To intervene or not to intervene – that is the question

A Syrian man mourns over a dead body after an alleged poisonous gas attack fired by regime forces, according to activists, in Douma town, Damascus, Syria,

The chemical weapons attack by Assad’s forces in Syria (reported by Israeli TV as having been fired by Assad’s brother’s unit), and any foreign response to it, has the potential to heat up the arena into a full-fledged war between any number and combination of international players.  Foreign intervention could complicate things for Israel too, as Assad might well launch missiles against Israel just to stir things up, in a manner similar to the Sunnis who were exacting revenge on Hezbollah by firing rockets at northern Israel on Thursday or, for that matter, similar to Saddam Hussein who launched Scuds at Israel in the first Gulf War.

The US is caught in a dilemma of whether to strike at Assad in response to the chemical weapons attack. Obama was meeting today with his security team to discuss various options, and at least one of those options was to move American warships closer to the region:

The US made preparations to attack Syria over the weekend should President Barack Obama choose to do so.

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The American military updated a list of possible targets to include mobile units of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army, after extensive and credible evidence surfaced on Wednesday that his forces used chemical weapons against civilians in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, killing hundreds.

The list already included command and control centers operated by Assad.

Hagel said the US Navy moved battleships stationed in the Mediterranean closer to Israel’s coast to close their ranges to Syria after Obama requested “military options” in response to Wednesday’s chemical attack.

Existing naval power in the region under the USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group is extensive. Representing more than 80 armed craft, they give the president the option to fire Tomahawk missiles at Syrian targets without entering the country’s air space.

The US Navy will expand its presence in the Mediterranean with a fourth cruise-missile armed warship, a defense official said on Friday.

The USS Mahan had finished its deployment and was due to head back to its home base in Norfolk, Virginia, but the commander of the US Sixth Fleet has decided to keep the ship in the region, the defense official said.

The Pentagon later played down the deployments, insisting the US is not on the brink of a strike. But the moves came after a four-hour Oval Office meeting on Friday with the president and his national security team that focused on possible targets and consequences.

The meeting ended with no decision made on whether or not to strike. The US has only made a preliminary assessment that the Ghouta attack involved chemical agents and was perpetrated by the Assad regime, but has made that assessment based on strong circumstantial evidence, officials say.

That evidence became rather stronger today with authoritative reports from the NGO Doctors without Borders (Medecins sans Frontieres):

A senior UN official arrived in Damascus to seek access for inspectors to the site of last Wednesday’s attack, in which opposition accounts say between 500 and well over 1,000 civilians were killed by gas fired by pro-government forces.

In the most authoritative account so far, the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said three hospitals near Damascus had reported 355 deaths in the space of three hours out of about 3,600 admissions with nerve gas-type symptoms.

The Russians as usual were acting as spoilers and impeding any kind of investigation while diverting blame from Assad:

While some of the United States’ NATO allies, including France, Britain and Turkey, have explicitly blamed Assad’s forces for the chemical attack, Russia said the rebels were impeding an inquiry and that Assad would have no interest in using poison gas for fear of foreign intervention.

“Assad does not look suicidal,” senior pro-Kremlin lawmaker Igor Morozov told Interfax news agency. “He well understands that in this case, allies would turn away from him and … opponents would rise. All moral constraints would be discarded regarding outside interference.”

Alexei Pushkov, pro-Kremlin chairman of the international affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, said: “In London they are ‘convinced’ that Assad used chemical weapons, and earlier they were ‘convinced’ that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It’s the same old story.”

However the huge question remains whether it is a good idea for the US and the West to intervene at all considering the political, military and literal fallout:

While it seems unquestionable that the massacre of civilians through the use of chemical agents is utterly unacceptable, the option of waging a full blown military campaign based on weak intelligence in a country torn by a disastrous civil war hardly abides by any strategic logic.

Dictators understand that better than anybody else. When in 1988 Saddam Hussein killed more than five thousands civilians in Halabja, he knew that he wouldn’t directly pay the price of his actions. In fact, had Saddam Hussein not further developed weapons of mass destruction and invaded Kuwait in 1991, it is plausible to think that the Halabja massacre wouldn’t have received the legal attention it did. The strategic error Saddam Hussein committed was to bring his atrocities outside Iraq. Bashar Al Assad is testing the freedom of action he has inside of Syria, and, in a very cynical way, it may be asserted that it is close to absolute.

