework drawn up by the former U.N.-Arab League joint envoy Kofi Annan in June.

In his speech, Assad ridiculed the ambiguity of the Geneva plan over the transition.  He is right: Leaving out the crucial matter of Assad's fate was Annan's only way to get international powers to agree on the rest. The Syrian opposition and its Gulf and Turkish backers insist on Assad's resignation prior to any transition, lest he hijack the process. The United States, anxious to get any ball rolling, seems content to have Assad "step aside" (note: not "down") and remain in a ceremonial capacity while his deputy negotiates. Russia refuses any such precondition, insisting that Assad's departure from power can happen only as an outcome of any agreement.

Assad has turned this ambiguity into a tool to pressure Lakhdar Brahimi, who took over from Annan after the latter resigned in frustration in August. Brahimi, whom Assad contemptuously reminded in his speech, "Syria accepts advice but not orders," can reject Assad's dialogue process. But doing so would likely mean the end of the diplomatic track, which goes against the instincts of the eager diplomat, and would rattle Moscow and Washington. Assad probably hopes that Brahimi, with some Russian prodding, will reluctantly adopt it as a parallel initiative to his own Geneva plan, and that the Assad plan will eventually cannibalize Brahimi's.

This isn't a last-ditch effort on Assad's part. To be sure, the regime's capacity, resources, and support base are eroding steadily, even accelerating at times. But lost in the endless talk of an imminent endgame is the reality that the regime is not yet in a state of panic: It can still make rational decisions about its allocation of resources, and its forces often choose which area to defend, pummel, retake, or abandon. 

Barring some inside job to take out Assad, rebels are not about to overrun the presidential palace. Even with better organization and a political-military strategy -- two things their northern counterparts sorely lacked when they launched their ill-conceived assault in Aleppo -- rebels in Damascus still face a superior enemy. If, as seems likely, the battle for Damascus is many times more destructive and bloody than Aleppo's, then any rebel strategy will probably crumble in the process. The resulting stalemate would bolster Assad's own 2014 strategy.  

At the political level, the progress of the Syrian opposition has also been tenuous. The anti-Assad coalition faced near collapse when its feuding members met in Doha in November -- but since then, the seemingly more competent Syrian Coalition has gained international recognition. Tangible impact on the ground, however -- in terms of leadership, local governance and control over the armed units -- will take time to materialize. As long as Western states don't increase their material support, the coalition will remain extremely vulnerable -- and Assad knows that. The coalition has to prove itself and offer an inclusive message. He doesn't.

As long as Assad remains in Damascus, fence-sitters and regime loyalists can turn only to him. He can stomach losing supporters as long as they sit out the crisis and don't join the opposition -- an increasingly popular choice for many soldiers and bureaucrats currently in wait-and-see mode in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. The most abused word in the uprising must be defection: A deserter becomes a defector not when they abandon the regime, but when they join the other side.

Despite Brahimi's hope that changing conditions on the ground and new assessments by great powers would blow some air into his sail, the time, energy, and jet fuel expended by the veteran negotiator haven't amounted to much. Moscow continues to obstruct substantive action against Assad -- and as my colleague Samuel Charap has noted, Russian behavior is based on its principled opposition to any U.N.-sanctioned effort to depose a sitting leader. Consequently, a change in Russian assessment of Assad's prospects doesn't equate to a change of Russian policy. Even then, Russian leverage over Assad has been overstated and Assad has clearly signaled that no U.N. action would sway him.

Does that mean Brahimi's mission should end? The diplomat, undercut and outmaneuvered, may decide to resign -- but the world has an interest in keeping a line of communication open to Damascus. A political solution will be needed at a later stage -- not with Assad, but with the remnants of his regime. Maintaining contacts and floating ideas in Damascus now may prove useful then.

More importantly, Western states should get off the sidelines. The illusion of a negotiated settlement is a consequence of Western indecision, not the cause for it. The United States in particular has squandered precious time and opportunities: The risks of greater involvement in Syria are certainly great, but the conflict has already overtaken the Iraq war in terms of regional and strategic impact, and Washington is at best marginal to its dynamics. U.S. Sen. John McCain only slightly exaggerated when he said last month: "In Syria, everything we said would happen if we didn't intervene is happening because we didn't intervene." Judging by Assad's speech, Syria's civil war is indeed about to become even more tragic as the world stands idly by.

MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Cut out of the Conversation

The important talk we're not having about defense spending.

This week's last-minute deal to avert the fiscal cliff was welcome at one level, but it did little to address federal spending -- including defense spending. Had Mitt Romney won the presidential election, we might now be talking about modest increases to the Pentagon budget. As things stand, however, the real debate is over how much more to cut, beyond the mid-sized reductions -- about $350 billion if you measure against standard Congressional Budget Office baseline -- already imposed on core, non-war defense spending by the 2011 Budget Control Act. Sequestration -- like the Simpson-Bowles and Rivlin-Domenici deficit reduction commissions of 2010 -- would cut another $500 billion or so over ten years.

The Obama administration's current military plan, which incorporates the BCA cuts but not those from possible sequestration -- will scale down the military from about 1.5 million active-duty uniformed personnel to its pre-9/11 total of 1.4 million, or two-thirds the Cold War norm. It chips away at modernization programs but preserves most major ones, with one or two notable exceptions. It levels off various forms of military pay and benefits, but most troops will continue to be compensated better than private-sector cohorts of similar age, education, and technical skill. It also holds out ambitious hopes for efficiencies from various unspecified reforms that would save $60 billion over a decade, and optimistically assumes that weapons systems will be delivered at projected costs.

Conceptually, the Obama approach is built on time-tested principles of American defense policy that have been modified only modestly in recent years. The Persian Gulf and Western Pacific remain the two principal theaters of overseas concern -- though the administration is seeking to emphasize the broader Middle East/Gulf region somewhat less and, through its policy of "rebalancing," the Pacific somewhat more. A two-war capability of sorts is retained, even if two full-scale simultaneous regional operations are assessed as less likely than before, and large-scale stabilization missions also less likely. Of course, these latter assumptions must be tempered by the fact that possible enemies get a say in our decisions too. In the short term, force planning must also account for the ongoing operation in Afghanistan, where nearly 68,000 American troops remain, and possible operations against Iran's nuclear facilities.

So far, the debate about the defense budget has focused chiefly on dollars -- with the huge numbers involved tossed about like chips in a Vegas casino, with little regard for context or strategy. A more useful way to approach the problem is conceptually. There are two basic ways we can cut the defense budget further, should we choose to do so. One set of cuts would pursue relatively modest savings from additional efficiencies -- within the parameters of existing national security strategy. The second would include the economies of the first approach but, in addition, change current strategy in important ways, or otherwise dramatically change how the Department of Defense goes about its global responsibilities. The real issue, which few are addressing head-on, is which approach the United States ought to take.

APPROACH 1: MAKE EFFICIENCIES WITHOUT CHANGING STRATEGY

The first possible approach to seeking further defense savings might generate additional cuts of $100 billion to $200 billion over a decade, beyond those now scheduled. Some of those savings might be counterbalanced by higher-than-expected costs in other parts of the Pentagon budget, so the net savings in the overall defense budget could be less than some hope -- an important reality to bear in mind in all discussions of future defense reforms. We may need to cut more forces and weapons just to achieve the topline budget targets already assumed by existing law and policy. And such cuts would themselves be hard. For example:

  • The size of the active-duty Army and Marine Corps could be reduced modestly below their 1990s levels (to say 450,000 soldiers and 160,000 Marines); current plans are to keep them slightly above those levels (at 490,000 and 182,000 respectively)
  • Rather than increase its fleet, the Navy could employ innovative approaches like "sea swap," by which some crews are rotated via airplane while ships stay forward deployed longer, to get by with its current 286 ships or even a dozen or two less
  • The F-35 joint strike fighter, a good plane but an expensive one, would be scaled back by roughly half from its current intended buy of 2,500 airframes
  • Rather than design a new submarine to carry ballistic missiles, the Navy might simply refurbish the existing Trident submarine or reopen that production line
  • Military compensation would be streamlined further as well, despite Congress's recent reluctance to go along with even the modest changes proposed in 2012 by the administration. Stateside commissaries and exchanges might be closed, and military health care premiums increased somewhat more than first proposed. Military pensions might be reformed too, with somewhat lower payments for working-age military retirees having 20 years or more of service, and introduction of a 401k-like plan for those who never reach 20 years (and currently receive nothing). This could be done in a way that would achieve modest net savings.

