With the breakdown of British efforts at the Security Council and the readying of United Nations inspectors to leave Damascus as early as tomorrow, the U.S.-led military strikes on Syria are becoming more probable. The word in Washington is that a limited action response to the chemical weapons allegations “is not a matter of if, but when,” and while such a response will not aim for regime change, its aftermath will certainly make its mark on the raging conflict, and diplomatic efforts.
U.S. President Barack Obama went this week from being one of the most reluctant world figures in dealing with the Syrian crisis to leading an effort to “punish the Assad regime” for allegedly using chemical weapons. American missile destroyers are positioned in the Mediterranean and military contingency plans that have been drafted and updated for the last two years, armed forces are waiting for Obama’s green light to start the operation. The Wall Street Journal reported that the administration is eying a quick response, but British politics seem to be getting in the way and could force a delay until the U.N. inspectors deliver their report in the coming days. Late last night, however, Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor reported that the U.S. will not wait for a U.N. report to act on Syria.
Deterrence and Proliferation
Obama’s change of heart is a direct outcome of the chemical weapons allegations. The U.S. President pointed to the “volatility” of the situation inside Syria and the risks of chemical weapons falling in the wrong hands, in an interview with PBS last night. Obama for the first time confirmed that the Syrian government carried out attacks using chemical weapons, saying: “We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out” adding that “there needs to be international consequences.” While Obama has not made that final decision and wants to avoid at any cost an open-ended intervention may entail, he laid out a national security argument for action. It highlights the risks of proliferation and the importance of deterrence in sending the Assad regime a “pretty strong signal, that in fact, it better not do it again.”
If the strikes are carried out within the framework leaked by the administration in the last several days, then they will likely focus on the air force capability of the regime and will be short in durationJoyce Karam
In terms of deterrence, the administration sees any action in Syria as a tool to penalize the regime by hitting its military infrastructure thus holding it “accountable” for the alleged chemical weapons use. Such use has always been a “red line” for the administration in approaching the conflict in Syria, and more so today with the rise of extremist groups within the opposition, and the involvement of Hezbollah. Washington cannot risk a systematic use of chemical weapons in the Middle East, nor can it allow armed groups to acquire such material. Sources tell Al Arabiya that while any U.S. operation in Syria is designed to be limited in “scope and duration,” it could involve securing the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile, especially in areas where there is increased fighting between the government and the rebels. Some reports have already run a list of targets in any U.S. operation.
If the strikes are carried out within the framework leaked by the administration in the last several days, then they will likely focus on the air force capability of the regime and will be short in duration. Syria is not Iraq and is not Kosovo. The regional volatility and the ravaging conflict encourage the Obama administration to be extra cautious regarding any potential action. The last thing Washington wants is to be dragged into an unpopular ground invasion like Iraq or a 78-day operation like the NATO bombing in former Yugoslavia. U.S. officials, speaking to the Wall Street Journal, have estimated any operation in Syria to range between hours and a few days, making it more similar to Operation Desert Fox in Iraq in1998, Operation Infinite Day in Sudan in that same year, or Operation El Dorado Canyon in Libya in 1986.
The magnitude of attacks will still be significant according to sources familiar with the planning, even if they are limited in nature. After two and a half years of intense fighting that has wrecked Syria’s economy and put lot of military and political strain on the regime, many within the Syrian opposition are hoping that the strikes would alter the balance and deal a blow to Assad’s air force, a key advantage for the regime. The U.S. and its regional allies have been trying to change the dynamics on the ground, tipping the balance in favor of the opposition, and hoping that this will ultimately lead to a major concession in lines with the Geneva document calling on Assad to start a transition.
The outcome of the strikes, if they take place, however, is unpredictable and we won’t know beforehand how the dynamics will change on the ground, or what the impact on the regime morale or its response will be. For now, escalation is the name of the game in Syria, foreseeing an extension of a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands, and reduced parts of the country to pure rubble, with no end in sight.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam