Syria – Speak Loudly and Carry a Small Stick

Both France and the UK seem to be leading ‘we must do something’ crowd but for several years have been solidly reducing defence spending to such a degree that even if intervention in Syria were in the national interest, only swatting the arse of Syria is available as an option.

To do anything meaningful is going to take more than the resources on display during Operation ELLAMY and the cupboard is bare (and getting barer) so Uncle Sam will have to step in, again.

You can’t blame people in the US getting rather pissed off with being the worlds whipping boy AND bank manager at the same time when collectively, the nation states in Syria’s border are so unable to offer the full range of capabilities and at a scale to deliver a decisive intervention.

It is this inability to intervene meaningfully, and meaningfully means on the ground in a peace enforcement role, that results in the situation we find ourselves in now, namely, the last chicken in the shop option of having to support one nasty faction against another nasty faction except the first nasty faction has Mr WMD.

The simple reason we bemoan the fact that there are no good options has nothing to do with the situation on the ground but instead because we don’t have the ability to forge a good option by the application of sufficient force.

We recently saw the extent of European influence in Egypt, one can just imagine the corridors of power reverberating with the booming voice of Europe cancelled a handful of export orders!

The entire European External Action Service with its significant budget and supposed collective influence was reduced to issuing a statement and cancelling those orders.

That said, it is worthwhile looking back at the multi year, multi billion and multi lives lost intervention in Iraq, a nation that is currently descending ever deeper into its own brand of sectarian violence.

Perhaps the lack of options is not such a bad thing.

Whether intervening is in the national interest is open for discussion.

In the yes camp is collective responsibility as a grown up nation and permanent member of the UN Security Council, the fact that WMD’s should be seen as beyond the pale, their use should not go unpunished and regional stability is generally speaking, ‘a good thing’

On the other hand there is the opinion that Assad, however murderous and deserving of a rope, is probably better from our perspective than a collection of people who really hate us. Who would we prefer to have their hands on anti ship missiles, anti aircraft missiles and chemical weapons?

That is the uncomfortable truth.

Morals and national interest are never the best of bedfellows.

On top of that is the huge variety of unintended consequences of intervening by choosing one side in a civil war over the other.

The delicate balance of  regional and religious politics; Russia’s relationships, Qatari gas, Saudi oil, Iran, Israel, Turkey and Uncle Tom Cobbley and All mean that whatever we do someone, somewhere will be pissed off.

Despite the horrific scenes from the last few days my opinion is that we should stick to supporting our regional allies like Turkey, Israel and especially Jordan to manage the influx of refugees and maintain their borders. We should state this and that is that, our very own red line.

Some sense of ends, ways and means would be refreshing as well, especially the ends.

Whatever the arguments about national interests and whether ‘we’ should intervene in some way the simple fact remains that the reason there are no good options is because the collective ‘we’ of Europe have decided to reduce defence spending.

Despite the much diminished stick size we seem to be in the habit of talking a good un.

Making promises you can’t keep does the victims in Syria no good at all.

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August 25, 2013 11:11 pm

And now the penny drops; all of this- lets have CVF as just a large LPH, who needs deep strike capability, we have plenty of ISR assets. The UK is a militarily weak state and is thus borderline powerless in this scenario.

Of course what the UK and allies should be doing is ensuring both that this conflict is contained and perpetuated.

August 26, 2013 4:06 am

TD, The hypocrisy of the current government and the simple fact that David Cameron lacks any experience in anything is now coming back to truly haunt us. Gutting the military yet expecting them to intervene in even more situations sickens me.

That being said and despite the mess that was SDSR 2010 the UK is still in a place to make a meaningful contribution to any force. Unfortunately our EU allies continue to drop the ball including the French who lack many of the most basic capabilities one would expect from a “Global Power”.

If we are to intervene in Syria in anyway then it should only be as part of a broad coalition. I don’t want to see us get involved in Syria and I agree that the current regime is probably in our best national interest but I believe some action even a token one must be taken against them for using chemical weapons. I am happy with a few cruise missiles smacking into political targets with the knowledge that if he continues to use such weapons the strikes will get gradually worse and affect more and more of his military capability. I also think we should have some forces on the ground in Jordan and Turkey and the aid budget should be opened to help these two countries deal with the refugees. Might not be a bad idea to move some Typhoons to Cyprus as well for defensive purposes as well.