Another idea in this vein could save substantial sums too, though it would require help from allies and would have to be phased in with time. At present we rely almost exclusively on aircraft carriers, each with about 72 aircraft onboard, to have short-range combat jets in position for possible conflict -- with Iran in particular. Over the past decade, land-based jets in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq have largely come home. While we occasionally rotate fighter jets through the small states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and while we maintain command and control and support assets in states like Qatar and the UAE, our permanent onshore combat power is very limited. By seeking two or more places to station Air Force combat jets continuously in Gulf states, we could facilitate a reduction of 1 or 2 carrier battle groups. (In theory, we could cut the aircraft carrier fleet even more this way, since the Navy currently needs about 5 carriers in the fleet to sustain one always on station in the Gulf, but the unpredictability of such foreign basing would counsel a more hedged approach.) Cutting two carrier battle groups could eventually save up to $15 billion a year.

APPROACH 2: MAKE MAJOR STRATEGIC CHANGES

The other approach to saving money in the defense budget, necessary if big cuts like those proposed by the Simpson-Bowles commission or required by sequestration are to happen, would involve not only the kinds of economies outlined above in approach 1, but also a strategic shift -- a more profound reorientation of America's role in the world. It would be an overstatement to say that it would emasculate the country, deprive it of superpower status, or require explicit abandonment of any ally. But it would accept substantially greater risk.

One of the least debilitating ways to strategically reorient the military would be to cut the active-duty Army and Marine Corps by 25 percent, going much further than the administration now plans (and much further than approach 1 would do). This would likely deprive the nation of the prompt capacity to conduct anything more than one large ground operation at a time. Under this approach, the active-duty Army might wind up with 400,000 soldiers, in contrast to more than half a million now and to some 475,000 in the Clinton and early Bush years (and, as noted before, to the currently planned level of 490,000). This would be enough for one major operation, like the unlikely but not unthinkable contingency of another war in Korea. It would also likely keep the Army large enough to retain its prestige as the world's best ground combat force and to facilitate foreign engagement globally in peacetime. But it would not allow enough capability for that plus an ongoing mission similar to the one in Afghanistan today -- or a substantial role in a future Syria operation, for example. It would effectively move ground-force planning away from the two-war standard that has, however imperfectly and inexactly, undergirded American military strategy for decades.

Another major, but not catastrophic, change could be in military compensation. No one likes to talk about this at a time of war, given the amazing service of our all-volunteer force. But with war winding down, perhaps this can be rethought, as long as help for wounded veterans and survivors is left untouched, and if entitlement reform in other parts of the federal budget creates a national sense of shared sacrifice. Military compensation, now $30,000 greater per person per year than at the start of the Bush administration, might be gradually returned towards 2001 levels. This could not be done quickly -- and perhaps not at all. Even scaling real military compensation back by $10,000 per trooper through dramatic changes to health care and retirement policies, plus indefinitely freezing military pay, would be hard enough for our political system to consider.  So there would be huge challenges associated with reversing most of the $30,000 increase that may make it inadvisable.  Still, in strictly accounting terms at least, it is not unthinkable.   

Each of these initiatives could save $25 billion to $30 billion a year, but they would take time to phase in, meaning combined savings above and beyond those in Approach 1 of perhaps another $300 billion over the next ten years. All told, adding together savings from approach 1 with these additional cuts in approach 2, we would then approach the additional $500 billion in defense cuts as required by sequestration or Simpson-Bowles. 

To me, the reforms outlined in Approach 1 above, while difficult, are worth trying given the nation's fiscal plight; however, the risks associated with Approach 2 would not be worth the benefits. But the point is to have the debate on these terms. It is time we stopped casually tossing around big defense budget saving numbers, or pretending that magical reforms in how the Pentagon does business can quickly yield huge savings painlessly, and instead talk about how any cuts to defense spending comport with what we're asking the military to do. 

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