In the wee hours of Wednesday, Aug. 21, I was dozing comfortably in Cape Cod. A world away, in Syria, the morning brought horror. Thousands of patients began showing up in hospitals around Damascus. More than 3,600 people displaying neurotoxic symptoms arrived in a three-hour window at a trio of hospitals supported by Doctors Without Borders. Three hundred fifty-five of those patients died.
Although Doctors Without Borders could "neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack," Dr. Bart Janssens, the group's director of operations, said that "the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events ... strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent."
A few months ago, in response to less-than-convincing evidence of chemical weapons use -- well, I found it less than convincing -- I wrote that if Bashar al-Assad were to start gassing cities, "we won't be sitting around wondering whether he's done so or not." A definitive judgment will take more time, but the circumstantial evidence is compelling in a way that previous claims have not been. Although I hate to judge before all the facts are in, it's beginning to look like Assad gassed Ghouta.
The president spent Friday huddled with his advisors, discussing what officials described to the Wall Street Journal's Adam Entous as "targeted strikes to punish Mr. Assad for using chemical weapons." U.S. warships and submarines have reportedly begun moving into place.
Even Assad seems to have gotten the message, offering to let a U.N. fact-finding team visit Ghouta after a week of hemming and hawing. Assad probably thinks the United States is less likely to attack him if he seems to be cooperating. He may also think U.N. fact-finders make nice human shields. Either way, Syria's sudden transparency seems unlikely to change many minds. Western officials have already called Assad's offer "too little, too late." The U.N. team did try to visit the site but were turned back by sniper fire. A military strike of one sort or another looks likely at this point.
A lot of commentators imagine that Operation Habitual Line-Stepper will look a lot like Operation Allied Force -- the 78-day air war in which NATO supported the Kosovar Liberation Army in its efforts to stop the Serbian genocide -- or the recent military operation against Libya. (That is, when they can keep straight our mid-1990s Balkan adventures.)
While a major air campaign remains a possibility, a more limited military action looks more plausible to me. In both Kosovo and Libya, there was an organized opposition capable of taking territory when supported by Western airpower. The situation in Syria is not nearly so promising. If the canonical test for using force is whether it contributes to a specific, desirable diplomatic settlement, Syria does not pass it. The opposition seems too fragmented to make use of the sort of air campaign of the sort we saw against Yugoslavia or Libya.
It seems far more likely that the Obama administration will settle for a one-off series of airstrikes, largely using cruise missiles, in order to reestablish deterrence against the further use of chemical weapons. (And, perhaps, make good on the president's blustery talk.) There is a direct historical precedent to such an operation -- Operation Desert Fox, which the Clinton administration launched against Iraq in 1998. Although Desert Fox was far from perfect, it offers a useful model of limited use of force over a period of days that might degrade Syria's capability to use chemical weapons and discourage Assad's commanders from repeating the carnage at Ghouta without committing the United States to long-term involvement in the country's civil war.
You may have forgotten this strange little episode. That's to be forgiven. We lobbed a lot of cruise missiles around in the 1990s. You may also be wondering why we named an operation after a German general. In the mid-1990s, the sanctions regime against Iraq seemed to falter, resulting in a series of military operations -- usually labeled Desert this or Desert that -- including Desert Strike in 1996.
In 1998, the United States came close to using force twice before Saddam backed down each time -- once in February and again in November. After the aborted strikes -- known as Desert Thunder I and II or Desert Thunder and Desert Viper -- the idea of Desert Fox was born. I can do no better than to allow Hugh Shelton, the bard of Tarboro, to explain it from here:
"Dammit, he did it again," I vented to [Gen. Anthony] Zinni ..., frustrated that irrespective of whether or not Saddam backed down, our intel confirmed that once again he had already moved his missiles and equipment out of harm's way. "It's getting old and there's got to be a better way."
"Couldn't agree with you more," the burly commander said. "Doesn't take the Amazing Kreskin to figure out that the ninety-thousand-ton carrier knockin' at your door is not dropping in to deliver take-out baba ghanoush." [Zinni appears unfamiliar with the concept of "take-out."]
"We need to catch him with his pants down. Lull him into a false sense of security, then blast his ass," [I said.] "We've got to be sly, like a fox. In fact, we ought to call it Operation Desert Fox."
(Zinni tells an almost identical anecdote in his book, Battle Ready, although without the homespun feel. It's just not the same when Shelton wants to catch Saddam with his "things in place.")
As then-Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen -- another Republican senator dropped in the Pentagon by a Democratic president -- explained pretty succinctly: "We want to degrade Saddam Hussein's ability to make and use weapons of mass destruction, we want to diminish his ability to wage war against his neighbors, and we want to demonstrate the consequences of flouting international obligations."
Operation Desert Fox involved strikes against 97 targets in seven areas -- air defense systems, command and control, weapons of mass destruction security, WMD industry and production, Republican Guard units, airfields, and "economic" targets. The punishment was centered on leadership targets and WMD-related facilities. The bombing lasted 70 hours, ending just as the holy month of Ramadan began. At the time, Tony Cordesman wrote up a nice, if skeptical, summary of Desert Fox based on the battle damage assessment -- although you can read all the good stuff on one slide behind Gen. Zinni briefing the results of the strike.