Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who was the NATO commander during the 1999 Operation Allied Force in Kosovo, tells All Things Considered that the situation the United Staes is facing in Syria is best compared to the U.S. bombing of Iraq in 1993.
Clark told NPR's Melissa Block that the only similarity between what's going on in Syria, today, and what happened during the Allied intervention in Kosovo, is Russia's unwillingness to support a United Nations resolution supporting a strike.
"[The Kosovo] campaign, first of all, it wasn't just the bombing that drove the Serbs out. It was the fact that they were engaged with NATO that the Serbs knew that if they didn't accede to pull their forces out and let the Albanians return home that NATO had the capability and was starting to do the planning to put a ground invasion in," Clark said.
The Obama administration has said that regime change would not be the point of any mission in Syria.
"I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change," White House spokesman Jay Carney said during a briefing. "They are about responding to a clear violation of international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons."
Kosovo would serve as a precedent, said Clark, "if there's a potential to go further."
Instead Clark points to attacks directed by President Clinton against the headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service on June 27, 1993.
As Clinton explained at the time, the attack was a "firm and commensurate" response to an Iraqi plot to assassinate President George H.W. Bush. The attacks were swift. For about an hour, U.S. Navy ships launched 23 Tomahawk missiles.
Clark said if the mission in Syria is to prevent the Assad regime from using chemical weapons there are two ways to do it: One is destroying the weapons, which is risky because an explosion can spread toxic elements. The other is to punish the Assad regime by "taking something valuable" by hitting communications infrastructure, intelligence, air defenses or radars.
"The thing is there is no assurance that the punishment will necessarily prevent him from using chemical weapons," said Clark. "Again, it may, it may not."
Clark said that going into Kosovo, politicians said they expected a short mission. But Clark knew that it was more than likely an "indeterminate" mission.
"Had I said that, it would have acted to dissuade NATO's determination," Clark said. What's more, "they didn't want to hear it."
"When you start something like this you have to be prepared for an indeterminate length if you have a political objective," Clark said.
However, if the objective is punishment, it can be over quickly with a few missile strikes.
More of Clark's conversation with Melissa on tonight's All Things Considered. Click here to find your NPR member station.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
We're going to talk about some past cases of U.S. military intervention, and whether they provide a parallel for Syria, with retired Gen. Wesley Clark. He was NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe, and commanded the NATO military operation during the Kosovo war in 1999. After 78 days of bombing strikes, the NATO campaign drove Serbian forces out of Kosovo. Gen. Clark, welcome to the program.
GEN. WESLEY CLARK: Well, thank you.
BLOCK: When you think about parallels to what we're seeing now with Syria, should we look to the NATO bombing campaign that you led against the Serbs? Does that provide a model in any way?
CLARK: Probably not because that campaign, first of all, it wasn't just the bombing that drove the Serbs out. It was the fact that they were engaged with NATO, and there was also a diplomatic arm of the effort. And so at the same time we were bombing, we were talking; and we offered Milosevic a way out, and he took it rather than accept an invasion.
BLOCK: Can you think of any other examples of U.S. military intervention that would provide a template here. Would...
CLARK: The best template is what President Clinton did when word came that Saddam Hussein, in 1993, had an assassination plot that was being prepared against President George H. Bush. So President Clinton ordered retaliation, and they went in and struck the intelligence center that Saddam Hussein was using.
BLOCK: You're talking about a plot against George H.W. Bush - Bush 41; in other words, the first President Bush.
CLARK: Right. Exactly.
BLOCK: Assuming there is military action taken against Syria, how do you draw up a target list, and what is the objective?
CLARK: Well, first of all, you'd have to start and ask, what's the political objective? If the objective is to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again, then there are two ways you can go. You could, obviously, eliminate the chemical weapons. Doing so might be possible. The other way to do it is to punish the Assad regime by taking away something else that's valuable to them.
It could be communications, intelligence, air defense. The thing is that there is no assurance that the punishment will necessarily prevent him from using chemical weapons again.
BLOCK: We did hear the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Ryan Crocker, tell us on the program last week that in his view, for the Assad regime, this is a fight for survival. He called them utterly ruthless and seemed to be predicting that there would be a response that we could not predict, or calibrate, or plan for.
CLARK: Well, of course. I mean, there's no way out for Bashar Assad. The example of what's happened to other leaders in the region, especially Gadhafi, is a stark reminder. But unlike the case of Gadhafi - where he only had a couple of tribes in his support - here, Assad has, apparently, support among some elements of the public in Syria. They don't see any way out.
And so that means if we're going to resort to the use of force, we need to give him a way out rather than simply backing him - him into a corner, where he's tempted to use every destructive means at his disposal.
BLOCK: It's worth remembering that the NATO campaign in Kosovo was tens of thousands of missions over several months. Were you expecting that it would be that long as you went in, and does that tell you anything about what we might think in terms of Syria?
CLARK: When you start something like this, you have to be prepared for an indeterminate length, if you have a political objective. Now, if your only objective is to punish - say OK, you did it once; wham, here's your punishment - then you can get away with it. In 1998, we struck Saddam's weapons of mass destruction storage facilities and some other facilities. We put about four days of a lot of ordnance in there, and we stopped. But that was a specific military objective. It wasn't connected to the politics of, let's say, regime change.
BLOCK: And we hear from the White House that regime change is not the idea. They're talking about a specific action. We hear talk about limited standoff strikes. Do you think that is realistic, without getting the United States entangled in a far broader campaign and just that mission creep that you're talking about?
CLARK: Well, I wouldn't be in a position to judge that. I think the president's got a very good team of advisers; they'll make those decisions.
BLOCK: Gen. Clark, thanks very much.
CLARK: Thank you.
BLOCK: That's retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark. He's NATO's former supreme allied commander for Europe.
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