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Syrian strike analysis

Ben Knight
September 1, 2013

The Obama administration says a strike against Bashar al-Assad makes sense, but the West is divided over military action, and key allies are turning away. But Assad's chemical attack cannot be ignored, say analysts.

A U.N. chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, inspects one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Damascus' suburb of Zamalka August 29, 2013. A team of U.N. experts left their Damascus hotel for a third day of on-site investigations into apparent chemical weapons attacks on the outskirts of the capital. Activists and doctors in rebel-held areas said the six-car U.N. convoy was scheduled to visit the scene of strikes in the eastern Ghouta suburbs. (Photo: REUTERS/Mohammad Abdullah)
Image: Reuters/Mohammad Abdullah

"After careful deliberation, I have decided that the US should take military action against Syrian regime targets," United States President Barack Obama said on Saturday (31.08.2013). "This would not be an open-ended intervention, we would not put boots on the ground - instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope," Obama said in emphasizing deterrence against use of chemical weapons.

And, taking an unusual - some would say unprecedented - step for a cruise missile strike, Obama added that would first seek congressional support. "Bill Clinton wouldn't have thought twice about it," said John Pike, director of Washington-based think tank GlobalSecurity.org.

On Friday, statements coming from the US government had suggested that a cruise missile strike was much more imminent than the president said a day later.

"We know where the rockets were launched from, and at what time. We know where they landed, and when," Secretary of State John Kerry said, and he was doing more than just presenting an intelligence dossier on the suspected chemical attack of August 21 - it was read as justification for imminent retribution.

Nevertheless, the United Nations 20-member team of inspectors has only just left the region after taking blood and tissue samples from victims in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus, where the attack took place. Those samples are being brought to laboratories in Europe for analysis - and according to diplomats cited in the press, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has told the Security Council that final results might not be ready for two weeks.

The UN weapons inspectors arrive at the headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, The Netherlands, 31 August 2013. United Nations weapons inspectors arrived in the Netherlands along with the collected samples from their investigations in Syria, a day after US President Barack Obama stated that he was considering military action against Syria. The team arrived in the city of Rotterdam aboard a German chartered flight, and then proceeded to the headquarters of the OPCW in The Hague. (Photo: EPA/Marten van Dijl [c] dpa - Bildfunk)
UN inspectors returned from Syria on SaturdayImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Syria and visiting scholar at the Brussels-based think tank Carnegie Europe, believes the US intelligence is credible. "That is the tip of the iceberg," he told DW. "They've given a lot more to Congress and their allies, and they're bound to release more later."

Next steps

While the US government is certain that an attack took place, and that the Assad regime was behind it, diplomatic consensus among US allies is far muddier. The key US allies are the United Kingdom and France, who have forces in the area capable of delivering cruise missiles.

But the UK parliament this week blocked Prime Minister David Cameron's government from taking part in a strike, and a newly published poll has shown that the majority of French people are not only against their country's involvement - they have no faith in President Francois Hollande's leadership on the issue.

For Pierini, this is a secondary consideration - the United States can carry out a strike without international support, "In today's world, when it comes to military gestures, there is one country leading, and that's it."

The fact that the US had already ruled out a major long-term intervention makes it a very different situation than Iraq in 2003. "In the case of Syria, given the limitations that everyone in the West agrees to have on an operation - no boots on the ground, no over-flying aircraft, not toppling the regime - then you're talking of cruise missile capabilities," Pierini said. "But 95 percent of that capability is with the US."

Fighting known enemies

Nevertheless, the UK vote and the French opinion poll show that even a limited strike against Assad would be deeply unpopular in the West. Opponents argue that any kind of military action would only escalate the situation in view of open opposition from Russia - even if such action did cripple Assad's chemical weapons capabilities.

Sawssan Abdelwahab, who fled Idlib in Syria, walks with her children outside the refugees camp near the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern city of Yayladagi in this February 16, 2012 file photograph. The civil war that has unfolded in Syria over the past two and a half years has killed more than 100,000 people and driven millions from their homes. Now, in the wake of last week's chemical weapons attack near Damascus, the world is waiting to see what action Western powers will take and what impact this will have on the Middle Eastern nation and the rest of the volatile region. (Photo: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)
Syria is becoming a "land of warlords," analysts thinkImage: Reuters

And Pike is doubtful that's possible. "The conventional warhead on a Tomahawk - all that's going to do is disperse the poison gas."

A military strike, he said, is likely to have a different target. If Assad were worried that he was losing his grip on power, Pike said, the US would probably try to loosen his power. "Target command and control - [Assad's] personal security forces," Pike told DW.

The situation has been complicated, he added, by a recent increase in support for Assad in Washington: "They admire him for being a bulwark against al-Qaeda. Better the devil we know than the devil we don't."

The main US concern, then, is in calibrating a strike - make it hurt Assad and deter him from using chemical weapons, but not actually remove him from power. Washington's main problem is that most of the rebels have very local concerns. "It's a thousand glorified neighborhood watches," Pike said. The US fears that without a unified rebel army, when Assad eventually falls, "the place is just going to be a big mess. It'll be Lebanon on steroids."

Somalia of the Mediterranean

For Pierini, the arguments for a limited strike are clear, even in the face of open antagonism from Russia. "This is a situation where the options are between bad and worse - and much worse," he said. Westerners have difficulty understanding how Russia's interests are being served by "this permanent, and totally predictable, degradation," he added.

The former ambassador described the regime in Damascus as a "clan" struggling to maintain control over the capital city. "They can hardly re-conquer the rest of the country, let alone establish an administration and run the country - it's too late to do that," Pierini said.

Then there is the problem of corruption. The Syrian army, Pierini suggested, has for decades been selling supplies on the black market. More recently, there are rumors that army members have sold Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades to the rebels, Pierini said. "Inevitably, at one point chemical weapons will be on the market. That's a very powerful reason for giving a signal to Assad that a red line has been crossed."

Inaction will make things worse, Pierini said, "Essentially what you're contemplating is a land of warlords - it's Somalia on the Mediterranean."