Syria: Armed forces await signal to strike

The flight deck of the USS Harry Truman. Picture: Getty
The flight deck of the USS Harry Truman. Picture: Getty
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WESTERN military forces are now in position in and around the Mediterranean with Syria as their target.

All commanders are waiting for is the signal from Washington to strike at the chemical weapons caches and other military zones under the control of the Assad regime.

The US Navy has five cruise missile-carrying destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean and probably a missile-firing submarine. These are most likely to be the weapons deployed in the limited strike that President Barack Obama is advocating but has not yet officially sanctioned.

If more firepower is needed, two US aircraft carriers could launch air strikes, and land bases in Turkey and Cyprus might also be used. The role of the US’s new leading ally, France, is expected to be additional air power from the carrier Charles De Gaulle or from land bases in the United Arab Emirates

The aim would be to get Bashar al-Assad’s attention and to persuade him not to resort to chemical weapons in the future. Targets could be military sites linked closely to the regime – the headquarters, air defence centres or barracks of elite units – rather than sites themselves because of the risk of harm to nearby civilian populations. The attraction of this option is that it could be mounted quickly and with limited risk to the Western forces involved. However, the prospect of US-led air strikes on Syria is divisive in the Middle East as well as in the West. Some countries are in favour of Western military action, but are concerned the “limited” air strikes will not prove decisive, while others whose interests are threatened are speaking of retaliation, but may also face further risks if the conflict escalates outside Syria.

For the US, British involvement would have been useful largely for political reasons, but was not militarily essential. The UK parliament’s decision does not constrain the US from pressing ahead, although it has encouraged some in Congress to ask for their own chance to have a say.

Obama has emphasised that the US is considering limited strikes with a narrowly defined mission following the warning by General Dempsey, joint chief of staff, that regime change precipitated by more extensive military action may not be in the US national interest. For instance, what happens if the Syrian government responded to air strikes by slaughtering many more civilians, capitalising on nationalist sentiment in reaction to a foreign attack, and blaming the US for the deaths?

There might then be renewed calls to enforce a no-fly zone along the Turkish or Jordanian borders, or both, something that members of the Syrian opposition started to call for almost two years ago.

Alternatively, a congressman, Tom Engel, has suggested that the US should bomb the Syrian air force in order to ground its planes, preventing it from bombing its own people and making it harder to receive arms transfers from Russia.

Committing Western “boots on the ground” is the least likely scenario, and is something the US, UK and French governments all want to avoid.

But could other troops move into Syria if military requirements escalate? One British MP asked why, if Arab League countries were as supportive of military action as David Cameron said, do they not send their own troops. Some of the Gulf states have been arming the opposition, but their armies are largely untested in war; they depended on international intervention to liberate Kuwait and protect Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein. Qatar’s then emir said in 2012 that Arab armies should intervene in Syria as they had done in Lebanon’s civil war in 1976.

The comparison was particularly unfortunate as most of those troops were Syrian, who went on to occupy Lebanon for most of the next three decades. Qatar, with just a quarter of a million citizens, is too small to make a significant intervention itself while larger Arab states with stronger armies, such as Jordan and Egypt, do not want to get sucked into an intra-Arab conflict.

None of the Arab governments has publicly endorsed Western military strikes, though the Arab League has called for UN resolutions and international justice to prosecute the perpetrators of the chemical attacks. Only Turkey, a non-Arab country, has explicitly called for intervention. Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria oppose it. And Egypt, where the military has just overthrown the elected Muslim Brotherhood government, is deeply divided over Syria. Pro-government media in Egypt have been whipping up fears among the public that once the US bombs Syria, they would come and attack Egypt next. While some of the Gulf governments are privately pushing for air strikes, they do not want to admit this to their own populations, expecting it to be unpopular. For these governments, the sight of Cameron’s wishes being frustrated by an elected parliament may look like a sign of weakness and yet another argument against democracy.

There is no parliament in the Arab world, except perhaps in Lebanon, that could restrain a leader in this way.

Syria’s capacity to retaliate conventionally is limited as its army is so preoccupied with fighting at home, but it could opt for unconventional attacks. More worrying is the wider potential for conflict, since Syria, unlike Libya or Iraq, is part of a close alliance with Iran and Russia. There is also a wider risk of confrontation with Syria’s allies. Iran is already involved in what has been described as a “cold war” with Saudi Arabia, now the main regional backer of the Syrian opposition. The two countries are backing different sides in Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, Bahrain, and a variety of other countries that are already anxious about the impact of Syria.

For Russia, Syria is the last bastion of its influence in the Arab world, which has been much reduced since the end of the Cold War and the expansion of the US military presence in the Gulf that followed the liberation of Kuwait. Russia has used its influence over Syria as a card in its international diplomacy, helping it be seen as a player in Middle Eastern politics once again.

(Although there has been absolutely no progress towards a political solution, Russia would argue that the ability of the UN to send monitors and weapons inspectors is at least partly thanks to it.)

But Russia already sees the US as meddling in its backyard by trying to expand Nato co-operation into Eastern Europe, and is likely to increase its support for the Assad regime in the event of a US-led attack.

Syria has threatened to attack Israel if the US attacks it, and Israelis have been stocking up on gas masks, while the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has said the country will respond “fiercely” in any such scenario.

But many in Israel expect their own powerful army and weapons will deter Syria from following through on its bombastic talk. Despite its routine anti-Israel rhetoric, and Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights for the past three decades, Syria tends to avoid any direct confrontation with the Israeli army.

It has supported Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian Lebanese militia and political party, which repeatedly fought with Israel, and Hamas. Yet Syria’s own border with Israel is acknowledged by Israeli political and defence analysts to have been Israel’s quietest border for most of the past 40 years. Israel bombed what it said was a suspected nuclear facility in Syria in 2007, with no response from Syria. And Israel is already believed to have carried out several air strikes on Syria this year.

Israel is also worried by the risks that Syrian chemical weapons could fall into the hands of non-state participants, whether Hezbollah or Syrian opposition fighters. The possibility of armed factions from Syria clashing with Israel cannot be ruled out – in which case Israel could even be tempted to invade and occupy part of Syrian territory, as it did in 1982 in the south of 
civil-war-stricken Lebanon. Meanwhile, the uncertainty and brutality in Syria is reinforcing those in Israel who argue that their country needs to focus on security rather than peace talks.

In Beirut, Gulf nationals have already been staying away from their usual summer holiday spots in Beirut. Some Westerners are also quietly considering shifting their families out, while there is an influx of Syrians of all types – the displaced and dispossessed, un-uniformed military officers and business families from Damascus and Aleppo. However, if Syria was seen to be attacking Western interests around the world, it could change the mood among Western publics and increase the appetite for larger scale strikes.

• Jane Kinninmont is the senior research fellow for the Middle East programme at the Chatham House think tank