In August 2012, President Obama declared that any use of chemical weapons by the government of Bashar al-Assad would cross a game-changing red line. When the Assad regime deployed sarin gas on a Damascus suburb, almost exactly a year later, on the 21st August, Obama inevitably felt compelled to act, but was presented with uniformly unattractive military options. Should the US decide to intervene, the most difficult task will be avoiding another long-term entanglement in a protracted Middle East conflict.
On the 4th September, the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations approved the use of military force in Syria, to be followed by a full vote in Congress. Seeking the approval of Congress is a shrewd calculation by President Obama. If the motion in favour of military action is defeated, Obama cannot be criticised for balking at the prospect of military intervention; if the vote is passed, Obama will have Republican support for a military campaign that is deeply unpopular in the US.
Public opinion remains sceptical and overwhelmingly against Western military intervention. Despite the publication of US intelligence and intense public lobbying by Secretary of State John Kerry, it should not be surprising to Western leaders that their war-weary publics are reluctant to engage in yet another conflict in the Middle East. A lack of definitive intelligence and the legacy of Iraq ensured this would be the case.
The US would be acting without broad based international support. The opposition of Russia and China ensures the US will not have a UN mandate. The US also lacks the support of both the Arab League and NATO, which remains divided. Despite the absence of the UK, the US would not be acting alone, however. France has remained steadfast in its support for intervention. Syria’s civil war has provided both Qatar and Saudi Arabia the opportunity to curtail Iran’s regional influence. However, by providing support to different rebel groups they have exacerbated divisions within the rebels that will hamper any post-Assad regime.
Politics aside, the primary concern for any US-led military intervention in Syria is “mission creep”. In Libya, in 2011, an initially limited bombing campaign and the imposition of a no-fly zone created the conditions for a more robust intervention and the eventual overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. There are already indications that plans for a limited air strike may expand to the explicit aim of toppling Bashar al-Assad in order to win over Republicans in Congress. Overall, the US lacks any clear objectives or a strategy to achieve them.
The scale of any potential intervention is not yet known. It is clear that Obama has been reluctant to intervene since the conflict began, despite members of his own Cabinet favouring a tougher stance against the Assad regime. This could ultimately mean that any military strikes will be limited and punitive, aimed solely at deterring any further use of chemical weapons but not degrading government forces to such an extent that it could tip the balance of war in favour of the rebels. This strategy of deterrence is problematic given the evidence, reported most recently in the German press, that Assad did not personally authorise the use of chemical weapons. If the attack originated from elements within Assad’s forces but without authorisation, this represents a truly worrying development but also undermines the deterrent effect of punitive air strikes.
Should Obama decide to expand the use of air strikes to a more comprehensive target list, with the explicit of aim of significantly degrading the capability of government forces, the primary concern is how the Assad regime will respond. Should the regime feel it faces an existential threat, either through US strikes or an emboldened rebel force, it would be more likely to order the use of chemical weapons, and on a larger scale. Such an eventuality would force Obama to intervene again in order to suppress the regime, a scenario that may not be accomplished solely with air strikes. Because of such fears the US may attempt to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons capability. However, this carries the risk of dispersing the toxic agents and adding to the humanitarian crisis.
Assad could also retaliate against US assets and allies in the region, most likely Israel, either directly or via Hizbullah in Lebanon, or attack US assets in the Persian Gulf via Iran. Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ air defense system has already been deployed in the Golan Heights bordering Syria and reservists called up. Israel would respond unilaterally to any attack but the US would also be forced to intervene again or face international criticism for sparking a regional conflagration and then standing back.
A further escalation of the conflict or the demise of the Assad regime is fraught with risk. It could further destabilise the region, as has already occurred with over two million refugees in Jordan and rising sectarian violence in Lebanon and Iraq. It could also prompt a rise in animosity towards Western interests throughout the Middle East and further hamper economic recovery in the region. Civilian casualties are also inevitable, which as well as adding to the humanitarian crisis would also be a propaganda victory for the Assad regime and a potential recruitment tool for radical militants.
If the regime is toppled, there is a very real risk that Syria could become a failed state. The power vacuum in a post-Assad Syria would lead to a power struggle among competing sectarian, ethnic and extremist factions. Kurdish separatists in Syria’s north-east would emerge as a secessionist movement along the same lines as Iraq’s restive Kurds. Members of the Assad family’s sizeable Alawite sect would likely flee the country or face persecution. Radical elements within the rebels, particularly those with links to al-Qaeda, would pose a new threat both to any government that emerges in Damascus and to the West – a scenario that would guarantee a long-term Western presence in Syria.
Given Western concerns that radical militants are active amongst the rebels, a broader target list is no doubt being discussed in Washington. This would include known militants associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the main al-Qaeda outfit in Syria. By failing to respond quickly the US has allowed the Assad regime and radical militants time to prepare for air strikes, meaning a more sustained and comprehensive air campaign would be required. The longer the US air campaign lasts, the more likely it will provoke retaliatory action from government forces, which, as outlined above, could easily drag the US deeper into the conflict.
There are no good options for any US-led military intervention in Syria, and even a limited strike carries the risk of either escalating the conflict or exacerbating the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding, or both. If President Assad has lost control of some or all of his security apparatus, and did not order the use of chemical weapons, punitive strikes aimed at deterrence is an inherently flawed strategy, and may inadvertently lead to chemical weapons being deployed again if the Assad regime, or elements within in, deem it necessary in the face of a perceived existential threat. A reluctant Obama understands this, but is ultimately forced to intervene by the argument that America’s moral authority and global standing demand it. If Congress approves military action, President Obama must hope that President Assad doesn’t respond.