Center for Strategic Communication

Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal has proposed killing Syria’s President Bashar Assad with airpower. And not just Assad himself:

Should President Obama decide to order a military strike against Syria, his main order of business must be to kill Bashar Assad. Also, Bashar’s brother and principal henchman, Maher. Also, everyone else in the Assad family with a claim on political power. Also, all of the political symbols of the Assad family’s power, including all of their official or unofficial residences.

Stephens recognizes that strikes will probably not wipe out Assad’s chemical stores, destroying the Syrian military’s most capable platforms and formations costs too many cruise missiles, and he argues that it’s unfair to take out the West’s rage over Assad’s chemical murders on a bunch of starving Syrian Army conscripts.

Note that Stephens does not mention anything about the real-time intelligence challenges of killing one enemy leadership target, never mind wiping out an entire group of “made men” at once a la Godfathers I and II.  Trying to kill Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Mohamed Farah Aidid proved to be extremely difficult, and hunting for Manuel Noriega was characterized by the RAND Corporation as a “embarrassment.” Indeed, RAND’s survey of leadership strikes noted that direct attacks on nation-state kingpins and warlords “rarely produce wanted policy changes,” “often fail to deter unwanted enemy behavior,” “sometimes produce harmful unintended consequences,” and “frequently fail to kill the leader.”

Given that Stephens has already taken us down the morally perilous road of pondering the nature of political killing, we might as well finish the train of thought that his sanguinary analysis began. Merely condemning it on utilitarian (“it’s hard!”) grounds is boring, and morally condemning it will fall on deaf ears given Assad’s murderous criminality. Rather, to critique it we should take the line of analysis to its full implication.

In his scheme to wipe out the locus of Assad’s regime, Stephens has (unwittingly) paraphrased a great Italian thinker on the subject: “[f]or it must be noted, that men must either be caressed or else
annihilated; they will revenge themselves for small injuries, but cannot
do so for great ones; the injury therefore that we do to a man must be
such that we need not fear his revenge.” So how, in 2013, does one do “annihilate” men so thoroughly as to destroy their political power?

Stephens, like the airpower theorist John Warden,
conceives of the state as an organic body with the statesman and his
immediate span of command and control as the brain. The great hope is the idea that the
expense of defeating the body can be bypassed—the cruise missile
functions as merely as a scaled-up version of a sniper’s bullet between
the eyes. Stephens is not wrong to view the regime’s elites as serving an outsized function relative to the men they command. They are, indeed, important components of the overall matrix of regime power. But he gets the dynamics of how they are neutralized entirely wrong.

Say you are a certain Egyptian military dictator. You’ve just overthrown your political opponents, you have command of a powerful military and paramilitary force that you are reasonably sure will shoot at the people you want them to. One of your advisers says “Maybe we should just stop at just overthrowing our enemies. Let’s start developing the economy and civil society.”  Wrong! This halfway crook masquerading as a dictator’s consigliere is the first to be dragged away by your secret police.

Develop the economy?! You are a man who uses 1984 as a textbook, and you are currently preparing a intricately researched critique of Luttwak to submit to the Journal of Dictator, Junta, and Jefe Studies. No development for you. You retreat to The Dictatorcave, home of your volumes on the lives of the greatest men and women to purge, loot, and plunder from Sargon onwards. Sitting in a barcalounger under your framed poster of the 1927 Shanghai purge, you boot up your computer and click over to your favorite poli-sci blog. What can Jay Ulfelder tell you about what kind of purge you’re doing in an attempt to erase the power of the regime you just destroyed? What can the Dart Throwing Chimp tell you about neutralizing many of the aforementioned previous regime political figures? Plenty. And you can’t just stop at locking up or killing the leaders:

[R]ulers who have recently seized power by coup or revolution
sometimes kill large numbers of civilian supporters of the faction they
have just replaced as part of their efforts to consolidate their power.
The mass killings carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970s are probably the most extreme example of this scenario, but Argentina’s “dirty war” and the long-running political purges that began in several East European countries after World War II also fit the pattern.


What happened in Egypt yesterday looks like a slide into the third scenario. Weeks after a military coup toppled Mohamed Morsi, state security forces violently assaulted crowds using nonviolent action
to protest the coup and demand Morsi’s restoration to the presidency.
The death toll from yesterday’s ruthless repression has already
surpassed 500 and seems likely to rise further as more of the wounded
die and security forces continue to repress further attempts at resistance and defiance.
What’s more, the atrocities of the past 24 hours come on top of the
killings of scores if not hundreds of Brotherhood supporters around the
country over the past several weeks (see this spreadsheet maintained by The Guardian for details).

Our notional Egyptian dictator is only able to repress so totally because he already controls the arms of the state. In the putsch that usually precedes such bloodletting, the loyalties of military, intelligence, and regime elites are contested. Everyone from low-ranking officers to high-ranking generals are crucial variables in the equation. And outside the government, as in the now-infamous coup that overthrew Iran’s Mossadeq, the loyalties of civil society and commercial actors are also crucial as well.

What if you do if you can’t somehow finangle your way into control of the polity? You destroy the elite’s means of coercion by filling them full of depleted uranium shells, joint directed attack munitions, and M4 bullets. Once the enemy regime’s ability to leverage power is eliminated, you can do anything you want with the leaders of the regime and their civilian and military loyalists. Of course, by now the advantages of killing are moot–we have just gotten ourselves another job for Jay Garner and the CPA and/or find ourselves in a land now well Beyond Thunderdome.

We now can make several observations from the preceding set of comparisons. If the purpose of leadership and elite targeting is to meaningfully ruin or destroy the political regime, effective leadership targeting involves targeting much more than the leaders, must not spare the rank and file, and requires the extensive co-option or destruction of the numerous protective layers that house our Assad family brain. Of course, as we now know, what is taken apart is not so easily put back together.

A case study: under the umbrella of extensive (and mostly American) airpower directed against both command and control and hard military targets, Libyan rebel military units trained and in some cases directed by special operations forces accelerated the entropy of an already disintegrating Libyan political order to the point of government collapse. With the protective state body now rendered impotent, Gaddafi was captured and executed along with family and followers. Yet Gaddafi and his clique were not killed at the outset, even if doing so might have yielded a good deal more strategic effect than Syria given the relative lack of robustness of the personalized Libyan regime.

But what about the Bin Laden op? Does that change this picture, even if terrorist organizations and authoritarian industrial states are probably not comparable? Certainly it is possible that 20 years of improved C4ISR and advances in high-value targeting can bear fruit, killing some of the individuals within the target set Stephens specifies. But it would it really make a difference if, as Stephens argues, it’s the Assad family and courtier complex that matters? And if trying to kill dictators with missiles or bombs really was an effective deterrent, why is Assad not terrified today given that the US came for Gaddafi and Hussein from the air? 

The relevance of this blog to the specific scenario here (Syria) is of secondary importance to the general point that political killing is a deadly serious business. Unfortunately, it is also viewed as both an strategic shortcut and a means of an telegraphing an attitude of seriousness and hard-headedness. The latter is evident in both Stephens’ baiting John Kerry to pull the trigger on Assad after so thoroughly denouncing him, and Stephens’ invocation of 1930s appeasement of the Axis as an analogy to modern-day Syria.

There have been many debates over the Syrian intervention, and the political winds seem to suggest that those favoring intervention have won. But whatever your position on Syria, the nature, dynamics, and gravity of political killing must be taken seriously. The recurring fantasy of leadership targeting suggests that it is not.