An Ex-Intelligence Analyst’s Take on the Mess in Syria

chemical weapons libya

“All that is very well,” replied Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”

— François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire), Candide: Ou, L’optimisme

I teach Latin American history in Colorado, and write about the history of economic thought in hopes of one day claiming a hard-won doctoral degree from Columbia University. The crisis in Syria, it would seem, and the President’s call for intervention there, could hardly be farther from my daily concerns. But most of my professional life was very different. In fact this week’s events have seen the turbid confluence of almost everything I worked on from the time I finished college until the time I started graduate school. It’s been an unexpected and somewhat unwelcome opportunity to reflect on the value of experience, expertise, and good intentions.

I joined ROTC halfway through college. After intelligence officer training, my first real job in the military included modeling the effects of US munitions dropped or fired on chemical weapons production and storage facilities. We had software that let us draw maps of which way plumes of deadly gas would drift if a Tomahawk or a laser-guided bomb exploded in the basement, or on the roof, or just beside an exterior wall of a chemical weapons facility. Then we went out in the desert and tried it (with simulated agent, obviously), just to see if we were even close to right. Sometimes we were. Mostly it depends on what’s happening inside the facility, and the wind.

Around the same time I was helping plan and execute Operation Allied Force, the air campaign meant to support ethnic Albanian Kosovars in that southernmost province of Serbia, and to force Slobodan Milosevic to stop killing and “cleansing” them. (Actually planning and executing amounted to the same thing, since the “plan” basically boiled down to “so what can we do next, given that we have hundreds of unallocated sorties but no clear objectives?”) Kosovo apparently is the favored analogy of “experts” who advocate intervention in Syria, even though chemical weapons were not an issue in the former case, and that seems like a pretty important difference.

Another important difference surfaces when one asks what the ultimate aim of intervention in Syria would be. Is it a change in behavior? Milosevic didn’t change his behavior to something the US approved of immediately. Neither did Ghadaffi, or however you spell it. Would Assad? (Do we even know for sure what his behavior has been in this case? Who controlled the CW at the time of its release? My sense until Sunday was, no. Now an unclassified version of a strong assessment has been released, and shows none of the signs of tampering that were so painfully obvious in the run-up to the Iraq War. Is that enough to say we know?) Milosevic, in any case, had indeed done horrific things, and planned to do more. But when threatened he ducked his head and doubled down in Kosovo, and so the initial strike broadened to include Serbia and just about any target we could come up with…sometimes the same target over, and over, and over again, even if it wasn’t being rebuilt.  (Oh, and the Chinese embassy. Hello, precision!)  The point, after all, was to “send a message,” and also to “do something.”

Meanwhile Kosovo, let’s remember, was an ethnically-distinct outlying province with little more than symbolic significance, so Milosevic could pretty easily cut his losses and retreat back to Belgrade. Yet he held out for quite a while under our sustained aerial attack. His eventual ouster may have followed, but it certainly wasn’t inevitable, and I’d argue, not even a direct consequence. By contrast Assad and all the Alawi in the Syrian regime would have to abandon their capital Damascus—one of the oldest, most beautiful, and most important cities on earth—in order to retreat to blissful, completely secure retirement in…Ladhiqiyah? Where fellow Alawi who aren’t even part of the security apparatus are already being butchered by Sunni extremists among the rebels? Let’s be honest… Assad is fighting for survival. It’s a pretty different scenario from Kosovo.

My last intelligence job, before I left for grad school, was that of a branch chief and senior analyst in the Levant section of a national intelligence agency. At best one guy who did nothing but study Lebanon understood Lebanon even a little bit, so the rest of my analysts and I stuck to Syria. I got to know a lot about some parts of Syria, and in particular about the Assad regime, its security services, and its military. I read and thought about the place, its history, and its political dynamics every day. I thought and wrote and briefed about Syria when Assad withdrew from Lebanon, and when Israel attacked Lebanon following the Gilad Shalit affair. I thought and wrote and briefed about Syria when the Arab League met in Damascus, and Ghadaffi prophesied the demise of Arab authoritarian regimes, while Assad grinned awkwardly. I even explained Syria’s chemical weapons program to the general in charge of the defense agency that oversees US preparedness to neutralize what used to be called WMD. (It still is called WMD, but only in the media. The military and intelligence community call it CBRN weapons, for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear. Maybe CBRN sounds better in situation rooms, and WMD sounds better on TV.) And yes, there’s a whole agency for that; but it’s vital we slash the NEH budget by fifty percent.

I was thinking about Syria every day I was in Iraq, too, since I went there primarily to answer questions about the connection between the Assad regime and the flood of so-called “foreign fighters” coming into western Iraq and fighting with or alongside al Qaida in Iraq (AQI) after 2006. (Why so many after 2006, I sometimes ask my students? I allow them to think about what was happening that year. They think. They realize they have no idea, because they were ten years old…but we all remember, of course. Abu Ghraib, and those photos, and the thousands of Muslims from all corners of the earth who could tell you with absolute accuracy what the US was doing to fellow Muslims in its military prisons.) So now those foreign fighters, and some of the Iraqi insurgents who’ve been in arms ever since de-Baathification, have gone back across the border into Syria, by all accounts making up a significant portion of the insurgency, and doing horrific things to enemy soldiers and to Syria’s religious minorities.

