What could go wrong if we attack Syria?

Summary: Lost amidst the details and blather about our proposed attack on Syria is the possibility that we might get hurt. More accurately, that our grand strategy makes a severe defeat highly likely. If not in this crises, then in one of the future crises our policies seek out — and even create as needed.

Keep Calm: Set World on Fire

“Early and provident fear is the mother of safety.”
— Edmund Burke to the House of Commons, 11 May 1792

“Fear cannot be without hope nor hope without fear.”
— Baruch Spinoza, Ethics (1677)


  1. What could go wrong?
  2. A note from the past?
  3. About our military
  4. For More Information

(1) What could go wrong?

“Fear is sharp-sighted, and can see things underground, and much more in the skies.”
— Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605-1615)

US foreign policy has been one of bellicose response to all challengers, trusting on the support of our allies, the weakness of our foes — and their inability to work together. We consider it a winning formula in the sense that the only serious blowback was 9-11. So far.

On the other hand, our contempt for diplomacy has quickly escalated many confrontations into military conflicts — most of which we lose (see section 3). We lose in the sense of achieving no national goals, paid for by dead and crippled soldiers and wasted resources. These loses are tolerable for a nation of our size and vigor, and domestic political dynamics keep this system running despite its 50+ years of failure.

This policy is the equivalent of Russian Roulette with a revolver of many chambers. The odds of disaster are small for any individual intervention. If continued long enough we will find a chamber with a loaded cartridge, starting a chain of events with large, unpredictable, and probably unpleasant results. We need not speculate at how events in a small nation can shake the world. The last century provides a clear example with the assassination on 28 June 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo by six Bosnian Serb assassins.

(2) A note from the past reminding us of what can happen

“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
— John F. Kennedy, inaugural address on 20 January 1961

In hindsight WWI was the inevitable result of growing tensions in Europe — tensions that the great nations not only failed to resolve, but repeatedly played upon. William Lind explains

Syria: you're next


One pebble touched off an avalanche. It did so because it occurred, not as an isolated incident, but as one more in a series of crises that rocked Europe in its last ten years of peace, 1904-1914. Each of those crises had the potential to touch off a general European war, and each further de-stabilized the region, making the next incident all the more dangerous.

  • 1905-06 saw the First Moroccan Crisis, when the German Foreign Office (whose motto after Bismarck might well be “Clowns unto ages of ages”) pushed a reluctant Kaiser Wilhelm II to land at Tangier as a challenge to France.
  • 1908 brought the Bosnian Annexation Crisis, where Austria humiliated Russia and left her anxious for revenge.
  • Then came the Second Moroccan Crisis of 1911,
  • the Tripolitan War of 1911-1912 (Italy actually won, against the tottering Ottoman Empire) and
  • the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.

By 1914, it had become a question more of which crisis would finally set all Europe ablaze than of whether peace would endure. This was true despite the fact that, in the abstract, no major European state wanted war.

The tragedy is that the great powers were not alarmed by these crises, but took comfort from their resolution. Signs that their foreign policies were destabilizing Europe were interpreted as success (or at least tolerable patchwork).

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson found a measure of their complacency: the prices of UK bonds (gilts). The Archduke was assassinated on June 28. Slowly the diplomatic tensions grew through July. But gilt prices remained undisturbed until City investors read of the mobilization orders. Then they panicked, and markets imploded. For details see “Political risk and the international bond market between the 1848 revolution and the outbreak of the First World War“, Economic History Review, February 2006.

We see the same today, as the US plans to attack yet another small country embedded in the complex cross-cutting alliances of the troubled and economically vital Middle East. Politicians squawk, but Americans remain apathetic and unconcerned. As they will be about the next crisis, and the next. Until one spirals out of control. An insane policy remains so even as it is repeated without disaster.

