from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

When America Attacked Syria

Smoke rises from the bombed Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport on October 23, 1983.
Smoke rises from the bombed Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport on October 23, 1983.

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In response to the worsening civil war in Syria and the Bashar al-Assad regime’s continuous use of rockets, artillery, and sniper fire against civilian population centers, some policymakers, analysts, and members of the Syrian opposition are calling for some sort of military intervention—no-fly zones, safe zones, humanitarian corridors, close air support, and more. The various objectives of the proposed operations are to protect civilians, assure the delivery of humanitarian assistance, aid the armed opposition, encourage military defections, or oust Assad.

Ongoing debates on intervention in Syria recall an earlier era when the U.S military was used in the region with similarly muddled objectives that led to disastrous outcomes.

In September 1982, President Ronald Reagan authorized the deployment of up to 1,800 Marines to Lebanon as part of a Multinational Force (MNF)—consisting of French, Italian, and later British troops—“with the mission of enabling the Lebanese Government to resume full sovereignty over its capital, the essential precondition for extending its control over the entire country.”

In a diplomatic note exchanged between Washington and the nascent government in Lebanon, it was agreed that the MNF would fulfill its mission by serving as an “interposition force at agreed locations and thereby provide the Multinational presence requested by the Lebanese Government.” Soon after the first Marines arrived at Beirut International Airport, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was asked to clarify the scope of the U.S. military’s mission, to which he replied: “What we need is a multinational force until certain conditions have been achieved. Nobody knows when those conditions can be achieved. It is not an open-ended commitment.”

In the aftermath of the full-scale Israeli invasion months earlier in 1982, which sought to drive out the PLO and install a friendly regime in power, Lebanon had become a war zone. The Lebanese military and various militias were receiving weapons, military training, operational guidance, and money from a number of countries, including Israel, Syria, the Soviet Union, Iran, and the United States.

Recognizing the futility of deploying several hundred soldiers with a poorly-defined mission to positively impact the degenerating situation, the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously opposed sending the Marines to Lebanon to serve with the MNF.  The commandant of the Marine Corps, General P.X. Kelley, would retrospectively describe the environment: “Given the Beirut international airport area to put our forces in, with the mission of presence. That’s not a military mission. You will never find it in a military dictionary.”

While the United States was supposed to have been a neutral entity in Lebanon as part of the MNF, by summer 1983 it had openly sided with the pro-Israeli Lebanese government. To support the Lebanese military, the U.S.S. New Jersey was authorized to shell the Druze militia and Syrian military forces in the mountains surrounding Beirut. As Colin Powell later described the response: “When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American ‘referee’ had taken sides against them. And since they could not reach the battleship, they found a more vulnerable target: the exposed Marines at the airport.”

The October 23, 1983, suicide truck bombing of the Marine barracks at the Beirut International Airport would kill 241 U.S. military personnel; simultaneously, another suicide bomber killed fifty-eight French servicemen of the MNF several kilometers away. (Two weeks later, yet another truck bomb exploded in the Israeli military headquarters in Tyre, killing sixty.) A FBI forensics assessment called the Marine barracks bombing the “biggest non-nuclear explosion since World War II.” According to a Pentagon commission formed to investigate the attack, it was “tantamount to an act of war using the medium of terrorism.” Within weeks, the CIA determined that “the bombings…of the United States and French MNF headquarters were carried out by Shia radicals, armed, trained, and directed by Syria and Iran.”

The Reagan administration grappled with the appropriate response against the Syrian and Iranian governments. As a “two-fer” military option, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy Richard Armitage recalled, "we wanted to put a cruise missile into the window of the Iranian ambassador in Damascus,” although this approach was ultimately rejected.

Another idea—never pursued, but worth highlighting given the demand of many political leaders for Syrian president Hafez al-Assad to be removed from power—was developed in a NSC paper entitled, “The Destabilization of Syria.” According to David Wills’s unmatched history of the era, The First War on Terrorism: Counter-Terrorism Policy during the Reagan Administration:

“When Assad challenges Israel and the Marines in Lebanon, he knows that if Israel attacks him it cannot occupy all of Syria. Assad feels he can always retreat to the North and set up a smaller state and with stronger Alawite control. However, if Turkey is brought into the calculations of Rifaat [Assad] (the real power in Syria) and Hafez, their calculations will be totally different and would be impossible to add up without losing their power. If Syria is attacked by Turkey from the north the Alawite stronghold will be gone at the start and Assad and his supporters will have to fall back on an ocean of hateful Sunni moslems (sic) in the south where they will be eaten like lost sheep. Therefore the pressure on Syria should come from Turkey and not from the Marines and or Israel.”

