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US, UK strike against Assad carries high risks

The US, along with its allies Britain and France, is apparently gearing up for yet another military intervention in the Middle East. But the consequences of even the most minor attack in Syria are very unclear.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks on affordable education at Henninger High School in Syracuse, New York, August 22, 2013. Obama is travelling through New York state and Pennsylvania on a two-day bus tour to promote his plan to cut college costs. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS EDUCATION) ***FREI FÜR SOCIAL MEDIA***

Symbolbild Obama Reaktion auf Giftgaseinsatz in Syrien

All of a sudden, the West is apparently planning another military intervention in the Middle East. With the ink drying on a new arms deal with Indonesia, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday (26.08.2013) turned his attention to Syria, and what everyone seems to think is inevitable. "The United States is looking at all options regarding the situation in Syria," he said in Jakarta. "We're working with our allies and the international community."

The US government is now apparently convinced that a chemical weapons attack did take place last week in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus, and that President Bashar al-Assad's regime was behind it. Though the conclusion pre-empts the United Nations investigation into the attacks, it seems clear that Washington now feels that the infamous "red line" has been crossed, and that some kind of military response is expected of it - if only to save face.

The US, along with its allies Britain and France, already has plenty of military hardware within striking distance of Syria. The US has three destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean, which it has now bolstered with a fourth, while Britain is also thought to have four warships nearby. The US, Britain, and France, also have fighter jets within range of Damascus - based in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Cyprus.

United Nations (U.N.) vehicles transport a team of U.N. chemical weapons experts to the scene of a poison gas attack outside the Syrian capital last week, in Damascus August 26, 2013. The experts dressed in blue U.N. body armour, left in a six-car convoy, according to a Reuters witness, and were accompanied by security forces and an ambulance. They said they were headed to the rebel-held outskirts of Damascus, known as Eastern Ghouta, where activists say rockets loaded with poison gas killed hundreds of people. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) ***FREI FÜR SOCIAL MEDIA***

UN inspectors are in Damascus to determine whether chemical weapons have been used

Marc Pierini, former EU ambassador to Syria and visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, believes that it is high time for the West to take action. "The evidence [for a chemical attack] is there. This video footage cannot be faked," he told DW. "As [British Foreign Secretary] William Hague said yesterday, the time for diplomacy is past, and it's a matter for the Western countries to decide whether this is acceptable or not. The Assad clan is resorting to mass killings in order to keep control of Damascus."

No major attack

But analysts agree that the precarious political situation, and uncertain consequences, mean that the US and its allies will be extremely wary of a major assault. Paul Rogers, security analyst at UK think tank the Oxford Research Group and author of the book "Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century," thinks that the US will most likely mount a very small military operation - at least for now.

"I think any kind of major assault by the US involving Britain or France is very unlikely," he told DW. "I think the one possibility would be a demonstration strike against some kind of regime facility - an intelligence headquarters, or a command-and-control center, something like that."

Rogers also thinks it unlikely that the US will opt for warplanes. "They would not want to over-fly Syria with planes, even with something like the F-22 - their really stealthy strike aircraft," he said. "If you're using planes, you have to take action against Syria's air defenses first, and that's a big operation. I think they would go for cruise missiles, either launched from destroyers, which they already have in the eastern Mediterranean, or else from submarines."

The cruise missiles in question are said to be accurate enough to hit a target 20 meters across and capable of flying so low that Syria's air defense systems could do little to stop them. "If they're aimed at a particular building, and it's a large building, they will hit that building," said Rogers. "The Americans may launch them off the coast of Israel, with Israeli agreement, over-fly Galilee and the Golan Heights, and then Damascus is only, what, 70 or 80 kilometers further."

An activist wearing a gas mask is seen in the Zamalka area, where activists say chemical weapons were used by forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad in the eastern suburbs of Damascus August 22, 2013. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)

For many, the evidence that Assad gassed his own people is overwhelming

Uncertain consequences

But even this relatively minor attack is risky, because it's hard for the US to guess what the consequences will be, not only for Syria, but for the whole Middle East. "The regime may decide it will carry on, and maybe use chemical weapons again, or it may hold back a bit - it depends entirely on how effective the raid actually is," said Rogers. "In the wider Middle East, despite the brutality of the Assad regime, this will be seen as yet one more example of Western interference, following Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya."

And then, of course, there is Iran. "We have President Rouhani, who is probably wanting to deal with the West, but if we have an American attack on an Iranian ally, then the hawks in Tehran will say, 'You must not deal with the Americans, and we must have our nuclear weapons.'"

And there are other risks to weakening Assad. "Week by week, the Islamist elements among the rebels become stronger," said Rogers. "The more that happens, the more the Americans and the British privately feel that if the Assad regime fell, they would face an even more problematic Syria. More Islamist rebels, the al Nusra Front and others, are getting better supplies of weapons, mainly from across the border from Jordan and from Turkey, financed by the Saudis and the Qataris."

Precedents: Kosovo or Libya?

An F-16 jet fighter flies over the NATO airbase in Aviano, Italy, Sunday, March 20, 2011. NATO's top decision-making body is set to decide whether the alliance will join in the strikes on Libya. Diplomats said NATO's military planners are due to present final action plans to the North Atlantic Council on Sunday. (Foto:Luca Bruno/AP/dapd)

Nato's air strikes in Libya turned the tide against the brutal regime

If there was an international military action against Syria, it would likely involve Britain and France as well, argues Pierini, simply because of their technological capabilities. "The UK and France both have cruise missiles. The Dutch and the Germans are already involved in defensive operations in Turkey, with NATO, so the only real question is whether the Italians would be involved or not."

This would make the attack something like the NATO-led air strikes in Libya or Kosovo. But Pierini warns against any easy historical comparisons. "Almost none of the precedents are comparable to any of the others, and certainly not comparable to Syria," he said. "The characteristic of the situation in Syria is that, because of the opposition of Russia and China for two and a half years, diplomacy hasn't worked. Meanwhile the situation in Syria has deteriorated to the extent that no one will know what the result will be."

The Assad regime, he says, has followed a clear strategy from day one, showing no inhibitions of using massive force, even resorting to chemical warfare. "This is not the Syrian state, this is not the Syrian government, it is not even the entire armed forces of Syria, it is the Assad clan. It is a system where only very few are in the know in the planning and the decision-making."

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