(3) A note about our defense policy, and about our foreign policy (but I repeat myself)

“For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
— Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism (1711)

The short answer is that 4GW is the dominant form of war, and we have not learned to play. We are the 1940 French preparing to fight the jihadists blitzkrieg (ie, 2GW vs 3GW). if we continue to attack nations while they’re minding their own business, interfering in their civil wars, eventually we will spark a the world’s first global 4GW. Like the great wars of 1GW, 2GW, and 3GW, it will shake the world in unpredictable ways.

Fred Reed gives a more entertaining analysis in “Disordered Ramblings on Martial Prowess“, 18 August 2013. He’s not looking ahead. Almost nobody looks ahead, which is why the future so often surprises when it arrives. Excerpt:

As a student of abnormal psychology, or psychology that ought to be abnormal but lamentably is not, I´m listening to PJ O´Rourke´s Peace Kills on American foreign policy. I think PJ needs his head examined, as regards military policy anyway, which is pretty much the only foreign policy we have.

… Like so many of our parlor ferocities at National Review (PJ is not one of these, being an actual overseas correspondent), he believes that America is an international Charles Atlas, a motingator, astonishous, gleaming military monster such as the world has never seen (and did not ask to). This is because he equates military expenditure with martial capacity. He refers proudly to the size of the military budget.

… He doesn´t understand the American military — that it is in the position of one of those toothy late-Cretaceous humongo-lizards, Tyrano-whatsit or something, uneasily eyeing a thin film of ice forming on the home swamp. “Something is happening,” thinks the big fellow. “I wonder what? Will I like it? Can dinosaurs wear sweaters?”

… You gotta understand the ice on the swamp, and what it means. When you need a sweater, you need a sweater and not some other thing. The Pentagon has the wrong things. It is glorious and glitters and has many buttons and screens. It is just the wrong military. The great Chinese strategist Fred Tzu once said, “Never use a broadsword to fight a swarm of pissed-off hornets.” Exactly. You have to understand the enemy. Otherwise you are in trouble and can´t understand why. If you are a behind-the-times sort of dinosaur, the rats are going to eat your eggs. If you are an American infantry battalion, sneaky little guys behind rocks are gonna blow hell out of your up-armored Humvee with the revolving IR heads.

… The world´s most magnificent budget got run out of Nam like a scalded dog … The same highly trained martial codpiece got run out of Lebanon with 241 Marines dead, run out of Mogadishu by teenagers with armed pickup trucks, performed a comedy routine trying to rescue hostages in Tehran, lost in Iraq, and works diligently at losing in Afghanistan.

… Multibillion dollar ratpacks of hugely expensive fighter planes are splendid fun, and say “Varoooooom!” Good stuff, that. They really are the best in the world, and nothing can stay in the sky with them. Ah, but they are fighters with nothing to fight. The Pentagon’s problem is Ahmet the Wiley Wog who hides behind a rock with his RPG and keeps blowing up trucks full of GIs. Ahmet isn´t too flashy. He doesn´t have a conformal phased-array radar and isn´t supersonic. But he has clanking brass balls and wads of determination Oops.

That´s the story of our whole military shebang: gaudy but mostly irrelevant. North Korea does something that upsets Washington´s digestion, so we send the aircraft carriers. These float fiercely offshore, doing nothing, because there is nothing they can do. They either

  • attack, risking all-out war on the Peninsula, not a particularly bright idea since Pyongyang has all the artillery in the world within range of Seoul, or
  • float in puzzlement and circles while North Korea ignores them.

See? Wrong tool. Washington hasn´t figured this out, so it always sends the bathtub toys.

… Current Pentagonal thinking, if that is quite the word I want, is to impose Full Speculum Dominance, I believe it´s called, and control the world. A Full Speculum is full of very pricey fighters of little military use, marvelous warships of little military use, and glorious tanks of little military use. They chiefly serve to get us in trouble in places where we should not be in the first place.