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Due to the multipolar nature of the Syrian war, a military intervention against regime forces is likely to generate counter-productive strategic results. To successfully neutralize the Syrian regime’s ability to use chemical weapons, operations would need to be conducted against military air-bases, anti-aircraft batteries and vector systems such as short and medium range missiles and rocket launchers. The result of these strikes could effectively tilt the strategic balance of the conflict and result in an increased weakening of the Syrian army over the territory. If in itself this sounds like a positive scenario for those who support the Free Syrian Army, a humanitarian-led military campaign aimed at defusing the Syrian WMD threat would undermine the political objectives for a post-Assad situation. It would leave the country in a status of complete power vacuum, which would result in radicalization of the warring factions and almost certainly in greater operational freedom for Al Qaeda related groups.

However, the answer to the question of whether to intervene may not be entirely negative. A two-fold strategy could be put in place to avoid any expansion of the conflict and limit as much as possible Syrian civilian casualties.

Israel has been stating for the last year that any game-changing weapons movement from Syria to any other regional party would not be tolerated. Secret single strike raids have been limiting the risk of WMD proliferation toward Lebanon. This policy needs to be embraced globally and implemented by all regional actors with clear intelligence coordination. Any WMD movement outside Syria’s borders needs to be prohibited.

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No one can disagree that the ruthless murder of innocent civilians resulting from the use of chemical weapons is an unspeakable atrocity. However for the interest of regional security, the US, France and the UK should not rush into a military campaign deprived of long term strategic options and exit strategies. Such a decision would not only hurt Western interests in the region but would also result in further complications for the Syrian people.

The article by Avi Issacharoff linked within the article above similarly notes that the US is right to be cautious:

However, the administration has good reasons to be cautious in its approach to the ongoing events in Syria. Very good reasons.

In Syria, there is no choice between “good” and “bad.” Assad’s regime is bad, but the apparent opposition in the country is also bad — maybe even worse, as far as the West is concerned. Al-Qaeda-style gangs are taking control of more and more territory across Syria, including areas in the country’s large cities. The fall of Assad would see the West dealing with no less serious a threat — of armed Sunni militias with no desire or ability to talk to the West and the US, and definitely not to Israel.

Therefore, as awful as it sounds, the US administration doesn’t have many options in Syria, and it needs to proceed with extreme caution.

Most troubling for Israel are the assessments of Assad’s arsenal – about 100,000 rockets and missiles which could be turned on Israel:

While the US is bolstering its naval force in the Mediterranean with additional warships ahead of a possible strike in Syria, the Middle East is preparing for the aftermath of such a strike, if and when it occurs. Israel in particular is raising its alert level, as Syria’s retaliation may include an attack on Israeli targets.

According to estimates, the Syrian army has in its possession some 100,000 missiles and rockets. Several thousand of them, such as the Scud-D missiles, are considered very powerful and accurate and can reach any target in Israel. President Bashar Assad’s army also has Russian-made SS-22 medium-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, which can carry some 120 kilograms of explosive material.

The Syrian army is not only weary from fighting the rebel forces over the past two-and-a-half years, it has also used up a fair amount of its weapons. However, Russia continues to send arms shipments to Syria and is making certain the regime is Damascus receives more rockets, anti-tank missiles, small arms and ammunition. The Syrian army also receives logistical support from Iran.

The events of the past week have raised fears in Israel that Assad will use chemical weapons not only against his own people. The Syrian army is capable of arming its missiles with chemical agents, as it did this week prior to the attack on rebel strongholds on the outskirts of Damascus, and use them against Israel, although such a scenario seems unlikely at the moment.

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A response to an American attack could also come from Syria’s regional allies. Israel is convinced that Hezbollah will not take action against “the Zionist enemy” without a direct order from Iran, and thus, in the event of a Western attack that may break the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis, Israel may take a blow from the north.

What are Israel’s options?

The Israeli response will start with an attack which will be primarily based on intelligence that will allow the IAF to launch a powerful opening blow to Hezbollah’s strategic assets in southern and central Lebanon.

