The art of war: Surprise is useless

Well, that’s what you’d be forced to believe going by the meandering trash talk emanating from the US over Syria.

Bashar al-Assad must be relishing every new morsel dropped by Barack Obama as he feeds congressmen details of the military strikes planned against the Syrian regime, who then dutifully scatter them far and wide to diminish what little strategic advantage the US forces retain.

But even that’s not quite clumsy enough for the US congress, who also want to impose a 90-day time limit on military action, just in case the mission sprawls into another Libya, Iraq or Afghanistan.

Understandable concerns, but what can America really hope to achieve when its target can count down the days to a strike, rearrange its forces to repel or simply survive it, and then hunker down till the clock ticks down to zero?

All of this leaves aside the crushingly simple but now fading question of what America actually wants to achieve with military force, as if there were no lessons at all to be learned from its last three military outings.

Will it be a ‘symbolic’ strike at the presidential palace or coveted army units, or should the US be bolder? Should chemical weapons stores be targeted, at the risk of poisoning civilians accidentally or unwittingly handing even deadlier weapons to al Qaeda rebel forces when the regime’s guards flee their posts at the prospect of being killed?

War by committee

Regime change must surely be the ideal US aim once more, if not for the harsh reality that creating a power vacuum would probably lead to greater chaos and the country’s eventual implosion.

Reliance on cruise missile strikes and an apparent plan to ‘degrade’ Syria’s forces belie the torturous uncertainty in planning military action, with Obama desperate to do just enough to make Assad think twice, but not so much that he starts war in the Middle East.

Not to commend or deride the prospect of military action, but is this really the best way to deal with a dictator so ruthless that he’ll gas hundreds of his own people just to gain territory in the fight for Damascus?

That may have been Assad’s aim in previous such attacks, according to the French intelligence dossier released a few days ago, but of course his use of chemical weapons served a parallel purpose: to test the resolve of Obama and the west, who for the moment  are found wanting, aside from France who wait patiently for a US vote.

For the time being, US military planning has been left to an enlarged committee of politicians desperate to appear statesmanlike while preserving their hometown vote.

This is democracy after all – what’s the point in having an elected commander in chief when the self interested gaggle can make decisions for you?

And what possible value lies in surprise attack when you can scare off your foes by talking about military force instead of using it?

Surprise, surprise

Actually, it’s worth remembering. As dictators the world over curled up into their comfy duvets on the night of 2 May 2011, US special forces were winging their way to an anonymous looking compound in Abbottobad, Pakistan in search of a single fugitive.

Osama bin Laden was killed without prior advertising, and without endless discussion among small-minded politicians too scared to put their name to a mission that carried a significant chance of failure.

When news of the mission spread, the crystal clear military objective had already been achieved, and the US  cheerily but efficiently deployed details of the ‘tough decisions’ its top leaders had to make, and then (frankly, far too much) information about the SEAL unit that did it.

Of course, the secret assassination of one man doesn’t compare to the complexity of military strikes against a hostile country ravaged by civil war, or the delicacies of diplomacy required to prevent conflict spreading further.

But no-one saw it coming: not the man on the street thinking about his shopping, nor the dictator plotting decades of repression to keep his population in check. And least of all the frightened old man cramped in a dingy hovel with his crappy TV, who would surely have run away at the first whisper of trouble.

© Matthew Bell 2013

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One thought on “The art of war: Surprise is useless

  1. It’s about the pipelines. See my blog, there are 2 pipelines being planned to pass thru syria (one by our side, one by our enemy’s side).

    I have no idea what the purpose of the trash talk is. My guess is that they’re jealous that Snowden was getting all the attention. It’s easy to see if lying.

    Secret trick- watch the lips. You know a politician is lying… when the his lips are moving. Worked every time for Bush, and works just as well for Obama.

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