Globe of Fire

(4) For More Information

“One will rarely err if extreme actions be ascribed to vanity, ordinary actions to habit, and mean actions to fear.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (1878)

Posts about Syria:

Posts about 4GW:

  1. A solution to 4GW — the introduction
  2. How to get the study of 4GW in gear
  3. Why We Lose at 4GW – About the two kinds of insurgencies
  4. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — solutions to 4GW
  5. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — 4GW analysts
  6. Visionaries point the way to success in the age of 4GW
  7. 4GW: A solution of the first kind – Robots!
  8. 4GW: A solution of the second kind
  9. 4GW: A solution of the third kind – Vandergriff is one of the few implementing real solutions.
  10. About Fourth Generation Infections – Chet Richards explains the nature of outlaw organizations in the 21st century
  11. About the 4GW between India and Pakistan, 6 January 2009
  12. 4GW in India – more people who want to watch the world burn, 19 January 2009
  13. The War Nerd shows how simple 4GW theory can be, 22 January 2009
Source: Syed Zaid Zaman Hamid



31 thoughts on “What could go wrong if we attack Syria?”

    1. North,

      You point to one of the great oddities of the War on Terror, even odder that it so seldom remarked: we are overthrowing secular regimes that are not hostile to us, which are replaced by Islamic regimes — often ones with large fundamentalist elements. Afghanistan (during the Cold War), Iraq, Libya, now Syria. This does not make any sense.

      This war is mad in so many ways.

    2. We seem to get ourselves in a quasi-theological lather about morality and human rights. Without asking ourselves what is in the best interest of the target nation and our own. This has the look and feel of domestic red meat morality issues promoted by tea party types.

  1. Pingback: eatbees blog » Syria, You’re Next!

  2. Fred does not look ahead but he sure can wordsmith the Now.

    He is a fine example of what experience and years can bestow, no longer living in America and no longer watching the Media Regime-Mouthpieces here in the old USA.
    Americans are, as a whole decent folk, but also very adolescent in their views on Reality and terribly naive about their dear Republic and all its underpinning institutions. Oh so hopeful and trusting as a subset of humans.

    If Obama loses the Vote and goes right on ahead (does he really have a choice, now?), once again the American Human will get a chance to see the naked Emperor riding in plain sight. Maybe, just maybe a few more of these such Obvious Displays will awaken the children of America. Can it be possible?

    Who can say? Who knows what is up ahead? Thx for the Post.


  3. “We consider it a winning formula in the sense that the only serious blowback was 9-11. So far.”

    How quickly they forget! With the greatest respect, FM, I’d hardly call 9-11 the only serious episode of blowback we’ve experienced. It’s merely the most serious one so far (with repeated emphasis on the words “so far”).

    What about the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979? Even though no lives were lost, I’d call that a fairly serious example of blowback since it was in response to our disastrous decision to give refuge to the exiled Shah as well as resulting from lingering resentment over Operation Ajax — the coup we (by way of the CIA) staged in Iran in 1953 which deposed and imprisoned the newly-elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and reinstated the Shah. (In fact, it’s now thought that the hostage crisis was motivated by the belief that the Americans were planning to reinstate the Shah a second time in much the same way that we had done in 1953.)

    What about the bombing of the USMC barracks in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983? Especially since 241 American military personnel lost their lives on that occasion, I’d also call that a significant example of blowback since it was supposedly in response to America’s support of the Israeli operation Peace For Galilee in which Israel invaded Lebanon in order to (supposedly) keep forces from Syria and the PLO separated.

    It could even be argued that the First Gulf War might be an example of blowback because there are those who believe that Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was an indirect result of our decision to support Hussein from behind the scenes in his war against Iran by supplying him with funding and materiel…with the result that Hussein continued to fight to the point that he nearly bankrupted his country, causing him to set his sights on annexing Kuwait so that he could use their resources in order to shore up the Iraqi economy.

    There are other examples (such as the bombing of the USS Cole, which also resulted in loss of life even though those losses were comparatively minimal). In fact, the truth is that United States has such a positively uncanny ability to generate blowback for itself — combined with a evident inability to learn from our mistakes — that one is inclined to suspect at times that we’re deliberately generating future trouble for ourselves so that we can continue to justify the existence (and ever-increasing expansion) of the juggernaut that is the Military Industrial Complex.

