The US and its principal allies in Europe and the Middle East have indicated their resolve to take military action against the Assad regime in response to the death of more than 1,000 people around Damascus after bombardments by missiles containing toxic chemicals. Briefings from US officials suggest that the Obama administration aims to carry out a limited military intervention, aimed at registering international condemnation of the use of chemical weapons against civilians and at deterring any future use of such weapons.
The clearest signal that the US has taken the decision to attack Syria came in a speech by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, on August 26th. Mr Kerry said that the “meaning” of the chemical weapons attack went far beyond Syria itself. His words implied that the US administration considers it vital that there should be a strong international response, not only because of the situation in Syria but also because of the wider implications of letting such attacks go unpunished. He said that the US president, Barack Obama, “believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people”.
Mr Kerry has been a leading proponent within the administration of an interventionist line on Syria, in the face of a more cautious approach argued by US military commanders. Mr Obama has thus far lined up with the military, despite the evidence that emerged earlier this year that the Assad regime had started to use chemical weapons, in defiance of warnings from the US president that there would be serious consequences for any such action.
UK and France support military action
The case for military action against the Assad regime has been advocated strongly by the UK and French governments, whose forces are likely to play a role in any operation. The other principal supporters of the US position include Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, all of which are likely to be involved directly or indirectly.
The legal basis that the US will present for its military strikes is likely to consist of the argument that the Assad regime has committed a flagrant violation of international law and that the use of force is legitimate in such circumstances according to the responsibility to protect civilians and under the provisions of international protocols on chemical weapons (despite Syria not having signed any such protocols). The UK government is likely to seek parliamentary approval for its contribution to any operation—the British parliament was recalled on August 26th to discuss the issue—but Mr Obama is thought to have the discretion to approve an attack on Syria without needing to secure the backing of Congress. The UN has an inspection team in Damascus, but its mandate has been severely limited by the need for it to operate with the approval of the Syrian government. It has been able to gain brief access to one of the sites attacked, but was not permitted to gather any parts from the rockets that local residents claimed were used in the attacks. The UN team has also been barred from investigating which party was responsible for the chemical attacks and has come under sniper fire. The firm opposition of Russia and China to any outside military intervention in Syria means that there is no chance of passing a resolution through the UN Security Council endorsing military strikes.
Military intervention will be limited and quick
The US administration has signalled through media briefings that the operation is likely to be limited and of relatively short duration. This would imply that it would involve attacks using naval vessels and aircraft from outside Syrian airspace on military and security installations. The main weapons used would be cruise missiles or guided bombs from aircraft. Based on the pattern of similar operations against Iraq and Libya, the targets would include air defence systems and control centres, military bases and buildings housing security agencies. Direct attacks on chemical weapons storage sites are unlikely because of the risk of the dispersal of toxic agents. Particular targets could include bases of the Fourth Armoured Division, commanded by Maher al‑Assad, the president’s younger brother, and the specific brigade reported to have been responsible for the firing of chemical missiles.
Even if the operation is presented as being purely a response to the regime’s perceived large-scale use of chemical weapons against civilians, the military intervention of itself would open up a new phase in the conflict. This would be perceived as being aimed at bringing down the Assad regime, or at least forcing it to negotiate its own replacement. This would require enhanced support for rebel fighters, possibly including the establishment of a no-fly zone, and more determined external engagement in the process of charting a viable political and economic future for Syria.
Risk of regional consequences
The US and its allies will have to assess the risk of retaliation by the regime and its allies. One option that the Assad regime has is to draw Israel into the conflict. This could entail firing missiles from Syria into Israel, or else activating the front in southern Lebanon between Israel and Hizbullah, a Lebanese Shia movement allied to Syria and Iran. Syria could also launch missile attacks against Turkey and Jordan, although the US has sought to protect these two states through the deployment of Patriot anti-missile batteries. The reaction of Iran and Russia would also have to be weighed up. Both countries have military advisers in Syria, and have warned the US that there would be serious consequences if Syria were attacked.