Expeditionary Operations: Is Syria next?

Word is reaching me that two Canadian infantry battalions, 3rd Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry Regiment and 3rd Royal Canadian Regiment, have received ‘warning orders’ to prepare for operations and possible deployment to the Middle East.  This is apparently related to the steadily worsening situation in Syria.

The implication of such news is that the government is considering a major deployment of two infantry battle groups for some kind of operation against Syria.  It may depend on what emerges from the meeting of the General Assembly in New York this week.  CBC is reporting that Syria will be on top of the agenda. While it is questionable whether a consensus will emerge from the General Assembly, it appears that Russian President Putin’s protestations about western engagement in Syria (CTV: Harper, Putin agree to disagree on Syria) have had no effect on Prime Minister Harper.  This is power diplomacy, small ‘c’ Canadian-style.  It seems strange to me that a land-centric operation is being planned after the supposed ‘lessons’ of the operations in Libya.

John Barry, Newsweek National Security Correspondent, wrote an article for The European Institute, entitled “Lessons of Libya for Future Western Military Forays,” that suggests that the European NATO members did well in operations against Libya and that despite the continuing need for American support and coordinating functions, France is reinserting itself into the command structure and the number of willing nations for out-of-area operations is surprisingly numerous.  He concludes “NATO’s long-established structures - the joint headquarters, the task forces, the wilderness of committees - will be the organizational umbrella under which Western coalitions will go to war in the future.  They will be, like Afghanistan and Libya, coalitions of the willing.  And the ingenious two-tier political/military command structure NATO cobbled together for Libya will serve as a model for control of future out of area expeditions.” So, NATO will be coordinating and conducting the operation, although it will likely be a sub-set of its members and the composition of the force will be a ‘scratch’ one.  If a Syrian operation is in the offing, Canada’s role and place in the command structure has yet to be determined.  This is not a good way to begin an expeditionary operation.

Jorge Benitez, writing for NATO Source, asks, “Is NATO’s intervention in Libya a model for future wars?”  He cites U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden as saying “this is more of the prescription for how to deal with the world as we go forward than it has been in the past.” Limited naval and air engagement proved to be difficult enough for NATO in the Libyan context.  While it is true that non-American aircraft flew three-quarters of all sorties and their ships enforced the arms embargo at sea, it is obvious that the operation could not have been conducted without American logistical support. Canada was caught in this situation, running out of bombs and only securing more as the result of an emergency purchase from U.S. stocks.  The American provided the vast majority of the aviation fuels and wide variety of other stores items.  It will certainly be more challenging logistically if the same plan of action is intended for use against Syria. You can expect there to be lots of problems with supply not meeting rates of consumption ('operational pauses', if you prefer).  Canada will be operating at the end of the longest logistical lines and with the most meager lift capabilities.  It is hard to see how it will be possible to sustain two battle groups for anything very challenging. Lets hope that the operational plan recognizes this critical limitation.

Some commentators see a brighter set of lessons from the Libyan operation.  Tomas Valasek, Director of Foreign Policy and Defence at the Centre for European Reform, wrote an article entitled “What Libya says about the future of NATO operations.” He argues that, despite logistical limitations and capability limitations, the successful European effort against Libya stands in stark contrast to its previous failure in Bosnia. If we assume that the Libyan operation will be viewed as a learning experience, NATO will have to move quickly if they are to make good on the 'lessons' that have come from it before they move against Syria.  If the European NATO members are emboldened by their success in Libya but fail to address their logistical shortcoming a fiasco will develop.  Canada would do well to make sure that its logistical house is in order before they deploy the two battalions.