The Syria intervention: a what if…

By J Brooks Spector 30 August 2013

If the increasingly likely western attack on Syria happens, there will be yet another question on the table that will also have to be addressed, even before the missiles stop falling. The question of what happens after the attacks have been carried out may end up being a more significant issue than the one they are battling with now – to bomb or not to bomb. With this in mind, J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes out his crystal ball, gives it a thorough buff and a polish, and gazes at a distinctly cloudy future.

As the world remains poised at a point before any decision has actually been made to launch a punishment attack on Syria because of the country’s military’s use of chemical weapons, let alone the actual launch of such a punishment attack, there is already a need to look ahead and contemplate what happens afterwards. This is because there is always an afterwards. And consequences. Unintended consequences.

While there is apparently still some time to come before the likely firing of that first cruise missile from a ship stationed off the Mediterranean coast of Syria, targeting a secret command-and-control nexus in Damascus, now is the time to think beyond the immediate. It is always possible for things to get much worse than they were. There is the famous story, for example, of the German general staff officers who refused even to countenance re-routing the country’s troop trains back towards their marshalling points in Germany if peace could somehow have been preserved, because it would complicate the railroad timetables and the call-up of the reserves to feed a war that was bound to come. So, let’s make some assumptions and see how they play out.

So, let’s start with our “what if” for today:

What if following the decision by the British government’s legal office that the UK could legally take military action in Syria, even initially against the will of the British Parliament and without a UN Security Council resolution, the British government agreed to make common cause with the US on a punishment attack. In addition, the French government came on board and, in fact, had already been pushing vigorously for action even before the British and US decision had been taken. In America, the Pentagon had drawn up a full operational plan, and following a contentious debate in Congress over a resolution of support for military action, Congress gave the go-ahead.

But this only happened after Obama administration officials testified the mission would not have, as its goal, the removal from office of Bashar al-Assad. This accorded with polling data that generally found American and British citizens strongly opposed to full-scale intervention – those “boots on the ground”. On that basis, the White House gave the final go-ahead for a limited “punishment” action by a multi-national, joint task force.

Both legislatures ultimately gave their go-aheads (the British after several votes) once the two governments had released recordings of Syrian field commanders seeking authorization for the use of chemical agents, a listing of multiple uses of chemical weapons by the Syrians dating back a decade, and copies of detailed manuals from the Syrian army on how to use such weapons for maximum effect in urban, guerrilla warfare conditions. And, of course, the UN inspectors’ report contained some convincing evidence on the matter.

Making use of destroyers stationed in the Eastern Mediterranean whose operations had protective cover from fighter craft operating out of the British air base on Cyprus and a US aircraft carrier operating in the Red Sea, multiple salvos of cruise missiles, each targeted on a full spread of command-and-control centres across Syria, were launched. Cruise missiles can generally avoid anti-aircraft missile systems, even the sophisticated ones employed by the Syrians. Then, following the cruise missile barrage, a combination of drone attack craft and smart bombs launched from patrolling aircraft attacked all of the anti-aircraft missile sites in Syria and rendered them inoperative. This “degrading” of the Syrian anti-aircraft defence opened the door to the imposition of an effective “no fly zone” across the country so as to prevent Syrian warplanes from challenging control of the country’s air space or attempting to attack the naval forces.

While the air campaign was particularly successful in reducing Syria’s military capabilities in accordance with the operational plan, it had not been designed to give the rebels any major assist in their grinding urban battles with the government’s military forces. Moreover, as a plan, because it did not land western ground forces in Syria itself, it did not include a separate plan to capture and or destroy the country’s chemical weapons stores. The intention was, as publicly stated by western leaders, to punish the Syrian government for the use of such weapons, rather than assist the rebels in their on-going struggle with the government.

Nonetheless, the absence of command-and-control capabilities made it extremely difficult for the Assad regime to maintain battlefield control over its forces while the rebels, now increasingly supplied by Gulf state money and a growing flow of western-provided armaments, were able to carry out successful assaults that encouraged several sector commanders to defect to the rebels. That finally tipped the balance and the Assad regime began to fray, then crumble, then, finally, to collapse completely. Sensing how the wind was blowing, the Russians facilitated the departure of Bashar al-Assad, his family and his closest supporters in exchange for a continuation of the Russian lease of its naval base at Tartus. The Chinese, meanwhile, watched and calculated just how all this might affect the thinking of the rulers in Pyongyang.

Well, that’s one version of the future. There are other possibilities, of course. For starters, the UN Security Council might not reach an agreement on the authorization of force to punish the Syrian government for the use of chemical weapons, even after the British and American governments released convincing data that pointed to Syria’s government as the guilty party and the UN inspectors report contained convincing evidence of gas warfare.

In this “what if”, failing to achieve any visible UN cover that cited the Syrians for crimes against humanity via violations of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, and the more recent Chemical Weapons Convention, the French, British and Americans were forced to fall back on the doctrine of self defence against an imminent threat to those countries, their citizens and their allies in the region as the justification for the attacks. With the Russians and Chinese steadfastly refusing to back military activity, opposition in the British Parliament and US Congress became more strident, attacking President and Prime Minister for focusing on Syria when more significant issues, such as the continuing instability in Egypt as well as major economic policy questions, went unattended.

Meanwhile, in Syria, one of the dozens and dozens of cruise missiles launched went slightly off-course from its intended target. A flaw in the circuitry apparently. It ended up missing a major Syrian military office and destroying a satellite liaison office of the Russian Embassy by mistake. There were few casualties (it was late at night), but the resulting diplomatic furore had a significant downward effect on the increasingly sour diplomatic relationship between the US and Russia. This, in turn, threatened to make things much more difficult in dealing with the recalcitrant Iran and North Korea regimes.

