In the spring of 2002 I was in command of a CIA base in the mountains of Northern Iraq. I and the men and women assigned to the base had been there almost nine months when the air war against Saddam commenced. Operating in concert with our Kurdish allies, we had a number of missions. As the conventional war, began, however, a large portion of our energies began to be dedicated to identifying Iraqi targets for strikes by American aircraft and missiles.
This was difficult work. The Iraqis were not fools. They understood that we controlled the air. They had a full appreciation for the accuracy of our weapons and the ease with which we could destroy any target we could pinpoint.
To counter this overwhelming advantage, the Iraqis turned to deception. Whenever possible they displaced operations, troops and munitions to previously undisclosed locations. This was not a matter of moving personnel and equipment from one military facility to another. Entire headquarters were packed up, moved and relocated into commercial or residential buildings, with no indication of a military affiliation. Movement was made whenever possible using civilian vehicles commandeered for the purpose. An intelligence unit that had previously been located on a well known Iraqi army base in Mosul would displace and open up shop in an ordinary home in a residential neighborhood miles away.
Detection of this kind of activity from the air was difficult. Signals intelligence was also of limited utility. The Iraqis understood our ability to intercept communications as well as they understood our air power. They stayed off the radio.
Even so, we enjoyed significant success in finding the locations to which the Iraqis had displaced and calling air strikes on them. We did so, because we had for months in advance of the beginning of the air war, trained, equipped and deployed teams of native assets into Iraqi territory. Dozens of these teams operated on Iraqi soil, and those eyes on the ground were not fooled by the use of commercial trucks to move personnel and munitions, nor did they rely on signals intercepts to help them find where the personnel and munitions had gone.
Now think about attempting to pull off the same trick in Syria. Ponder for a moment if you will the feasibility of attempting to track all of the chemical weapons in Syria, confirm their locations, determine what portion of those munitions may or may not have been turned over to United Nations inspectors, and what portion may simply have been moved and hidden away. Think about in what level of detail you would need to understand the situation on the ground to even begin to evaluate the extent to which the Syrians were or were not acting in good faith and attempting to comply with the terms of an agreement to divest themselves of all chemical arms.
I'll save you the trouble.
It can't be done. Sign whatever deal you want. You will never, ever, possibly know where all the chemical weapons have gone, what portion was turned over, and what portion remains secreted away.
The Syrians understand our capabilities every bit as well as the Iraqis ever did. They will move weapons. They will hide them. They will do it by night. They will do it in commercial vehicles using personnel in civilian clothing. They will hide the weapons in locations, which appear to have no military purpose of any kind. They will bury them.
The Syrians will exploit their other advantages as well. We do not have dozens of well-trained, well-equipped intelligence teams inside Syria. Inspections pursuant to any "disarmament" deal will not be carried out by American military personnel. The United Nations will carry the water on this. There will be limited numbers of personnel. They will go where the Syrians allow them to go. They will go when the Syrians allow them to do so. They will see what the Syrians allow them to see.
And this will take place on the ground in the middle of a nation wracked by civil war.
All of this is, of course, largely beside the point. We may wish now to maintain the fiction that this is a serious proposal designed to address the problem posed by Assad's chemical arsenal. That does not make it so. All of this is a giant, apparently highly effective, trap designed by the Russians and the Syrians to ensnare us and so mire us down in discussions, inspections and endless debate in the United Nations so as to prevent us from ever taking any effective action against the Syrian regime.
The agreement reached last week by the United States and Russia provides as follows. Within a week Syria will provide a list of its chemical weapons, storage facilities and production sites. Inspectors will arrive in Syria in November. Destruction of chemical weapons in Syria will begin sometime in 2014 with the goal of being completed by the middle of that year.
The Syrians will begin this process by providing us with a list of what they are willing to give up and locations they are willing to divulge. Inspectors will be allowed to go to the places on that list, inventory the items the Syrians have decided they are willing to lose and then begin the long and laborious process of attempting to figure out how to destroy hundreds of tons of chemical agents in a country at war.
Each and every time anyone attempts to challenge the inventory provided by the Syrians or to inspect locations not listed as chemical munitions storage sites, we will hit another roadblock. The Syrians will refuse. Their Russian backers will support them. There will be more negotiations. More time will pass. Inspectors may or may not ever be allowed to visit sites not on the original list. If they are it will make no difference. Nothing of significance will remain.
Abu Shahab in Damascus Syria, who is a member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), one of the key groups fighting the Assad regime. Shahab is pictured here speaking with Charles Faddis of The United States of Common Sense. | Photo: Aaron Stipkovich | Abu Shahab, Free Syrian Army, Bashar Al-assad, Rebel, Freedom,
The Syrian regime is many things. It is brutal, cold and calculating. It is not composed of idiots. United Nations inspectors will go where Assad wants them to go. They will see what he wants them to see.
We will be dragged through endless rounds of discussion, meetings, delays and press releases. Meanwhile, tangled in this web, and having defined the issue as Syria's use of chemical weapons only, we will be powerless to affect the larger issue on the ground. The inspectors will drive around in circles and plod their way toward the eventual destruction of some, probably small, portion of Assad's chemical arsenal. As they do so the wholesale slaughter of Syrian civilians with bombs, rockets, artillery, assault rifles and machine-guns will go forward unchecked.
The question of whether or not to intervene in Syria and, if so, in what fashion is a difficult one. It ought not to be reached hastily, and, quite frankly, it may well be that at this point in our history involvement in yet another conflict in the Middle East is simply not in our national interest.
What is not in question is the gross mishandling of this crisis over the last few weeks. We have lost prestige. We have been made to look like fools. We have almost unbelievably found a way not only to make ourselves look weak and feckless but also to make Vladimir Putin look powerful and wise.
We have stumbled blindly into a morass. We will not extricate ourselves quickly or cleanly.