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'The devil we know'

Interview: Ben Knight / cmk
September 1, 2013

A poor US response to unrest in Egypt could have emboldened Syria's president to use chemical weapons, John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org told DW. He adds that some in the United States want Assad to stay in power.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks next to Vice President Joe Biden (L) at the Rose Garden of the White House August 31, 2013, in Washington. Obama said on Saturday he had decided the United States should strike Syrian government targets in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack, but said he would seek a congressional vote for any military action. REUTERS/Mike Theiler (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Image: Reuters

DW: A lot of people have been wondering why Syrian President Bashar al-Assad carried out the poison gas attacks in the first place. Why would he do this if things seemed to be going his way?

John Pike: Maybe things were going Assad's way - but maybe Assad didn't think so. He has a big army, but they're all Sunni, at least most of the troops. Most of his army is politically unreliable. And I don't think Assad has many people in the field to begin with. He has politically reliable Alawite officers, but a lot of them have to stay in garrisons to make sure the troops don't mutiny.

The number of troops that he actually has who can go out there and engage with the enemy is not great. And this is city fighting, urban operations. Urban operations are really nasty. After two years of urban operations, his remnant of politically reliable officers may not have too much stomach for the fight. It may look like things are heading his way, but Assad may not think that.

What's going to happen now? Is this the beginning of the end for Assad?

It may be. I don't know. But it would be very difficult to deter him from using poison gas again if you don't know why he did it [on August 21]. I haven't heard anybody offer even a low-confidence explanation for why he did it. If we don't understand his motivation for taking an action that has galvanized the world, then I would say that we're in uncharted territory. We do not understand the motivations of one of the key players in this war.

A Tomahawk cruise missile being fired during the Iraq invasion
Just days ago, a cruise missile strike appeared imminent- now it could take weeksImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Given that, what do you think of Obama's statement on Saturday (31.08.2013)?

It reflects an extraordinarily novel constriction of the inherent authority of the commander in chief. The idea that he's creating a precedent for a military action of such extraordinarily limited nature is amazing.

The fact that he's asking for congressional approval?

To fire off 100 cruise missiles, yes. Bill Clinton would never have thought of that.

Do you think that if that vote had gone British Prime Minister David Cameron's way, Obama would have made the statement that he did on Saturday?

Quite possibly not. Of course, we are a presidential republic, not a parliamentary democracy. It's a different way of doing things. Cameron is simply the leader of the government, Obama is the commander in chief. But I don't think Obama knows how this vote is going to come out.

Will firing Tomahawk missiles have any effect on Assad? Will the US be able to destroy some of the chemical weapons with the missiles?

Of course not. With the conventional warhead on a Tomahawk, all that's going to do is disperse the poison gas. And let's say that Assad was [using poison gas] because he was losing his grip on power. In that case what we would do would be to target leadership facilities, target command and control. Target his personal security services. If he was worried about losing grip on power, we would loosen his grip on power. But Assad, all of a sudden, he's got a lot of people [in Washington] who admire him for being a bulwark against al Qaeda taking over Syria.

A lot of people now support Assad in Washington?

In this Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013 file citizen journalism image provided by the United media office of Arbeen which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, a member of a UN investigation team takes samples of sands near a part of a missile is likely to be one of the chemical rockets according to activists, in the Damascus countryside of Ain Terma, Syria. The intelligence linking the Syrian regime and President Bashar Assad to the alleged chemical weapons attack that killed at least 100 Syrians is no “slam dunk,” with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria's chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike, U.S. intelligence officials say. (AP Photo/United Media Office of Arbeen, File)
UN inspectors moved out of Syria on SaturdayImage: picture-alliance/AP

Yes - better the devil we know than the devil we don't. If we did anything to loosen his grasp on power, they would complain that we're running the risk of putting al Qaeda into power. So how do you calibrate a strike that would loosen his grip on power enough that he would be deterred from doing it again, but not so much as to embolden al Qaeda?

Part of my problem with this whole escapade is that you have no idea what to target unless you know why [Assad used poison gas] and what it would take to deter him from doing it again. This is fundamental to deterrence theory, but the way this whole thing has proceeded thus far is that Obama is trying to figure out how to do enough so that he won't look silly and so that people won't laugh at him for being timid, without doing so much as to actually alter the situation in Syria and running the risk that Assad might fall.

You're saying that Obama doesn't necessarily want Assad to fall?

There are a lot of people in Washington who don't. The problem they've got in Syria right now is that most of the rebels, most of the Free Syrian Army, they're just defending their neighborhoods. It's a thousand glorified neighborhood watches. They've put on a pretty good show with their machine guns and everything, but all they're doing is defending their own neighborhood. They will not leave their neighborhood to join the fight anywhere else, for fear that Assad's people will come in and massacre their women and children - a well-founded fear. There's really not much of a chain of command.

At this point, the concern is that in the absence of anything even remotely resembling a unified Syrian national army, or any sort of effective organization, when Assad eventually falls, the place is just going to be a big mess. It'll be Lebanon on steroids.

In that case, targeting the control centers and loosening Assad's powers, it's the least that Obama can do, without doing nothing.

Well, no. He could bomb airfields. Bombing air defenses, that's always a crowd pleaser. They're probably going to blow up the Defense Ministry since it's a physically prominent downtown building, and they'll probably be able to get a video of that blowing up.

An image grab taken from a video shows an opposition fighter firing an rocket propelled grenade (RPG) on August 26, 2013 during clashes with regime forces over the strategic area of Khanasser, situated on the only road linking Aleppo to central Syria. Rebels had in recent days captured several villages in Aleppo province, much of which is already in the hands of anti-regime fighters, before taking Khanasser, situated on the highway to Hama in central Syria, thus cutting the army's only supply route to the northern province. AFP PHOTO / SALAH AL-ASHKAR (Photo credit should read SALAH AL-ASHKAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Pike: the Free Syrian Army can be compared to 'a thousand glorified neighborhood watches'Image: Reuters/Afp/Salah Al-Ashkar

That's what this is about, then? PR and getting some good video?

Well, certainly - whatever else it does or does not do, it would have to do that.

I'll give you another theory on why Assad used poison gas on his own people: He thought he could get away with it. Assad thought Obama wouldn't do anything because he's been gassing his people on a small scale for the last year and Obama hasn't done anything.

You know the one thing that everybody in Egypt is united around, one idea they can all agree on? It's the Americans' fault. They all blame America for what has gone wrong in Egypt because over the course of the last couple of months, at one time or another, the Obama administration has embraced every conceivable position in Egypt. Assad may have looked at the administration's total incoherence on Egypt and said 'Well, these guys can't organize their way out of a paper bag. I have nothing to fear from them.'

So it may be that looking at Obama's performance on Egypt, Assad decided he really didn't have too much to fear from Obama. And I would say that given Mr. Obama's appearance in the Rose Garden, Assad might turn out to be a good judge of character.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, is a leading expert on defense, space and intelligence policy. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and previously worked for nearly two decades with the Federation of American Scientists where he directed, among others, projects in cyberstrategy, military analysis and intelligence resource.

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