Brian Black
Brian Black
August 26, 2013 6:21 am

” It is this inability to intervene meaningfully, and meaningfully means on the ground in a peace enforcement role…”

Look at how many troops were needed in Iraq, and what they achieved in terms of enforcing peace and stability. Albeit a greater country in terms of population and area.

In a slightly more successful operation, NATO IFOR placed up to 54,000 troops on the ground in Bosnia. These were supported by an even larger body of troops outside Bosnia (substantially in Croatia and the Adriatic). Syria has five times the population of Bosnia in the mid nineties (4.5/22.5 million).

If peace enforcement in Syria is the yardstick for the required capability and scale of the British Army, then we have one or two changes we need to make at the next defence review.

August 26, 2013 6:52 am

To be fair, even if defence spending was in the 90% of annual budget range, you still will not get a good situation for intervention. Sure, you will have heaps of tanks and huge amount of troops for the entry, and it is almost a certain success, but it was never about the resources, it was about the fact that the whole situation is a snake pit and that going in ensures that you are stuck into yet another COIN bloodletting situation supporting “allies” who would rather see you dead than the enemy, multiple factions that have no fixed agenda on what they hope to achieve and a mostly urban battlefield almost sure to produce a fair bit of casualties.

Even if you had the money, the whole scenario is still a balls up.

John Hartley
John Hartley
August 26, 2013 8:14 am

I think it was this time last year, I first ranted that the best thing we could do for Syria, would be to take a few thousand of their teenage boys & put them in a giant scout camp on a Sovereign base in Cyprus. Get DfID to pay for it. Keeps these boys safe & out of the fighting. Also , when these lads grow up, they will be the clean hands, that can be the next generation of police chiefs, mayors, etc. Plus they will have happy thoughts towards Britain.
Much better than getting involved in a messy civil war, where there are few to no good guys.
As for Britain’s military weakness, where do you start? Only half the T45 we need & only half equipped. No ATBM SAM system. No maritime patrol aircraft. An army 20,000 too small for peacekeeping/peacemaking. No new medium armour. Typhoon missing Brimstone, Storm Shadow & conformal tanks. No small tactical nuke to deter major chemical attack. The list goes on. BTW wondering if Ian Fleming’s WW2 30 Assault unit might be needed now. Those Royal Marines were trained to go after tech. A modern version would be trained to go after Nuclear, Chemical & Cyber threats.

Red Trousers
Red Trousers
August 26, 2013 9:16 am

As much as this pains me, I think that the UK should do nothing kinetic. I don’t see any UK national interest at all in Syria, other than some general peace and fluffiness. It’s not an oil country, not on a trade route important to us, and it only really affects Israel, which doesn’t much affect us at all. On the other hand, if we piss off the Syrians, their co-religionists will take their side against us, and that does matter.

We don’t have the right sort of power in our deployable forces, or numbers, and it’s likely to go tits up after the kick in the door phase as Iraq and Afghanistan have done, because whatever our forces can do, what we cannot do is stop future generations of Syrians being poisoned about the west in the Madrassas.

This will sound harsh. Every so often there is some great natural disaster – earthquake, tsunami, hurricane or whatever, that kills hundreds of thousands. Let Syria be the same. After a while, it will stop, and we deal with whoever is on top at the end.

August 26, 2013 9:22 am

It’s simple, without USA, we don’t have the military means to do anything, politicians can say what they want, they are empty words.

August 26, 2013 9:55 am

RT, Frenchie – both points made just above are clear and supportable. But they are predicated on the Good Ole US of A remaining hands-off. I don’t think they will. And I think the reason for their willingness to get stuck into Syria is much the same as the reason they took arms against Iraq – their pals & buddies just down the coast feel threatened but don’t dare kick up rough (very wisely). Israel and the US are about as close as any two nation states could ever be. Closer than France & Germany; closer than China & North Korea. The US just cannot hold back when Israel needs – or believes it needs – support against its neighbours. As x wrote on the other Syria thread, there would be a bristling hostility among the local Arab states & populations should Israeli boots trudge over the Golan heights into southern Syria, even if the act was entirely for the most altruistic aims.