Then there was the problem of the chemical warheads themselves. The Syrian military had for years been assembling a major stockpile of chemical weapons, ranging from mustard and phosgene gases to VX and sarin agents. Although it was never really clear what happened, in the confusion after the initial attacks on the Syrian command-and-control facilities, inventory control was fatally compromised and an uncertain number of the chemical weapons passed into the hands of rogue elements such as Hezbollah fighters, and even groups nominally aligned to al Qaeda, in addition to scattered field commanders of the Syrian forces seemingly prepared to fight to the death in their Alawite redoubts. Intelligence reports began to be received that indicated significant leakage of Syrian chemical weapons into the hands of Islamist irregular forces in refugee camps in Lebanon, and, even more worryingly, in Gaza.

Meanwhile, the further collapse of order in Syria led to even more refugees flooding into Turkey and Jordan, and then ultimately into Israel despite the reluctance of the Israelis to let refugees enter the Golan Heights occupied zone, unless the UN agreed in advance to take full responsibility for them. Epidemics of serious diseases began sweeping through the new refugee camps, eventually spreading into the general populations of the areas, causing significant civil disruptions and even the near collapse of the Jordanian and Lebanese governments.

Beyond the region itself, although the initial attacks only began a week after the G-20 meeting in St Petersburg, once the UN survey team had completed its time in Syria, had written their reports and presented them to UN headquarters, the tension from the anticipation of the attacks effectively wrecked the G-20 meeting. It was the first time such a meeting had been unable to complete its plenary sessions, as there was no longer the hope for even the semblance of agreement on any of the issues on the agenda (even though they were seemingly unrelated to the Syrian situation). This was enough to spook international investors, who pulled as much capital as they could from exposure in the emerging markets. That, in turn, sent stock markets tumbling around the globe, and the currency values of commodity exporters and middle tier nations tumbled even faster. Oil reached $195 a barrel. An entire series of unattributed terror attacks were launched in various western capitals, adding to the general confusion.

On the other hand, some analysts are already arguing that it will be the very failure to act in Syria that would set things seriously wrong. The Economist commented last week about the possibilities for error, writing “Foreign-policy grandees call Mr Obama rash for saying that Bashar al-Assad had to go without first figuring out who might replace him, and for vowing to act should the regime use chemical weapons: a ‘red line’ tested afresh on 21 August by allegations of horrific gas attacks on civilians near Damascus (prompting cautious White House calls for a UN investigation). A rival, bipartisan camp calls Mr Obama weak and timorous for failing to arm Syria’s rebels.” Allowing the Assad government to act with impunity after Obama’s famous red line on chemical weapons had been crossed would, in this alternate analysis, simply encourage the North Koreans, the Iranians and others to pursue their respective ambitions to the disadvantage of the west. And that, in turn, would encourage the Russians and Chinese to be increasingly reluctant to compromise on a whole range of other issues.

In effect, the Obama, Cameron and Hollande governments, having staked themselves to the idea that the Assad government must be punished for its presumed chemical warfare transgressions, may now have boxed themselves in because of their determination to act at some point. Carrying out a punishment attack offers the possibility of success (but the significant risk of failure). Failing to act after threatening to do so would bring its own risk of failures in other spheres.

Paradoxically, the Obama administration came into power in part on the back of its promise to extract the country from two expensive, exhausting, increasingly unpopular, enervating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, it now finds itself moving closer and closer to a conflict in which American interests largely seem to be the embodiment of a presidential warning that the US would exact retribution if the Syrian government used chemical agents in its civil war, rather than picking sides with the rebels and being done with it. All the choices now seem to be unpleasant at best, and ones in which the positives may well be outweighed by unanticipated circumstances.

In the White House, in Whitehall and 10 Downing Street and in the Élysée Palace, the invidious choices are being weighed. And in the Syrian presidential offices, in Moscow and in Beijing reactions are being considered. Meanwhile, the warships are on station, the missiles are being checked out and the detailed flight plans are being drawn up. We wait. DM

Read more:

  • Barack Obama’s Iraq syndrome, in the Economist
  • Attacking Syria: Avoiding the “Big Pinprick” Syndrome, in Time
  • Syria shows defiance; UN team tours near Damascus, in the AP
  • Restraining Order – Obama’s been wise to not get involved in Syria. But now comes the tricky part, in Foreign Policy
  • Obama: US action would send Assad “strong signal”, at the AP
  • More Answers Needed on Syria, a New York Times
  • Chemical mystery, at the Economist
  • Guttering, choking, drowning, at the Economist
  • If this isn’t a red line, what is?, at the Economist
  • U.S. explores possible legal justifications for strike on Syria, at the Washington Post
  • In Syria, U.S. credibility is at stake, a column by David Ignatius, at the Washington Post
  • The Syrian Crisis: What Should Be Done, Why and How, at the Brookings Institution Saban Center for Middle East Policy
  • The case against a war in Syria, at the Washington Post
  • Syria: A step too far If Bashar Assad really has used chemical weapons on his own people in a big way, America must intervene, at the Economist

Photo: A Free Syrian Army fighter stands near a damaged military tank that belonged to the forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad after they seized it, in Aleppo’s town of Khanasir August 29, 2013. Rebel forces took control of a strategic town in northern Syria on Monday, killing more than 50 pro-government fighters and cutting off government forces’ only supply route out of the city of Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. REUTERS/Molhem Barakat


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