The Intelligence Division has gone through unprecedented upgrades and improvements, including in the field of tactical intelligence that will be provided to the paratroopers’ commander who will arrive at a Lebanese village to seek hidden launching pads.

The military intelligence has also taken a major role in the updating of operative plans against Syria. Only two months ago, The Times reported that according to Israeli sources, if Assad will be removed from power, 18 storage sites of weapons of mass destruction will be attacked. However, the time needed to complete this action will be derived primarily by the home front: The sixth Iron Dome battery is currently being deployed by the IAF, and within one year four more batteries will be installed.

The system’s improvement over the past few months will allow the army to intercept longer-ranged rockets and cover a larger area. However, the scenario of rocket attack from up north will be completely different than the one seen in Pillar of Defense. The 80% success rate of the Iron Dome batteries in November is far from being guaranteed in light of the mass of rockets and populated area that will need to be protected in northern and central Israel (a snap preview was noted last Thursday with two hits in villages and one successful interception).

And we have yet to discuss the debate within the security establishment whether or not Iron Dome batteries should protect villages and cities or important military bases and strategic establishments.

We saw the partial effectiveness of Iron Dome on Thursday’s rocket attack on Northern Israel, which, despite the Iron Dome system, hit some residential areas:

Seeing as the Iron Dome battery intercepted only one Katiusha, the IAF is investigating how two other managed to reach Israel – one in Kibbutz Gesher HaZiv in the Western Galilee and the other in Moshav Shavei Zion in the Western Galilee.

[…]

One of the two sites hit by Grad rockets is an inn for Holocaust survivors, in which damage was sustained to the kitchen, but no one was injured. Several guests who were at the inn’s dining room were rushed to fortified space when the sirens sounded.

Let’s hope that the proud talk of the IDF’s new preparedness is more than just talk. Let’s hope too that the Iron Dome system is perfected in order to give more complete protection to all of Israel’s citizens.

But more than anything, let’s hope the US and the Allies weigh their response carefully and cautiously. It would be a tragedy if a well-meaning response would exacerbate the war only further.

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8 Responses to To intervene or not to intervene – that is the question

  1. cba says:

    In Syria, there is no choice between “good” and “bad.” Assad’s regime is bad, but the apparent opposition in the country is also bad — maybe even worse, as far as the West is concerned.

    Issacharoff is correct. Which makes it so difficult.

    • anneinpt says:

      Exactly. I know we are all mocking Obama for dithering on his red lines, but we’ll be looking blue (to mix colourful metaphors) if he is pressured to intervene and then the intervention either goes pear-shaped, or is the pretext for Syria to attack Israel.

      There are so many variables, each one worse than the other, that I don’t think there is any perfect response. Even a “least bad” one may rebound on us.

  2. Donald Ellis says:

    Reblogged this on Peace and Conflict Politics and commented:
    This is a class foreign policy problem

  3. peteca says:

    true – not academic.
    this reminds me of when Bill Clinton was President and he decided to “hit back” at Al Qaeda by launching some cruise missiles. That was August 1998 in retaliation for the bombings of the US embassies in E Africa. But as we look back on it now … did those few strikes really change anything? Answer – No.

    Western leaders can take symbolic actions. But taking actions that change the playing field … that is much harder. So you are right Anne – this is a difficult decision for the White House this week.

    Pete, USA

  4. Reality says:

    The problem with Israel doing anything is that we keep being told”to act with restraint”. So if we”start’ in self defense things won’t go well vis a vis the USA or UN

    • anneinpt says:

      I think this time it’s a case of the whole world telling itself and each other that they must all act with restraint. And this time they have a point. If not restraint, at least with great caution. It would actually be best if Israel stayed out of this fight altogether unless we’re actually attacked.

  5. NormanF says:

    There are no good guys in Syria conflict. They’re all cannibals and mass murderers! The West’s sole interest should be to ensure WMDs don’t become a regular feature of warfare. Eliminating Assad’s stockpile of lethal chemical weapons can send the Iranian mullahs a sobering message about their nuclear weapons program. Sure the costs of action are great; but the cost of doing nothing, like in the 1930s, is far greater.

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