Israel I imagine is quite nervous of its out-of-control neighbour. But any action it decided to take would be throwing flaming matches into the powder-keg of mistrust harboured by the Arab community. Cue their best buddies the Americans…

So. The US must do something or else Israel might (with characteristic overkill) and the hostilities in the region would skyrocket. That being the case, and the US knowing little UK will always be there to help because it shows off the ‘special relationship’, where does that leave us now?

Not in a comfy place, I’ll wager.

August 26, 2013 10:06 am

Isnt the cynical option to pour weapons into Syria? We arm the “moderates”, this forces the Russians to supply Assad, and we try to make sure that as many of the worlds wannabe Islamist martyrs get sucked in and mashed between the two? If we try to arrange that Hezbollah get sucked in and bled dry then even better.
Difficulties with this
– Lebanon, but that is almost impossible to prevent
– the Gulf states supporting Islamists (but then that assists in getting them their to die)
– Turkey supporting anyone who fights the Kurds , smooth diplomacy required there.
– pinko liberal bleeding hearts (who always say we must do something but object to military power – odd lot). But then what options do we have that would improve the humanitarian situation? Boots on ground certainly wont.

August 26, 2013 12:55 pm

This is a repost from ‘Syria: is it time to intervene’ should the debate shift.

1) Ends, ways and means. We don’t know what we want, how we are going to accomplish it and how we are going to resource and pay for it.

2) After 15 years of pointless war and declining defence budgets our armed forces are being pared to the bone, losing capabilities and suffering holidays. The defence budget is *not* going to increase. The economy is *not* going to improve as the government has just implemented New Labour economics 101 redux. The more we fight now the less ability we will have later during a time when the rest of the world is getting stronger rapidly. This is *idiocy*.

3) If we keep going into wars on flimsy pretences against public sentiment eventually they will just say ‘if we can’t control how our politicians use the military, lose it’. In addition our future defence is heavily involved with Europe whether we like it or not and they will not support establishing strong armed forces if they are just going to be used frivolously and undemocratically.

4) Russia has an ally in Syria, we don’t. If we support Assad he will prioritise Russia. If we support the opposition they will turn on us once they win just as after the Soviet Afghanistan war.

5) This is not a humanitarian problem it is a strategic one. How many large scale humanitarian crises have happened in Africa alone in the last few decades without Western action? Syria is an opportunity to poke Russia in the eye, that is all.

6) This is not a chemical weapons WMD crisis that demands attention. Again I refer to Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran and the Kurds in the 1980′s. We did nothing because Iran was our enemy. This is not different.

7) Talk of red lines also holds no traction. The only reason it was even brought up was likely due to some conniving little shits trying to bypass public opinion and force intervention by backing us into a corner. We need to get our politicians and foreign policy staff under control.

8) If we intervene it dramatically increases the chance of retaliation. The terrorists fight for Islam. They might kill each other over sectarian differences but the moment they get a justification to join forces against non-believers they will take it with both hands.

9) The West is declining. That is a fact. We can’t just continue on and pretend things are fine. We need to consolidate our economies and forces, delegate responsibilities, develop a laser sharp focus on our national interests, and stop pissing around.

Mike W
August 26, 2013 4:14 pm


“It is this inability to intervene meaningfully, and meaningfully means on the ground in a peace enforcement role, that results in the situation we find ourselves in now,”


“The simple reason we bemoan the fact that there are no good options has nothing to do with the situation on the ground but instead because we don’t have the ability to forge a good option by the application of sufficient force.”

Pardon me for asking meekly, TD, but weren’t you, some time ago, in favour of a smaller Army and indeed, if it comes to that, smaller other forces too. I might have got this awfully wrong but I seem to remember hazily, you arguing something along the lines that reduced numbers would not necessarily reduce our capability. I think others took the same line.

If I am wrong, profuse apologies. If I am right, then the least we can do is aim for some consistency.

It would seem to me that quite a few chicken are coming home to roost. It is about time the recent defence cuts were looked at seriously again and, when the economy recovers sufficiently, a start should be made on restoring the strength of our Armed Forces.

