The war in Syria became increasingly grave this week after intelligence agencies reported that Syria started to assemble components needed to weaponize its stockpile of Sarin gas for use in bombs it could drop on its own people.
With the rebels laying siege to the capital after seizing several crucial military bases around the country, President Bashar Assad’s regime is increasingly desperate for a way to turn their situation around and will likely use its chemical weapons in a last ditch gamble. If they do, the U.S. will soon be at war with Syria, although it will not fight conventionally using its military forces.
After over 20 months of fighting the regime is finally at its limit. President Bashar al-Assad is trapped in a situation where he cannot leave Syria without possibly being extradited and prosecuted for war crimes later, cannot call for peace with the rebels after fighting that’s left 40,000 dead, and cannot flee without abandoning his fellow Alawites to being massacred (and who may kill him, too, if he tries to flee). If every route to escape is blocked off, Assad will use the worst tools he has and hope for a miracle.
President Obama is similarly confined to using force. He tried to prevent the use of WMDs earlier by vowing in August that even the simple “movement” of such weapons would be a red line for the U.S. and bring about dire consequences. If he could prevent Assad from taking that step, then the regime would likely crumble without the U.S. having to intervene. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “we believe their fall is inevitable. It is just a question of how many people have to die before that occurs." Although the administration has since retreated from their ultimatum after Assad ignored Obama’s warning, declaring that “movement” really meant “proliferation to terrorist organizations,” it will be forced to respond if WMDs are actually used, and has since tried to generate legitimacy abroad for an intervention should the worst happen.
What kind of intervention would the U.S. stage if it were forced into the conflict? After over a decade of conflict fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan the American people have no appetite for another ground war. A strategic bombing run against Syria’s chemical stockpile or a no-fly zone wouldn’t work any better. In the former case, you cannot attack WMDs without possibly setting them off and killing many of the innocent civilians you were trying to protect, and to make things worse, most of Syria’s stockpiles are stored near Jordan, a U.S. ally. Any attack, preemptive or otherwise, would likely cause a cloud of death to blow across the border and cause an international calamity.
In the case of a no-fly zone, Syrian rebels already have anti-aircraft missiles that they’ve used to down several planes and helicopters, so denying the regime total air superiority. Efforts by the U.S. to destroy Syria’s missile stockpile by air (assuming that the regime didn’t use them all in its initial salvo) would be complicated by the need to rapidly respond to portable, moving targets located in an urban area near civilian quarters. Given how any intervention after WMDs are used will be based on the doctrine of “right to protect” (R2P), as punishment for a government for failed to defend its own people, any international coalition will be tightly bound by strict rules of engagement. Unlike in Libya, there is no need for a no-fly zone and it wouldn’t be very effective besides blowing up the occasional military command center that is likely to be evacuated anyways should a WMD be used.
Consequently, any possible U.S. intervention in Syria would likely consist of greater logistic and intelligence support for the rebels and irregular forces, accelerating trends on the ground that would bring about the regime’s downfall. This would also mesh with U.S. aims to prevent the proliferation of other WMD to terrorist groups by embedding people to secure or keep an eye out on how these weapons are moved. In a post chemical weapon attack situation, the last thing anyone needs is for Al-Qaeda or Hezbollah elements to secure enough material to arm dirty bombs or missile warheads they could use elsewhere in the region.
All of this is dependent however on the failure to reach some form of diplomatic arrangement between Assad and his fellow Alawites and the rebel forces. Although both sides are gearing up for what will likely be the final battle, there is still time to avoid the worst. During the Cold War, nuclear weapons proved to be so terrifying that they pushed even enemies like the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the negotiation table in order to avoid the worst outcome. With chemical weapons entering the picture, a similar nightmare scenario may frighten participants in Syria’s civil war to concede points that had scuttled previous attempts at a cease-fire. If our diplomats’ phones aren’t ringing off the hooks over Syria, they ought to be.