What An Ancient Chinese Military General Can Teach Us About Syria


Chinese military general Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War over 2,000 years ago about military strategy, tactics, and legality. Each of its 13 chapters touch on a distinct aspect a country's efforts to engage in war, from the use of spies, to configuring the terrain, to maneuvering the army. Like many Americans and government officials, I continue to debate whether engaging militarily with Syria is the best option for addressing Assad's use of chemical weapons. Tzu's writing has influenced my opinion on the topic more than many of the pundits filling air waves, newspaper pages, and websites today.

This excerpt of Tzu's text caught my eye as I reviewed it for clues to the pending U.S. military action: "When you surround an enemy, always leave them a way out, and do not press a cornered foe too hard." Killing men and destroying enemy forces are not the only ways to defeat enemies in armed conflict. By demonstrating that your enemy's military situation is hopeless, conflict can also end through a capitulation of forces. This is not about being soft on the enemy. Rather, it's about understanding that an attacking force must deny its enemy the chance to summon the "last stand" mentality and action that only comes from desperation. If your enemy thinks he is completely surrounded with no way out, he will fight to the end with savage ferocity. If you leave your enemy a path to salvation and show him the hopelessness of his situation, he will probably choose to surrender and live. Japan in 1945 is a good example. Leonidas' 300 Spartans at Thermopylae are not.

How does this relate to Syria? President Bashar al-Assad is the shepherd of the Alawite-led government that has been in power in Syria since 1971. Alawites are an offshoot of Shia Islam, and while they hold most of the leadership positions in military and the government, they make up just 12% of the Syrian population. Syria is a majority Sunni country, which is why the many Alawites fighting for the regime consider Assad the protector of their families and livelihood. The Alawite population believes that only victory will ensure their future safety.

Pundits have been counting votes in Congress, strategic experts are fixated on power politics, and military officials remain focused on reassuring Americans that U.S. air strikes can safely "deter and degrade." No one seems to remember how this conflict is more than a struggle for justice. The civil war in Syria isrooted in an ancient struggle between two sects of Islam that consider the other devilish usurpers. Break this conflict down, and it's not just about Russia's interests or sending a message to Iran and North Korea. What's at stake for both sides is their survival or extinction. In the minds of the Alawite minority, if government loses to the majority Sunni opposition, they will be slaughtered in revenge for the pain and suffering the Assad regime inflicted on others for decades.

With any military action that might tip the balance on the ground in favor of the rebels, U.S. leaders must consider the fear of wholesale slaughter felt by the Allawite community. Only if Assad sees a clear way out for his people and perceives that his military situation is hopeless, will he seek a settlement. By forcing the Russians to negotiate with Syria on turning over their chemical weapons, Obama seems to be reading his Sun Tzu, who wrote prophetically: "The ultimate achievement is to defeat the enemy without even coming to battle." For now, U.S. military force against Syria is on hold.