RT sums it up admirably when he says,

“We don’t have the right sort of power in our deployable forces, or numbers, and it’s likely to go tits up after the kick in the door phase as Iraq and Afghanistan have done,”

August 26, 2013 4:39 pm

My take on it is that it really isn’t about numbers or power or tanks and guns, it’s more of the fact that the area is a balls up snake pit. Even if you had a million man army and deployed it all into Syria, won’t you simply get involved in a COIN operation again where you bleed from hundreds of paper cuts (IEDs/suicide bombers) and not a single big battle?

If you are taking losses for no particular reason or benefit, that itself is a losing battle, even with numbers and superior firepower.

Can the US, UK, France etc afford another Iraq or Afghanistan right now?

Personally, if evidence is found for Assad using chemical weapons, I’m all for a decapitation operation rather than military intervention/occupation. A drone or TLAM strike would keep it surgical, reduce unrest in Syria as the main boogyman is dead and sends a rather clear message of accountability.

Of course, that is pending an investigation. I’m still wary of automatically assuming Assad did it, especially since the rebels are the ones that gain the most if there is intervention. Muddy waters indeed.

August 27, 2013 9:56 am

Of course we shouldn’t go into Syria. Seriously, it shouldn’t even be open for discussion.
What UK national interests are endangered? None.
What UK citizens are endangered? Almost none; there are very few Brits left in Syria.
What UK allies are endangered? The only UK ally bordering Syria is Turkey and they seem fairly unthreatened.

The second we intervene in any way, everything that happens thereafter becomes Our Fault.

If we’ve got a few tens of billions of pounds to spare on improving the lives of the Syrian people – I didn’t think we did, I thought we were a bit short of cash, but apparently we do – I can think of better ways to spend it than on intervention. There are a load of refugee camps full of actual Syrians in Turkey and Jordan and Iraq. Maybe they could do with a few bob. But if we start flailing around it will do them no good and us much harm.

If we are very, very lucky, Syria will be no more dangerous than Iraq. Which means fifty casualties per deployment (dead and wounded) and an ongoing cost of several billion a year. What does that buy us? In ten years’ time, what will we have gained that will make us look back and say “well, muppet Cameron may have been, but at least he intervened in Syria, which was unquestionably the right move”?

Engineer Tom
Engineer Tom
August 27, 2013 10:33 am

The best option is a single strike to take out Assad, only problem is the US has failed to do this on numerous attempts against other countries and I don’t see them succeeding this time, though there could be a physiological effect from an attempt.

August 27, 2013 10:50 am

Not allowed to officially try to kill Heads of State are we?
However you could go for the more obstinate generals and ministers. Help along a coup option.
One wonders if someone lower down the chain might have authorised the CW use to raise the stakes and try to hurry up a removal of Assad?

August 27, 2013 11:36 am

I’m with ChrisM here – bumping off a head of state because you don’t like him, or because he might be complicit in bad things (but not proven so) is wrong. There is still a proportion of Syria’s electorate that supports Assad against the rebels, and those rebels are not entirely disaffected Syrians, rather an all-comers-welcome mostly Islamist, mostly anarchic freedom-fighteresque mob.

The grand desire to depose Assad by any means I suspect comes from his hardline stance in local and international affairs. Leaving aside a moment (if its possible) the internal conflict, its interesting to review Assad’s foreign policy statements. Wiki says (so it must be true) “In his foreign policy, Al-Assad is an outspoken critic of the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey” and “In a speech about the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict in August 2006, Bashar al-Assad said that Hezbollah had ‘hoisted the banner of victory,’ hailing its actions as a ‘successful resistance.’ He claimed that Arab resistance was growing stronger, and warned Israel that ‘your warplanes, rockets, and your atomic bomb will not protect you in the future.’ He called Israel an enemy with whom no peace could be achieved as long as they and their allies (especially the U.S.) support the practice of pre-emptive war.” Not hard to see why the US (and their best buddy Israel) want Assad out of the way, is it?

So I suspect the desire to remove this leader has existed for years, just waiting for a good enough excuse to act. As such, its been quite clear that the blame for use of chemical weapons was instantly and firmly hung around his shoulders, where most clear thinking people might wait for proof of culpability first – I know some here have stated the West *does* know already – maybe they are in positions of confidence in government and can see the evidence we mere public cannot. But for the moment I can see that both sides in the conflict, given access to the chemical agent, might try to use it to gain advantage – as such from the outside looking in I can’t state it had to be one side or the other. Especially since the rebel forces include factions that have entered Syria from far off lands, won’t have family ties to the locals, and have sanctioned mass murder of innocents before just to make their warped pseudo-religious political point.