    1. Bluestocking,

      While these are are valid examples, I was using blowback in a narrow sense: strikes at the homeland in response to our overseas military involvement (this was not clearly stated).

      That is, it is not blowback in the usual sense when we send troops to a foreign country and the locals counterattack. That stretches the word beyond useful meaning.

      The Iranian hostage crisis is certainly blowback to US policy! But not blowback to US military strikes at Iran.

      The first attack (1993) on the WTC was blowback in the sense I described. But at only six deaths, it was too small to attract notice in the US, barely qualifying as a mass shooting (5+) — barely newsworthy in our blood-soaked nation.

  4. Two thoughts. Here is the first:

    Why are we screwing around with Syria while the Mexican drug lords lurk to the South?

  5. My second thought:

    Syria is somewhat like Libya.

    As a result of Libya, the entire Sahara Desert has morphed into a huge Sherwood Forest, where various terrorists, drug smugglers, and others lurk. (Think generally the bar scene in Star Wars. )

    A good book to grasp the nexus between Latin American drug lords, Africa, and Europe is Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s fictional Queen of the South:

    “The drug trade throughout Mexico, Latin America, and the Mediterranean come alive in Arturo Perez-Reverte’s latest novel, quite different from his intellectual mysteries. Here he writes the “biography” of Teresa Mendoza, a young woman from Sinaloa, Mexico, who becomes the mastermind of a multimillion dollar drug empire operating from Marbella, Spain. This novel’s challenge lies not in an intellectual puzzle, but in understanding the business networks Teresa builds with drug lords from Russia, Italy, Morocco, and Colombia, along with various agents of government whom she buys off. As she becomes a successful businesswoman, known as “The Queen of the South,” the suspense develops: Will she stay alive? And how?”

    With Libya, we are talking cocaine smuggling from Latin America, while Syria would be heroin smuggling from Afghanistan. But same thing, basically.

    1. Preaching to the choir here. Ugh, yeah, the whole thing makes me sick. America leaves a trail of anarchy, inter-ethnic warfare and chaos.

      Maybe this is a small bright spot. In face of all the war hysteria on CNN and other news networks, people are starting to see it. The polls have been substantially against this war; the calls into Washington, also, massively against this war. If the government goes in, they do so without the support of the majority of the public.

  6. I really want to see Obama go in. Tomahawks, Cruises, the whole deal. Exposé this mad Country to the entire World; cause a complete re-assessment of all the faux myths that surround this bellicose Government and it’s hubris since the aforementioned overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian.

    As we have seen with the NSA and Snowden, the more They Protest the more obvious is the sheer amnt of Lies that emanate from these destructive people who inhabit the halls of power.

    There is nothing that will stop the madness emanating here. Congress? Supreme Court? A Political Party? All these people respect is power and $$$ and most of us have very little of either.

    Wishful thinking, exhortations to action and denial will not budge the Reality. Perhaps an exogenous set of events.

    Good luck.


    1. My guess (emphasis on guess): Obama will attack Syria. No big events, either good or bad. Then forgotten.

      But it is a gamble. One that if repeated will turn out badly for us. Perhaps now, perhaps later.

    2. Obama attacks Syria and massive humanitarian disaster follows — a big bad event. America doesn’t care, but some do. For US interests the big bad already happened, and that was the vote in the UK parliament. Really, with each attack (and the NSA stories) the USA becomes more isolated.

      1. Cathryn,

        I doubt we’ll do anything that substantially adds to the damage done by the civil war. That’s not a justification for our actions, of course. But it is a contrast with the massive damage we inflicted on Iraq, without much in the way of offsetting benefits.

    3. Fabius,

      If what we’re talking about is American culpability, I think we’re already in pretty deep there. America is already very culpable for the unprecedented destruction that has unfolded in Syria, seeing as our allies have aided and organized the rebellion from the very beginning under a coordinated plan that we are responsible for, and seeing as we have repeatedly and consistently sabotaged all attempts at a negotiated settlement.

