Following the end of the United Nation’s mission to Syria on Labor Day weekend, all eyes are on the United States and if Congress will accept President Barack Obama's rationale for launching military strikes against the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Secretary of State John Kerry has said that sarin was indeed used in the chemical attacks and the casualties are approximately 1,400 people. At this point, it is up to Congress to authorize a missile strike on Syria. Kerry does make one point that is important: enforcing the Chemical Weapons Convention is an extremely important detail towards limiting and eliminating the production, storage and use of these WMDs. Cited intelligence reports, most recently from the French, suggest that the Assad regime is responsible for chemical attacks, but the fog of war and unreliable evidence make the rebels as likely to have carried out chemical weapon attacks, including having some responsibility for events on Aug. 21.
The destabilization risks of an intervention now threaten to throw the Mideast into chaos.
Very little analysis has been focused on the consequences of official external military interference in Syria. If we are to avoid a disastrous regional situation we must first consider the following points: 1) the postures of relevant regional players and 2) the destabilization dynamics that might take place if the war spreads beyond Syria.
What makes Syria a particularly sensitive question for any military operation is that it sits at the center of a very crowded strategic space and any miscalculation can set off a deadly chain reaction.
A stray missile landing in Israel would snap already taut nerves in Tel Aviv. Israel was more secure with Assad in power and a wider MENA region in relative stability. Now, Israeli paranoia would be justified, because all around it, it would be unclear who the substate agents are, what weapons they have available and who has accountability.
Particularly worrisome is the potential for striking the Syrian army’s chemical stockpile sites, because destroying the storage facilities would be sufficient to release uncertain quantities of toxic agents, to be spread further afield by wind currents – and very well out of Syria. These actions could very well be interpreted as an unilateral act of war.
Russia: Aloof or Involved?
The war against Syria will take place much closer to Russia and for that reason Moscow will be observing the proceedings much more closely than Iraq or Afghanistan, as the latter are both strategically of lesser importance for Russia. The likeliest form of Russian involvement is the indirect help to Syria by operating the S-300 air defense system and Yahont anti-ship missiles, which might potentially do the most damage to any assembled allied fleet and air force. If that is the case, then the lack of information makes the military outcomes analysis uncertain and potentially much more dangerous.
Iran: Entry on the Strategic Scene and Nuclear Weapons
Syria is one of Iran’s strategic regional allies, and Teheran is directly concerned that Assad’s regime survives. Logistical help is already a fact, with Iranian Revolutionary Guards already on the ground with Hezbollah, alongside additional financial and military support. The particular problem is Iran’s extensive arsenal of missiles with the question being, which ones and how many are in Syria – in the event of a war, Allied ships and regional targets in nearby are as fair game as chemical weapon storage sites. It is highly unlikely that Iran will stand idle as this war unfolds.
Israel: Out of Depth and Diplomacy
The primary and, often, only tool of Israel’s foreign policy is its military. Should Syria destabilize beyond measure, it is certain that Israel will involve itself through air strikes and possibly a ground assault. The trouble is, such a disaster puts Israel’s very future on the map, because it was not built to last in sustained warfare, and if WMDs become a variable, then the future looks very worrisome for the Jewish state. If there is one thing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should push for at this point in the game, it is diplomacy. The stakes for Israel are far too high otherwise.
Turkey: Possible Ground Action
Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Erdogan's desire to turn Turkey into the regional superpower has him voicing support for any operation to put Assad out of power and with that, an unhidden policy to finance and support the groups that include Turkey's political ambitions. While Turkey does play host to thousands of Syrian refugees, its armed forces would become a part of any proposed wide coalition plan to potentially invade Syria. Unfortunately, the stand-off between Islamist groups and Kurds in northeastern Syria might end badly for Turkey and specifically its recent peace with the PKK.
The missile strikes would qualitatively change the civil war to an international, regional war. Syria’s options, as per a BBC overview of the country’s military capabilities, are to intensify the conflict, widen it further on a regional level by striking U.S. assets in neighbouring countries, or organizing terrorists attack in the United States. The common trend in these options are that they are all asymmetrical, but as far as asymmetrical options are concerned, there are other factors to consider. First among these is the available missile inventory and the question of what medium and long-range missiles are based in Syria and whether they are Syrian, Iranian or Russian. Damascus’ longest-range known inventory includes Scud-D missiles with an operational radius of 700 km. Air defences are based on upgraded S-200 systems, with a menagerie of other more advanced (S-300) and less advanced models playing supporting roles; in all, there are thousands of anti-air artillery units available at the Syrian Army’s disposal and an air campaign will be risky. The Syrian air force employs older configurations of MiG-21/23/29 aircraft and Sukhoi-22/24 variants whose primary mission is ground attack and support. The serviceability of these aircraft is under question and largely antiquated avionics makes it doubtful that they would be effective beyond ground support roles.
Yahont anti-ship missiles will not have the effective range to fight the flotilla directly, unless fired within a 300km range by the Syrian navy; however, its capacity to do so is questionable.
Overall, Syrian reaction will be defensive, combining allied, asymmetrical and symmetrical ways to respond.
The end-game: mission creep
Too many parties with conflicting interests surround Syria and have an interest in the outcome of its civil war. The proposed dynamics of the civil war could turn out in a number of ways, but its rapid diffusion through to the wider Mideast – destabilizing other critical fault lines, such as those between India and Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Sinai – is near certain. Tensions in North Africa might flare up again and we would be faced with a potential front of medium-intensity warfare stretching from Algeria to Pakistan.
That is a worst case scenario, but not one hard to imagine if the Syrian conflict isn’t stopped. The dilemma is that intervening would worsen it, but letting it work itself out could take years longer and the risk of regional destabilization remains nonetheless.