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The World Series of Poker, Syria Edition

October 4, 2013, 5:37 pm

PUB SSGN Ohio Class Poster lgGalrahn, over at Information Dissemination, suggests that the Obama administration never had any intent of striking at Syria:

These two pictures combined tell us something important: The President of the United States never intended to conduct military strikes against Syria in response to the chemical weapons attack that took place on August 21st. He was bluffing. The President was never playing chess, but he was never playing checkers either; President Obama was playing poker.

His analysis is based on looking at US military capabilities in the Eastern Mediterranean. To mount a strike on Syria would have required ships with substantial amount of firepower, either in the form of cruise missiles or aircraft. The latter was unlikely, as the Syrian air defenses could be expected to inflict casualties on manned aircraft, a political problem for President Obama. That limits the use of aircraft from carriers or land bases. More, the Med is a tight and confined space, and the Navy doesn’t like putting aircraft carriers in there. Unsurprisingly, then, there were no US aircraft carriers near Syria during the crisis. That left cruise missiles, and while there were a substantial number of Tomahawks aboard the 4-5 US destroyers in the area, they couldn’t completely load out with cruise missiles because of worries about air defense. So a substantial number of missiles on the destroyers would have to be surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), reducing the potential number available to hit Syria. The exception to this requirement would be the use of a submarine arsenal ship, loaded with 154 Tomahawks each. These ships, formerly ballistic missiles of the Ohio class, had been converted to carry cruise missiles only. Submerged and stealthy, they don’t need air defense cover, and so could launch a substantial first strike on Syria. But, Galhran points out:

Having a SSGN off Syria is, in my mind, the prerequisite for the American way of war when applied to the proposed Syrian military strike. Everyone assumed the SSGN was there. I wouldn’t be surprised if even the Russians assumed the SSGN was there. What the picture at the top of this post tells us is that since the crew swap, USS Georgia (SSGN 729) has stayed in 5th Fleet, and has not at any time since the August 21 chemical attack been in the Mediterranean Sea. That means only two things, the President of the United States was bluffing on military strikes all along…

In essence, the US capability to strike Syria never existed in the place it needed to be. So what was the President doing? Well…go read the article. I don’t agree with substantial portions of it: Galrahn wants to argue simultaneously that President Obama both bluffed the Russians into forcing Assad to give up his chemical weapons but that the Russians also won a massive diplomatic victory over the US, points that seem to me contradictory, and it’s also perhaps a bit too 11th dimensional chess for me.

Nonetheless, I bring it up because he raises good points, and because it highlights something that gets lost a lot in foreign policy (and especially military discussions): the question of capability. A lot of times discussions about possible American military actions lose sight of whether the US has the capability to do that action, and particularly whether it has the capability to do that action at the moment. When war rumors were flying about Iran in both the Bush and Obama administration, a fair number of commentators ignored that the US simply did not have the forces available to invade Iran. During the Bush administration, the forces were almost entirely tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan; during the Obama administration, the forces were either in Afghanistan or out of position to attack Iran. That applied to naval forces as well; there was never a buildup in the Persian Gulf or northern Indian Ocean of ships necessary to carry out a substantial strike on Iran. The question should always be not whether the US has the capability to do something military in abstract, but whether it has the capability to do it at the time and place required.

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