Why the U.S. Should Use Cyber Weapons Against Syria

The crisis in Syria is a good opportunity to show that U.S. cyber weapons can be used effectively (and ethically) on the battlefield. By Jason Healey

If the Obama administration does conduct military strikes against Syria, as seems likely, it should use military cyber weapons at the earliest possible moment to show the upside of military cyber power. Though this is risky, as it puts the focus on the U.S. militarization of cyberspace, it is likely worth doing to show that cyber operations are not evil witchcraft but can be humanitarian. 

This is not the first time the United States has been here. In 1999, the White House was reported to have initially approved a plan for covert “computer attacks on foreign bank accounts held by [Slobodan] Milosevic and other Serbian leaders, such as draining assets or altering banking records.”  A few years later, during the time of the second invasion of Iraq, a similar plan was rolled out to “cripple” the financial system of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, leaving him “no money for war supplies. No money to pay troops.”

Neither plan seems to have been executed. The Treasury Department and senior political officials apparently blocked these attacks, for fear of cascading failures and setting a precedent of targeting banks.

More recently, according to the New York Times, the Obama administration and military commanders considered “a cyberoffensive to disrupt and even disable the Gaddafi government’s air-defense system.” A cyber strike on Libya was apparently ruled out both because there was not enough time and also because officials felt that cyber capabilities are like a “Ferrari” which should be saved for the “big race.” The Israeli Air Force apparently did not think so, as it was widely reported they used a backdoor “kill switch” to disable Syrian air defenses en route to destroying an illicit nuclear reactor.

Given this history, what can and should the United States do today against Syria?

It is unlikely that President Obama will authorize covert cyber operations against Bashar Assad’s finances. Both of his immediate predecessors declined such attacks and the world economy and financial sector are already in a perilous state. A limited cyber attack integrated with traditional military forces should be a far more tempting option. 

Cyber capabilities could first disrupt Syrian air defenses directly or confuse military command and control, allowing air strikes to proceed unchallenged. A cyber strike might also disable dual-use Syrian critical infrastructure (such as electrical power) that aids the regime’s military but with no long-term destruction as would be caused by traditional bombs. Last, it is possible the U.S. military has cyber capabilities to directly disrupt the operations of Syria’s chemical troops. This would need very specific capabilities against hard-to-reach computers; any disruption would be short but such an attack is feasible.

The first constraint which reportedly ruled out cyber attacks against Libyan air defenses, the time needed, should not be a constraint for Syria: the U.S. military has had months if not years to develop the requisite cyber capabilities along with options to deliver them to the optimal targets. 

On the second constraint, this might be the ‘big race’ that U.S. officials have been waiting for, but for political reasons, rather than military. In the past several years, the United States has been caught using Stuxnet to conduct a covert cyber campaign against Iran as well as trawling the Internet with the massive PRISM collection operation. The world is increasingly seeing U.S. cyber power as a force for evil in the world.

A cyber operation against Syria might help to reverse this view. 

Recently, experts from United States, China, Russia and other states reported to the U.N. Secretary General that existing international law, including international humanitarian law (aka, the laws of armed conflict such as the Geneva and Hague conventions) apply to cyber conflict. By sparing the lives of Syrian troops and nearby civilians, an opening cyber operation against Syria could demonstrate exactly how such capabilities can be compliant with international humanitarian law.  European allies would see an operation within the norms of shared transatlantic principles, not at odds with them like Stuxnet or PRISM.   

Unfortunately, it is unlikely cyber capabilities will be used, or at least unlikely the White House and military will discuss them even if they are. The classification around these operations has created a self-sustaining taboo. Even though the U.S. national interest is greatly served by removing the voodoo mystique around them, official silence will allow doubters and the ill-informed to continue to dominate the debate.

Despite my own background in U.S. military offensive and defensive cyber operations, I have long been a skeptic of the use of military cyber power as it has been used off the battlefield in sneaky circumstances. America should take this chance to demystify these weapons to show the world they, and the U.S. military in general, can be used on the battlefield in line with humanitarian principles.

Close [ x ] More from DefenseOne

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from DefenseOne.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Software-Defined Networking

    So many demands are being placed on federal information technology networks, which must handle vast amounts of data, accommodate voice and video, and cope with a multitude of highly connected devices while keeping government information secure from cyber threats. This issue brief discusses the state of SDN in the federal government and the path forward.

  • Military Readiness: Ensuring Readiness with Analytic Insight

    To determine military readiness, decision makers in defense organizations must develop an understanding of complex inter-relationships among readiness variables. For example, how will an anticipated change in a readiness input really impact readiness at the unit level and, equally important, how will it impact readiness outside of the unit? Learn how to form a more sophisticated and accurate understanding of readiness and make decisions in a timely and cost-effective manner.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • A New Security Architecture for Federal Networks

    Federal government networks are under constant attack, and the number of those attacks is increasing. This issue brief discusses today's threats and a new model for the future.

  • Information Operations: Retaking the High Ground

    Today's threats are fluent in rapidly evolving areas of the Internet, especially social media. Learn how military organizations can secure an advantage in this developing arena.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.