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'86 Attack on Libya: A Template for U.S. Action Now

'86 Attack on Libya: A Template for U.S. Action Now

By Maxmillian Angerholzer III and Frank J. Cilluffo - August 31, 2013

Most discussions about a limited strike against Syria -- which appears to be the current U.S. objective -- examine the interventions in Bosnia, the 1998 Desert Fox campaign against Saddam Hussein, the 1998 strikes on al-Qaeda targets, and the 1999 Kosovo campaign. However, in looking at the lessons of history, the actions of the Reagan administration in April 1986 provide the best template for a situation that requires action, but seemingly has no clear solution.

Syria continues the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians through the use of chemical and conventional weapons; the Assad regime continues to use Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as proxies and confederates; and cyberattacks affiliated with the “Syrian Electronic Army” have targeted multiple U.S. media outlets.

These actions of the Syrian regime and military have repeatedly crossed the “red lines” laid down by President Obama and the international community. However, the collapse of the Assad regime also presents significant national security challenges. Jihadist forces now lead the military opposition in Syria, and a post-Assad Syria could become a safe haven for al-Qaeda affiliated forces. The collapse of the regime could also further exacerbate regional, ethnic, and religious tensions and cause an influx of refugees into Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Yet, an Assad victory would only further embolden the regime and its proxies.

Thus, the United States is bound into a narrow position of wanting to both deter the Syrian government from continuing to use chemical weapons and degrade its fighting capability, while simultaneously avoiding involvement in the wider civil war and tipping the balance in favor of the jihadist elements of the Syrian rebellion.

In the 1980s, Libya under Moammar Gaddafi had continually challenged the right of navigation of U.S. and international ships through international waters in the Gulf of Sidra; it provided a safe haven for terrorists launching attacks against European targets, including the Red Army Faction and Irish Republican Army; and, in a step that ultimately led to the U.S. strikes, Libyan agents bombed La Belle discotheque in Berlin, killing three (two U.S. servicemen and a civilian) and severely wounding 229.

President Reagan also had to navigate the international and domestic dynamics of the time. The Soviet Union was a key ally of the Gaddafi regime, and Cold War tensions lurked in the background. The strike required careful planning, as the French, Spanish, and Italian governments refused to assist or to allow the use of their airspace. At home, Reagan made certain that key congressional leaders were briefed on the targeting and intelligence of the operation up until the day before the strike.

The attacks targeted military barracks, airfields and Libya’s air defense network, as well as Gaddafi’s residence. These carefully calculated strikes limited collateral and civilian damage, while also indicating that the U.S. had the capability to inflict significant damage on the regime. While it did not end Gaddafi’s terrorist activities, it avoided a wider conflict or an exacerbation of U.S.-Soviet relations, and it demonstrated American resolve against Gaddafi’s actions.

In taking this action, Reagan demonstrated that he could shrewdly apply U.S. military power in a limited manner and that indiscriminate acts of terror would not go unanswered, thus indicating that the lines the United States drew were more than just rhetorical.

A similar model, applied to Syria, would pre-announce the targeting of key regime sites, military bases, and key nodes in the air defense network to avoid civilian casualties. Even when evacuated, the destruction of the physical facilities would degrade the ability of the regime and military to continue its chemical attacks. Furthermore, the degradation of Syrian air forces and air defenses would indicate U.S. and allied forces willingness to continue to deter and degrade the regime’s capabilities and tip the military balance back toward a stalemate. These attacks would be followed by public statements indicating that should the Syrians continue the use of chemical weapons, further strikes would be forthcoming.

Some may argue that such strikes would be “an empty gesture,” indicating that Assad can continue to massacre his citizens, albeit without chemical weapons. However, the targeting of airbases and air defense networks, similar to the 1986 response in Libya, combined with clear statements indicating targeting for subsequent strikes, would demonstrate our willingness to continue to degrade Assad’s capabilities.

Should we choose to demonstrate our resolve in this manner, we must also prepare for the counter-response of Syria and its confederates. While we should prepare for terrorist attacks, kidnapping, or military strikes against U.S., allied, or Israeli targets, we must be equally vigilant in the cyber-domain. The actions of the Syrian Electronic Army already indicate the ability to launch increasingly sophisticated cyber-disruptions, and Syria’s Iranian sponsors also have significant cyber-capabilities that could be used to disrupt key infrastructure, communications, or energy facilities throughout the region. Suspected Iranian cyber-attacks have already targeted Saudi Aramco and Qatari RasGas, and similar attacks could be part of any retaliation.

Using the historical lesson of 1986’s Operation El Dorado Canyon, U.S. and allied forces can incur significant damage against Syria through a limited campaign and avoid the more deleterious outcomes of inaction or prolonged intervention. The bottom line: Like Reagan in Libya, Obama today has few good options -- but the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces requires a response, albeit a judicious one. 

Maxmillian Angerholzer III is president and CEO of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.  Frank J. Cilluffo is the director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at The George Washington University, and was special assistant to the president for homeland security for President George W. Bush. 

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Maxmillian Angerholzer III and Frank J. Cilluffo

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