      As for the bombing, I seriously doubt that the Pentagon would start a bombing campaign in Syria without keeping it up at least long enough to turn the tide in favor of the rebels. That is, indeed, the entire point.

      I’d be willing to bet the gas attack is a contrived incident and that the intelligence linking it to Assad is completely fabricated. This may come into the public view after a few years, in spite of best attempts at track-covering.

      1. Matt,

        “seeing as our allies have aided and organized the rebellion from the very beginning under a coordinated plan”

        I remain skpetical of this. Evidence?

    4. Skeptical of which part?

      (1) The possibility that the US/US allies could have had a role in sparking the rebellion.
      (2) That US allies provided substantial aid, both material and intelligence/diplomatic, from the very early stages of the rebellion.
      (3) That the US has had a significant role in coordinating and guiding the actions of its allies, from the very beginning.

      If we can narrow it down like this I will try to provide some evidence. I don’t really keep a file on the Syria case, but I will do the best I can.

      1. I am highly skeptical of #1, moderately of #3.

        There are of course numerous precedents, so these things are not impossible.

        By allies, I mean western powers. The Saudi and Gulf Princes are another matter entirely.

  7. “Supporting the Terrorists

    Barack Obama and John Kerry are not fighting terrorism. Quite the opposite: They are actively supporting Al Qaeda terrorists in Syria, who are responsible for the most despicable crimes, killings and atrocities directed against the civilian population. These crimes have been amply documented. Beheadings, executions of children. The most gruesome massacres.

    The Al Nusrah brigades have performed thousands of executions. A recently released video reveals how two young boys are executed following the reading of a death sentence.”In the video can be seen a terrorist reading death sentence to the boys, gunfire is heard, boys fall dead.”


    See the above Post.

    What is truly fascinating to me ( granted I am a bit naive still!) is how this regime running the US Government now, can continue to simply lie to the Public day after day. I mean they all emerge from Closed Doors, Sens and Reps and such and spew the very same falsehoods in unison. Watch Feinstein, Pelosi, Boehner, Cantor, McCain et.al. It started in the 60’s and maybe late 50’s and was exposed by Sy Hersh and W Cronkite then. Today? An Econ Prof from Canada; bravo but what a comment that is on this deluded Country!

    Good luck raising your children with this level of Dishonesty and basic lack of Integrity at the highest levels. Do you realize what happens when basic trust is lost in human affairs? It rarely is re-established. Was not always that way,folks.


  8. “Trust is essential for society to function…”


    Game over. All the discussion and such will be to no avail. Go back and recall TARP, TALF and Paulson and Kashkari. Bear, AIG Financial. Have fun Americans as that is about all you will have left to do. Get it while you can. You were warned and played around hoping for your little slice of $$$$.


  9. FM remarks:

    we are overthrowing secular regimes that are not hostile to us, which are replaced by Islamic regimes — often ones with large fundamentalist elements. Afghanistan (during the Cold War), Iraq, Libya, now Syria. This does not make any sense.

    It makes perfect sense if the goal of the American military-surveillance-prison-industrial-security complex is to perpetuate endless unwinnable low-intensity wars everywhere in the world forever, the better to justify limitless funding for more DHS spendings, more Pentagon spending, a bigger army and navy and air force and marine corps, more Buck Rogers technomarvel weapons, and ever more ticket-punching promotions and medals and bureaucratic empire-building by all those generals and colonels and senior intelligence analysts and DHS goons.

    1. The extraordinary evidence is the fact that we are doing it, repeatedly. That puts us back to the same, familiar question: Is it more plausible that the deciders are incompetent fools, making the same mistakes time and again? or that they are getting something close to the results they want, but are dishonest about their goals?

      Regarding the details, there may be more plausible hypotheses than Mr. More’s. I suspect most are equally despicable.

      1. Coises,

        For good reason Barbara Tuchman gave her book the title The March of Folly. And that one of the greatest history books is called Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

        Assuming rationality might be the greatest of analytical errors.

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