With an August estimate of up to 120,000 dead in the Syrian conflict, this week’s announcement of the U.S. administration that the massive gas attack against civilians in the outskirts of Damascus “merits a response” leads one to a cynical conclusion: It doesn’t matter how many died, but rather how they died.
The administration officials made clear this week that whatever option President Obama chooses as a reaction, it is not aimed at a regime change in Syria. Is there a strategic goal of limited military intervention? According to the spokespeople at the White House and the Department of State, the goal is to clarify that the red line established by the international community (198 countries — five countries, including Syria, did not sign the 1993 chemical weapons convention — and two, Israel and Burma, signed, but did not ratify it) cannot be crossed without serious consequences.
Marie Harf, deputy spokesperson at the State Department, on Tuesday urged reporters to see it separately from U.S. support for the Syrian opposition’s fight against the dictator. The U.S. is convinced that the Assad regime is behind the brutal attack, she said. But she also stressed on Tuesday that the U.S. is still convinced that a negotiated political solution is the only possible way to end the conflict. The practical meaning: three days or so of limited missile attacks against regime targets, and then back to the discussions with the Russians and the U.N. on Geneva 2, a seemingly unreachable summit aimed at finding a political solution. Unless, of course, something goes wrong, as it frequently does in the Middle East.
In Israel, for example, the postal service reported the demand for gas masks jumped four times (in case the Assad regime decides to test some of its chemical capabilities on its southern neighbor). Still, the home front is barely ready for a full-scale war — many citizens still lack access to proper bomb shelters, and the existing supply of gas masks will cover only 60 percent of the population.
A missile attack against Israel, as retaliation for the U.S. strike, could come from Syria and Iran — through Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, that since the last conflict with Israel in the summer of 2006 has replenished its rocket arsenal — or some terrorist attacks against Israeli targets in the region or elsewhere. There were some direct threats. Hossein Sheikholeslam, the director general of the Iranian parliament’s International Affairs Bureau, said that if the U.S. attacks Syria, “the Zionist regime will be the first victim” of such attacks. Lebanese caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour also warned that his country — and the resistance (Hezbollah) — “will not remain silent” if Israel decides to take advantage of the crisis and attacks Hezbollah. “Despite its fighting in Syria, the resistance is ready at any time to face any assault,” he said.
Following consultations with his Cabinet, and separately with his minister of defense and the head of the military, Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office made clear in a statement Israel is not part of the conflict, but is ready to deal with any scenario.
Traditionally, Israel is a convenient scapegoat for struggling regimes in the Middle East, but how plausible is the attack?
Dan Schueftan, the director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa in Israel and a visiting professor at Georgetown University, says there is less panic on the street than in the media, and the option of Israel being dragged into full-scale war is highly unlikely.
“Assad is fully aware of the fact that if Israel is attacked from Syria, it will quickly eliminate his regime’s advantage, taking out military bases, air force, infrastructure — all that allows him to stand his ground, fighting the rebels,” Schueftan said. “During the Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein was smart enough not to use chemical weapons against Israel, because he knew there would be dire consequences.”
For Hezbollah, attacking Israel when its best men are busy fighting for the regime in Syria, is not smart either. “Getting involved in conflict with Israel will make it impossible for them to fight effectively in Syria — and losing in Syria will mean losing a critical ally, transfers of weapons, etc. Of course, it doesn’t mean they won’t make this miscalculation, but the chances are low.”
As for Iran, Schueftan is convinced that a direct missile attack against Israel will bring a response from the U.S. that the Iranian regime is not interested in.
But, again, events in the Middle East tend to spin out of control, and, as elsewhere, even a carefully calibrated military intervention always ends up being more expensive than planned.
Per Schueftan, the U.S. attack in Syria should be limited — but can’t be purely symbolic, rather than inflicting some real damage to the regime. “If they fire a couple of missiles, they will become a laughing stock in the region [and] the Obama administration is not far from it,” he said. “American allies are already stressed — and their enemies encouraged. A limited, but strong response would make clear that it’s important enough for the president to ignore the fact that the majority of Americans are not interested in further interventions in the Middle East; make clear that additional transgression will bring another fierce response — that would prove the U.S. is capable of acting decisively. Any U.S. reaction won’t stop the sides from slaughtering each other there. But purely symbolic acts are worse than not doing anything.”
Dr. Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thinks the Obama administration chose the wrong red line to intervene in Syria. “International law is not ambiguous on the use of excessive force against civilians,” he said. “There is a tendency in the media to say how horrifying the use of the chemical weapons is, but anyone that has actually seen what happens in combat with conventional weapons will admit that chemical weapons are no more horrifying.”
How likely is it that a surgical air strike will remain surgical indeed? “Well, surgery involves cutting people,” he shrugged. “With air power, you can never be certain as to what is going to happen. What is for sure, conflicts are not won from the air. There are an awful lot of negative factors, there are some positive options of American intervention — there are no magic options though. To end the stalemate, the rebels need to win, or some agreement [needs] to be achieved between the factions. Even the limited use of U.S. force might deter Assad from broad attacks … . Backing moderate rebels might produce an alternative to Assad in power, but it’s not going to happen overnight. There is also still the possibility of a negotiated departure for Assad. The U.S. can put more into humanitarian efforts and save more people. It’s all about mixing deterrents and incentives.”
The Obama administration has made it quite clear that it does not see the conflict in Syria as pivotal for the U.S. national interests, despite the danger of its continuing to destabilize the region. Among his staff, there are proponents of interventions on the humanitarian basis — including Samantha Power, the new ambassador to the U.N., an author of one of the most impressive books on the tragedy of realpolitik meeting atrocities (A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide).
However, both the U.S. military and the American public have no appetite for another Middle Eastern adventure. After conveying the opposite message for weeks, in the past few days the administration started building its case for intervention. As a result, the public, and more than several lawmakers, seemed to be confused.