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Strategy for Syria?

Interview: Najima El Moussaoui / ew
September 8, 2013

The question of a military intervention in Syria continues to divide the international community. Syria expert Petra Becker sheds light on possible scenarios if the US were to go ahead with such an attack.

Petra Becker (Photo: private)
Petra BeckerImage: Privat

DW: At the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, it became clear that many countries condemn the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, but hardly any of them support a military intervention. Would the US intervene in Syria alone?

Petra Becker: The possibility of the US carrying out a military attack against President Bashar al-Assad is high. And President Barack Obama will probably find some supporters for the intervention - from Persian Gulf states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but also Turkey. The Turkish government has already announced its intention to get involved, and is waiting for the US to make a move.

Al-Assad's allies, Russia and China, are blocking the United Nations Security Council's push for a UN mandate for international intervention in Syria. In light of this, what role can the United Nations still play in solving this conflict?

The United Nations is finding it difficult to define its role. For more than two years now, its hands have been tied on Syria due to a veto-power blockade. This has resulted in a growing feeling that one should not wait on the UN Security Council.

But this doesn't mean that the UN wouldn't play a role following a military intervention. On the contrary: the UN would have to work toward a diplomatic solution parallel to an intervention.

Germany condemns the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but doesn't want to contribute to a military intervention. How plausible is this position?

Germany and the European Union should give more support to the US. If it comes to a military intervention, this support needs to be more than just lip service. Germany should at least provide the US with logistical support.

Does Obama really want this attack, or does he simply feel obliged to act because he once described the use of chemical weapons as the "red line" that the US would not tolerate?

As far as I can tell, the American president is under pressure to do something. He is being depicted by Russia and China as indecisive and not ready to let the US enforce its role as an international peacekeeping power. In this regard, a military intervention in Syria would also help the US look more credible.

What are other US goals?

At first it sounded like an intervention wasn't supposed to lead to a change of government. But it seems that this idea is being reconsidered. The fact that the intervention would last for 90 days indicates that Obama's plan goes beyond punitive measures.

Syrian government forces' helicopters are parked at a military base near the northern Syrian town of Taftanaz, in the Idlib province, on November 9, 2012. (Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian military bases, such as this one near Taftanaz, could become targets of a possible US attackImage: Getty Images

To what extent could such an attack, without ground troops, weaken al-Assad?

In my opinion, this intervention only makes sense if it's supported by a long-term strategy. A purely punitive action would only fuel the conflict further. It would make more sense to disable the Syrian air force, as Assad then wouldn't be able to drop bombs on his people. In order to do this, the American army would need to destroy Syria's air force bases.

The launching ramps for medium-range missiles, with which Assad has been attacking the northern part of the country from the south, are also possible targets. If it is possible to force Assad into a defensive stance, a diplomatic solution would become a more realistic option.

How great is the danger that al-Assad will react to an attack with more chemical weapons?

Assad can't be trusted. It is possible that an attack will provoke him to commit even more brutality against his own countrymen. He may also feel compelled to launch attacks on neighboring countries. But this shouldn't stop anyone from taking action. The problem will not be solved through continued hesitation. I believe the only option is to disable the regime.

What consequences would a military attack have on Syria and the surrounding region?

Unfortunately, one can expect civilian casualties. On the other hand, around 100 people are currently being killed in Syria every day. Without intervention, the country will slowly perish. The current situation has destabilized Lebanon and Jordan so much so that these states are on the verge of collapse.

As for the refugee situation, it is possible that the number of refugees will increase temporarily - but only a prompt decision to act offers the chance to stop this exodus in the medium term, and give the 2 million refugees [who have already left the country] the chance to return to Syria.

Who would replace al-Assad?

We need to turn our attention to the moderate personalities. One might get the impression from public discourse that Syria only has the option choose between a secular despot and a Taliban-style theocracy. This perspective omits the fact that in Syria there is a civil society, which in the form of civil committees and revolutionary committees has been ensuring peaceful coexistence among the different groups for more than two-and-a-half years. This supports the theory that the people would, in the long term, be able to take their fate in their own hands. However, this would require concentrated action from both sides during the transition period.

I think that the moment of moderate movements within the regime - the people who have been sidelined by the government because they didn't want to be part of the violent solution - has arrived. If they can negotiate with moderates from the opposition, maybe Syria's future won't be so bleak after all. But in order to achieve this, great pressure needs to be exerted on the regime.

Petra Becker is an expert on Syria and part of the Middle East research group at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

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