Maybe the hardline Assad is seen as more dangerous than whatever rebel launched leader might replace him; I’m not convinced of that either. Regime change is a matter in this case for the Syrians. The use of banned weapons is something that needs dealing with, but first the source of the weapons, the faction responsible for their use, and the extent of further stocks needs to be determined. Jumping to conclusions and taking knee-jerk action against one party or another could make things much worse for the Syrians, and make things really bad for those states that launched such action.

August 27, 2013 11:44 am

The Pink Liberal in me says ‘we can’t let the poison gas genie out the bag coz next year they will all be doing it’. And ‘yuknow I feel a bit queasy at children being gassed in their beds and can’t help thinking it’s a bit wrong.

However the pragmatist in me say ‘what are we going to do?’ Realy What!

1)We would need to bomb the place to bits to get Assad, and of course our bombs will sometimes miss, or hit the wrong targets and Innocents will die. Even if that works for the first time in history.
2) We could invade- yea right! That’s not going to fall into a bloody (with the accent on the bloody)*mess that makes Iraq look well thought out.

In practice I think we should STFU there is no ‘good side to this for us. we should help Turkey and Jordan deal with the mess as it spills over but that’s about it.

Oh and a word for the WASAWPYK ers and Elephant fanciers. (This means you BOB)


That’s a good word we could be spending double our current amount on defence and still have nothing like the power:- in coalition or otherwise with anyone other than the spams, to do jack shit about it.


August 27, 2013 12:43 pm

“Maybe the hardline Assad is seen as more dangerous than whatever rebel launched leader might replace him; I’m not convinced of that either. ”

Not to us, certainly. Don’t forget his dad was actually on our side in GRANBY. The current one used to live here. No reason at all why he should be instinctively anti-UK. Anti-Israel, yes. But, since we aren’t Israel, that really isn’t our problem.

August 27, 2013 1:29 pm


Nonsense. The UK still has a top-ten economy and spends 2% of GDP on defence. A large part of our military weakness is direct product of poor spending not insufficient spending. The carriers are totemic of this.

El Sid
El Sid
August 27, 2013 2:47 pm

‘we can’t let the poison gas genie out the bag coz next year they will all be doing it’

That genie was let out of the bag 25 years ago (and 90+ years ago) – in neither case did it lead to widespread proliferation. In fact the West were telling Saddam where to send his shells full of chemicals :

And ‘yuknow I feel a bit queasy at children being gassed in their beds and can’t help thinking it’s a bit wrong.

Being Tomahawked in your bed ain’t great either, it leaves you just as dead. This latest incident in Syria is horrendous enough – but depending on whose numbers you believe, it’s only 1-2% of the civilian casualties in Iraq. The original problem is bad enough, but the “solution” can be worse.

August 27, 2013 3:26 pm

IXION and Bob, for what it’s worth (not very much, I know) you are both right.

Spending 4% of our GDP is unimaginable and still wouldn’t make us the US or China, but equally we would be a lot more influential if we spent our 2% better

August 27, 2013 6:04 pm

I posted this on the other Syria thread, but I think it’s worth posting it again, as some people seem to be completely overestimating Syria’s military capability. Also it is nonsense to say the UK could not make a significant contribution to any joint operation.

US Gen Jack Keane speaking on the BBC yesterday, “Cruise missiles launched from surface ships, submarines and aircraft, stand off from the Syrian coast, it renders the Syria air defence system quite irrelevant, we can take down Assad’s air force which is only a hundred fighter airplanes, about fifty of which are useable on any given day, he operates out of six airfields, two of those are where the Iranians and Russians resupply, so this is very achievable, in an evening or two to be able to conduct this kind of operation”.

Regarding the reduction from 12 T45s to 6, the French Navy will only have two Horizon AAW frigates when the two old Cassards are scrapped, so based on that 6 T45s would seem to be adequate for the RN, eight would have been better, but hopefully they will get 13 Type 26s/GCS.
The French have also cut their FREMM numbers to just eight, so the MN will only have ten “first rank” escorts plus the 5 La Fayette light frigates.
They have also abandoned plans for a second carrier, a fourth Mistral, and the Barracudas will be less capable and have a smaller loadout than the Astutes.
So French doom mongers really have something to moan about!

