US needs to build coalition for Syrian operation

(L-R) U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

As United States President Barack Obama faces a crucial congressional vote this week on military action against the Assad regime in Syria, America's diplomats are working overtime to create the global coalition for such a war.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has spent the weekend huddled with his counterparts in Europe, while other senior American officials are fanning out throughout the world. "We are building support with... other countries, among them the Arab League," Mr Kerry explained.

But this won't be easy. If the history of such previous endeavours is anything to go by, the US administration will succeed in its alliance-creation efforts only by being dragged into the Syrian quagmire to a far larger degree than Mr Obama currently envisages.

Operation Desert Storm, the 1990-1991 war for the liberation of Kuwait, was the biggest multinational effort of its kind since World War II: A global coalition of 34 nations contributed one million soldiers against the armies of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. These came from as far apart as Argentina and Australia and included contingents from the Arab world.

Equally, the Bosnian war during the earlier part of the 1990s and the Kosovo one, which came at the end of that decade, involved the entire Nato alliance, which at that time was composed of 16 European and North American nations.

A total of 43 countries have contributed troops to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

A separate coalition of 19 states launched attacks against Libya in 2011, initially, in order to protect civilians in that country, but ultimately, to overthrow the regime of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

And even US president George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq, by far the most controversial military operation since the end of the Cold War, was spearheaded by four nations, which launched the initial attack - the famed "coalition of the willing" - and subsequently augmented by a "stabilisation" force comprising soldiers belonging to no fewer than 36 other states. So, far from being a unilateral American folly, the 2003 Iraq war ultimately involved - in one shape or another - almost a quarter of the world's independent nations.

Securing global consent

Certainly, the circumstances surrounding every military operation were very different. Still, they all have strikingly similar characteristics.

The first is the fact that the US could have easily won all these wars on its own. The number of allies involved or even the very existence of a coalition was militarily irrelevant.

Secondly, the US dominated all these coalitions. American soldiers accounted for over half of all the troops in Desert Storm, two-thirds of the Bosnian and Kosovo operations and nine-tenths of the initial offensive in both Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

Furthermore, America's technological superiority was even more overwhelming than the mere count of soldiers would indicate: Even in Libya, where President Obama was accused of keeping his troops out of harm's way, over 60 per cent of all the precision ammunition fired was US-owned and up to about 95 per cent of all the intelligence which helped pinpoint Libyan enemy targets came from American satellites, spy planes and special US agents on the ground.

Why, therefore, does the US lavish so much diplomatic effort on these coalitions?

One key explanation is that today's interventions must have international credibility, and this is achieved more easily if the Americans succeed in building a coalition.

That was why President Bush announced the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq flanked by the colourful flags of many nations. It really did not matter that many of these countries contributed not more than a military ambulance and a driver each, as long as they could be counted as an "ally".

Having international support also reassures Americans that their cause is just. Ordinary US voters are uncomfortable if their nation ends up fighting on its own in a conflict and see the failure to create such alliances as the responsibility of the president.

There are also very practical reasons why such alliances make sense. In almost all operations, an intensive but relatively brief period of fighting is followed by a lengthy period of post-war reconstruction.

Having a multinational alliance allows both these stages to be dealt with: Those who don't want to fight can do the peacekeeping. And they can also pay for it: the Saudis paid just over half of the estimated US$60 billion cost of Desert Storm.

Mutual returns sought

But the benefits don't all go to the US; other countries also enjoy distinct advantages in joining US-led coalitions. They can appear to act as responsible stakeholders on the international security matters scene. They can defend their claims to be important players, which is why both France and Britain like to be in almost every international coalition because this justifies their status as permanent members of the UN Security Council with a right to veto.

And, finally, some countries join US-led operations as a way of expressing gratitude to America for other favours: The East Europeans, for instance, rushed to help the Americans in their 2003 invasion of Iraq for that reason.

There is no question that the US administration would want to line up an extensive number of allies before it launches operations in Syria. Mr Kerry has admitted that Washington contacted at least 100 other governments recently with requests to join in a Syria offensive.

Still, he won't find it easy to construct an anti-Syria coalition.

One reason for this is that the US itself took an inordinately long time to decide whether it wanted to do something and, when it answered in the affirmative, it still did not know what it wanted done. It is tricky for others to join a moving train which apparently has no driver.

To make matters worse, having led America's friends into believing that a US attack on Syria's chemical weapons dumps was imminent, Mr Obama astonished everyone - including his own White House advisers - by opting to wait until Congress gave him approval for the operation, even though technically he does not require a nod from the lawmakers.

America's allies hate being made to look foolish by pledging their support for an operation in which the US President himself is prevaricating.

Clarity required

Allies also look for a cast-iron US guarantee that, once an operation of this sort is launched, the Americans will be there to take it to its logical conclusion. A considerable number of Arab governments - including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan - would be delighted to contribute to a Syria operation. But the worst nightmare for such Arab countries would be that the US offensive peters out too soon, leaving the rest of the Arab world to the tender mercies of the Syrian government and its Iranian backers, who will claim to have won this confrontation.

The objectives which the US proposes to pursue in Syria must be precise and achievable if other countries are to join it. Is the mission just one of punishing the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons? That's not a very enticing proposition for other governments to support. Or is it a 90-day operation, as the US Congress is now asked to authorise, whose aim is to "degrade" the Syrian regime's military capabilities, as strategic planners in Washington are now claiming?

The lack of clarity about the purpose of the exercise has already resulted in one diplomatic debacle: the rejection by the British Parliament of any involvement in Syria. Britain's salutary experience is not one any other pro-US nation is willing to repeat.

Despite all these hurdles, the US can succeed in building up a coalition around its Syria operation. For Middle Eastern governments especially, the dangers of not being on America's side are often just as considerable as those of joining a half-baked US offensive.

But, as their coveted alliance is created, the Americans will be forced to become more explicit about what its purpose would be.

"Some (of our allies) have said that if the United States is prepared to do the whole thing the way we've done it previously in other places, they'll carry that cost," Mr Kerry said during a hearing in the House of Representatives last Wednesday.

That's the nearest he came to admitting that the ultimate objective of the coalition may be none other than a Syrian "regime change".

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com

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