So here I am, for the past week listening to almost everyone in the country talk about almost all the things I’ve done over the course of my professional life: aerial attack on chemical weapons, the Syrian regime, the Kosovo precedent, the lessons of Iraq, the anti-Assad insurgency. And I’m sitting in Colorado teaching young, would-be Air Force officers history. (The Caribbean phase of Spanish conquest tomorrow morning, and the history of ancient India in the afternoon.) It’s weird, but to be honest I feel a little left out, and just slightly resentful that my old office in Washington hasn’t called me up, desperate for my penetrating insights. Ah well, expertise is a cheap commodity inside the beltway. Anyway there are many others with a great deal more expertise than me who still make these questions their daily bread and butter, and we can be sure they’re informing the debate and the contingency planning, both. Can’t we?

If you read this far, you’re probably wondering if there’s a point. I have something to confess: there isn’t one. I’m only writing to try and get my head around one thing that has me worried. The thing that has me worried is that I don’t have any idea what we can do right now to stop the horror the Syrian population is living in. Why? Why don’t I know? Shouldn’t I, given how well my past training and experience line up with our latest national endeavor? What does it say about my life that I don’t? And not knowing, what do I do about this urgent emotional need to do something?

Well. It bothers me that I can’t think of a viable solution, but I do have a couple of concrete ideas. They’re small, admittedly. Maybe humiliatingly small, for a Great Power. But they’re things we could do that would line up pretty well with our professed values, that are realistic and achievable, that we can afford, whose consequences we can predict, and that have very little chance of causing further harm.

We could help take care of refugees. Give support to the countries that are taking them in, and help move them to other countries that would shelter them, including this one. When I knew a lot about Tomahawks, back in the 90s (TLAMs, they were called), they cost a little over a million dollars each. Consider inflation and what not. Plus the cost of moving into place the ships and subs that fire the missiles; plus the salaries of the personnel who load and maintain and target and launch and assess the effects of the TLAMs, spread all over the globe, and the salaries of the people who negotiate contracts to buy new ones at new, higher prices. Now, I’m the last person on earth to trust the market to determine value—especially so imperfect a market as the market in sub-launched cruise missiles, which, as you can imagine, isn’t terribly competitive or transparent. But however much one cruise missile launch costs would, I’m guessing, buy a lot of good for refugees and their children. And there will be more than one. There will be more than anyone is planning for, except Raytheon.

Another thing we could do is finally sign on to the International Criminal Court (ICC). We would be affirming that we really do believe autocrats who murder their own citizens in particularly grisly ways (as opposed to the standard ways freely available to autocrats and “democrats” alike) ought to be subject to the judgment and punishment of international law. Would the ICC get Assad? Who knows. Maybe someday. Maybe never. But at least he’d be indicted, and would have to plan to spend his retirement somewhere other than the Costa del Sol, should it come to flight. And yes, on the downside (depending on your point of view), that might mean Rumsfeld and Cheney and even Kissinger would have to answer charges in the court someday. But so what? Get a lawyer. By supporting the ICC the US would be saying precisely what it seems we want to say: that gassing one’s own civilian population isn’t ok. But we’d also be saying that unilateral attacks based on semi-informed outrage are something we as Americans try to avoid. Wouldn’t that feel good, for a change.

I started writing these melancholy reflections down last week. As of the weekend, it seems if the White House does decide to “do something” that will make us feel better about ourselves—that must be the real objective, at least in part—there will be some hurdles to clear. British Prime Minister David Cameron, having pledged previously to support US military action in Syria, put the motion to a vote in Parliament, which rejected it. The next day President Obama walked back what had seemed an imminent strike, and agreed to bring the issue before Congress. It faces an uncertain future there. The president’s most persuasive critics point out that the delay makes a military strike on the chemical weapons and supporting forces more difficult, and they’re almost certainly correct. His most dedicated critics, meanwhile, have abandoned their birtherism (momentarily, no doubt), the better to decry a secret Qaeda-Obama axis bent on destroying America and restoring the Caliphate. What will happen when Congress reconvenes next week is anyone’s guess.

The unexpected, transatlantic turn to legislative deliberation is welcome, but it’s still disturbing that none of these parties has called to consult with me, either. In light of that, how do I evaluate a decade of professional life that has boiled down to a single blog post? What was it worth? Maybe here my military and intelligence career does, finally, intersect with what I consider my vocation—studying and teaching history. Intelligence analysis calls for diagnosing pathologies; history demands attention to the unique and particular on its own terms. Policy-making calls for problem solving; history demands respect for the law of unintended consequences. Intervention requires optimism; history demands humility.

It seems to me there is one more concrete, damn near indisputable conclusion history insists I draw from the sound and fury and self-doubt inside my head this week. It is high time I learned how to garden.

Eric Frith is a doctoral candidate in Latin American history at Columbia University, and a former intelligence officer in the US Air Force. He graduated from Baylor University and earned his MA at Old Dominion University. His research focuses on the history of political and economic thought in the Atlantic world, and the emergence of the economy as a distinct field of knowledge in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He also has written about religion and politics in the modern world, and has begun work on a history of suicide. He currently lives and teaches in Colorado Springs.