Deja Vu
Deja Vu
August 27, 2013 6:44 pm

TD RT etc. I agree. We should not make (or rather our political leaders should not make) threats that the world and his aunty know are effectively meaningless.

We don’t have a dog in this fight terrible though it is.

Syria was the location for the last cavalry charge by units of the British Army (against the Vichy French) sadly our ability to do more than add to the woes of the Syrians (bomb them for peace?) is of the same order of effectiveness. We should as TD says support the countries on Syria’s borders and try to keep them secure and assist with the horrendous refugee crisis.

Although, John Hartley’s suggestion is humane practical and affordable, and it ought to apply to girls as well as boys; if Syria goes the way of Iraq and Iran any such young people would be tainted by their period at Bloodhound Camp or wherever , and probably add to the vast number of Afghan, Iraqi, Iranian, etc refugees who can’t go home to theocratic states.

We in the UK are not directly threatened – not even by the use of poison gas – and we can reasonably say if the UN can not commit to intervention in spite of our encouragement, then we have done our best, and it is for others to resolve the issues with our support but not our leadership.

John Hartley
John Hartley
August 27, 2013 7:19 pm

Sorry, mind wandered again. Thinking of the VC10, fitted with 2nd hand sniffer pods (from a retired Vulcan/Victor?) that went to sample the air near North Korea after an alleged nuclear test. Can’t help thinking that a stealthy UAV (Taranis?) fitted with a sniffer pod could sneak over an alleged nuclear/chemical incident site at night & bring back real data, days before inspectors could get there on the ground.

August 28, 2013 8:52 am

Can’t help thinking that a stealthy UAV (Taranis?) fitted with a sniffer pod could sneak over an alleged nuclear/chemical incident site at night & bring back real data, days before inspectors could get there on the ground.

Hmm, maybe. I am not an expert but I think it might depend on which agent was used; if I remember my NBC lessons, some nerve agents are liquid or gluey droplets, not vapour, and so from 5000 feet overhead you might not be able to pick much up. You’d need a soil sample. Nuclear is different because you’ll have a fallout plume (unless it was an underground test of course).
You could always airdrop a little rover in to drive around at night sniffing for nerve agent, I suppose.

August 28, 2013 9:31 am

The problem is that it seems likely that Syria has used chemical weapons, which is reportedly against international law (I say reportedly because I am under the impression that not all nations have signed up). Probably pushing the envelope and seeing what they can get away with. The issue is, therefore, whether inaction will encourage others to use them in the future, not to mention further escalation by Syria. Either way is this in western interests? The best that can be said is ‘probably not’, and I suspect many would put it stronger.

It’s also worth noting that UK is particularly vulnerable to a riposte to half-arsed attempts at action. There’s an immobile UK airfield in Cyprus and other infrastructure and people as well. It’s well within range of any surviving Syrian aircraft, not to mention some of their reported Scud types. While early deployment of army AD will help against manned aircraft, Scuds would be a different matter (depending on their accuracy!).

Engineer Tom
Engineer Tom
August 28, 2013 10:56 am

Regards Cyprus we should have gone with the French and Italian’s when they developed the land system for Aster, if we want to buy it off the shelf now we will have to just go with their spec. Would give us commonality though.

Or we could try and get them to put one in Cyprus till it cools down.

All Politicians are the Same
All Politicians are the Same
August 28, 2013 11:08 am

Does anyone really think that the Syrian airforce is going to try and run the gauntlet of western maritime power between it and Cyprus and then in the very unlikely event any survive press home an attack against the fighter cover.
Far more likely to fly their aircraft to Turkey and defect.
Something like the Shahab 2 is more of an issue but given its accuracy and Russian influence in Cyprus would they risk it.

Engineer Tom
Engineer Tom
August 28, 2013 11:32 am

The Syrian Air Force is definitely not the threat, the missiles are, and as we have no long range air defence except for T45, which we can’t afford to berth in Cyprus as static air defence, we need to take the threat seriously.