Architect’ of US ‘surgical strikes’ on Syria doubts his strategy will work

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As a highly-detailed proposal for “surgical” airstrikes on Syria garners more bipartisan support in Washington, a key “architect” of that strategy has questioned its wisdom and effectiveness.

“I never intended my analysis of a cruise missile strike option to be advocacy even though some people took it as that,” Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst responsible for devising the strategy, told Foreign Policy’s The Cable.

In the last few days, US officials have repeatedly referred to “surgical strikes” on Syrian military installations when discussing US military options for the Arab country.

The call for military action against Syria intensified after the opposition forces accused the government of President Bashar al-Assad of launching a chemical attack on militant strongholds in the suburbs of Damascus last week.

President Barack Obama had previously said that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government was “a red line” that would provoke a military response from the United States.

Hammer’s “low-cost” strategy, which was first laid out in details in a study published by the Institute for the Study of War in July, appears to have struck a chord with hawkish lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“For a serious accounting of a realistic limited military option in Syria, I would strongly recommend a new study that is being released today by the Institute for the Study of War,” Senator John McCain said.

“This new study confirms what I and many others have long argued: That it is militarily feasible for the United States and our friends and allies to significantly degrade Assad’s air power at relatively low cost, low risk to our personnel, and in very short order,” the senator added.

Senator Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who was briefed by administration officials twice over the weekend, said a US “response is imminent” in Syria. “I think we will respond in a surgical way.”

Harmer, however, said US officials were putting too much faith into the effectiveness of “surgical strikes” on Syrian instillations.

“Tactical actions in the absence of strategic objectives are usually pointless and often counterproductive,” he said.

“I made it clear that this is a low cost option, but the broader issue is that low cost options don’t do any good unless they are tied to strategic priorities and objectives,” he added. “Any ship officer can launch 30 or 40 Tomahawks. It’s not difficult. The difficulty is explaining to strategic planners how this advances US interests.”

On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to set the groundwork for US military action against Syria by leveling chemical weapons accusations against the Assad government.

“Make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people,” Kerry said. “Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny.”

Kerry made the statement after President Obama had discussed “a range of options” for Syria with his national security team during a series of high-level meetings at the White House over the weekend.

The Syrian government and the army categorically denied any role in Wednesday’s chemical attack which killed hundreds of people. Russia, a key ally of Syria, insists that the attack was “clearly provocative in nature,” and that it was staged by foreign-backed militant groups to incriminate the Assad government.

In recent days, the Pentagon has moved more warships into place in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and American war planners have updated strike targets that include government and military installations inside Syria, officials said.

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