The Reagan administration ultimately decided to attack the support infrastructure of the groups responsible for the Beirut bombing at the Sheik Abdullah barracks in Baalbek, Lebanon, where several hundred of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah members were based.  On November 14, 1983, President Reagan approved a joint U.S.-French air raid against the barracks to be carried out two days later. What happened next is hotly disputed by Reagan administration officials, although almost all accounts concur that Secretary of Defense Weinberger refused to give the authorization order to the U.S. commander of the Sixth Fleet permitting the U.S. aircraft to leave their flight decks. The French—who did not know that the United States had abandoned them until their planes were airborne—proceeded with the airstrike. Briefed on what had happened, Reagan responded: “That’s terrible. We should have blown the daylights out of them. I just don’t understand.”

Despite the miscommunication—or direct insubordination—the United States eventually did bomb Syrian military assets in Lebanon, although it had nothing to do with the loss of the 241 American servicemembers. Beginning months before the barracks attack, Syrian anti-aircraft batteries in Lebanon intermittently fired upon U.S. Navy F-14 reconnaissance planes. Initially dismissed by Secretary Weinberger as not “unusual or surprising,” the attacks did not elicit a counterstrike on Syrian air-defense capabilities. In late November 1983, however, President Reagan agreed to authorize a more robust response and a retaliatory airstrike plan was drawn up by U.S. Navy planning staffs of the Sixth Fleet. On December 3, 1983, two F-14s flying a routine tactical reconnaissance mission encountered Syrian anti-aircraft fire and at least ten surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).

On December 4 at 8:00 a.m., twelve A-7 Corsairs and sixteen A-6E light bombers took off from the U.S.S. Independence and U.S.S. John F Kennedy, escorted by an E-2 Hawkeye, two EA-6 Prowlers, and two F-14s. The bombers were ordered to strike three sites east of Beirut, which included an ammunition depot, air-defense radars, anti-aircraft guns, and SAMs. (A Reagan administration official claimed that the airstrikes would somehow “also encourage Lebanese forces to defend their own territory.” They didn’t.) Without offering any evidence, a Pentagon spokesperson reported that airstrikes had hit fourteen of the twenty intended targets and that "whatever was in each of the areas received significant damage."

Despite official statements, however, the first direct combat in Lebanon between the United States and Syria was both a military and political disaster. Two of the U.S. planes were shot down either by anti-aircraft rounds and/or approximately forty SAMs; one pilot was killed, another was captured by Syrian forces, and another parachuted safely into the Mediterranean Sea. (The hostage pilot, Lieutenant Robert Goodman, Jr., was held and interrogated in a Syrian prison for thirty days until Reverend Jesse Jackson secured his release.) Furthermore, although the Pentagon claimed that the airstrikes were "very successful and achieved our objective, which was to prevent, through a measured response, repetition of the attacks on our reconnaissance aircraft,” that never came to pass. Syrian forces continued to target the U.S. reconnaissance flights.

This suboptimal outcome resulted from several factors, any of can—and does—limit the effectiveness of military operations.

  1. Micromanagement: The commanders aboard the U.S.S. Independence and U.S.S. John F. Kennedy received last-minute orders from the Pentagon that superceded the well-prepared retaliatory airstrike plan. Reportedly, these included “very specific instruction about the targets that were to be attacked, weapons to be used, as well as the time-point of the strike.”
  2. Weather: A Pentagon official noted that unusually heavy haze over eastern Lebanon had “restricted the visibility to a far greater degree than we would have hoped."
  3. Poor intelligence: Having received the latest Soviet infrared sensor technology, Syrian SAM capabilities were more advanced than Navy planners had assumed: "We didn’t expect to encounter quite the level of defense we did."
  4. Concerns of collateral damage: Pilots were told to ascend to three thousand feet to visually acquire the mobile SAM systems before bombing them, which exposed the slow-flying bombers to ground attacks. (According to the Newsweek report of the botched attack: “The Israelis have urged the Pentagon to buy pilotless drones—which might have been used for surveillance runs or to test Syrian air defenses.”)

The Pentagon commission report of the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut contained a recommendation that received a great deal of attention within Washington and influenced the thinking of some Reagan administration officials throughout their careers: “The commission recommends that the secretary of defense continue to urge that the National Security Council undertake a reexamination of alternative means of achieving U.S. objectives in Lebanon, to include a comprehensive assessment of the military security options being developed by the chain of command and a more vigorous and demanding approach to pursuing diplomatic alternatives.” Diplomacy, however, takes time and is difficult, whereas bombing things is immediate and relatively easy.

A criticism of proponents of military force in Syria, Iran, or elsewhere, is that they rarely take into account recent history and how it can be instructive for likely outcomes today. Or worse, advocates often rely on myths or mischaracterizations about earlier applications of force, particularly in their supposedly successful outcomes. Despite approximately $600 billion in defense and intelligence spending, kinetic force not only fails to achieve its intended military or political objectives, but it often makes things worse. If history can provide any guidance, it is that it is impossible to foresee the unintended consequences and lasting impact of military force.

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