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Q&A: Why an American strike?

Kersten Knipp / cc
August 31, 2013

As the United States ponders military intervention in Syria, DW looks at why an attack might take place, what the use of force could achieve, who is involved, what their motives are.

US President Barack Obama(L) and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stand for the American National Anthem during a ceremony to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended the Korean War, at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, July 27, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Question: Why is the use of chemical weapons such a serious matter?

Answer: The Syrian conflict was an extremely violent one even before the deployment of chemical weapons. The United Nations estimates that at least 100,000 people have died, but the true figure may be considerably higher. The use of chemical weapons, however, is a serious escalation. It is internationally taboo, as is the use of biological and nuclear weapons. According to the German political scientist Markus Kaim, such weapons are essentially political: "They are there as a threat and a deterrent. At the same time, though, nobody believes they will actually be deployed."

Nonetheless, they have been used in the past, most infamously by Saddam Hussein against the Kurdish village of Halabja in northern Iraq in 1988. There, 3,200 people died, and around 7,000 were seriously injured. The United States also used this as a primary justification to invade Iraq. Markus Kaim says that chemical weapons are not only despised because they contravene international law: "What's far more significant is that these weapons are seen as particularly barbaric and cowardly."

A man walks in front of a burning building after a Syrian Air force air strike in Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/Files
Would an intervention help the Syrian people, or add to their suffering?Image: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

Why is the US proposing to attack?

The Obama administration regards the chemical attack near Damascus as a crime against humanity. Exactly one year earlier, Obama stressed that if such weapons were used it would cross a "red line," change his assessment, and have "enormous consequences."

As a result, he can hardly ignore it now, said political scientist Henning Riecke of the German Council on Foreign Relations. "The Americans have forced their own hand with the sentence about the 'red line,'" he said. "If Obama decides not to react, there's a danger that in the future, people won't take the Americans seriously any more." At the same time, the US believes it has a duty to fulfill its role as the only global peacekeeping power - which means not standing by when crimes like this are committed.

What is the role of the United Nations?

The United Nations are in a difficult situation. As an organization with 193 member states, there are hardly any topics about which it is able to speak with one voice - and it is also divided over the Syria conflict. Two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - Russia and China - have so far blocked every resolution against Syria, and are still refusing to support sanctions. This political impasse is what has now prompted the US and its allies to consider unilateral intervention without being sanctioned by a Security Council resolution. However, this would not be considered legitimate under international law, and would therefore attract strong criticism - not only from Russia and China, but from other UN member states as well.

Ein Tomahawk-Marschflugkörper (TLAM) wird - nach Angaben des US-Navy - am 23.3.2003 im Rahmen der "Operation Irakische Freiheit" vom Kreuzer USS Cape St. George im östlichen Mittelmeer auf den Irak abgeschossen.
Heavy bombardment with Cruise missiles could temporarily ground the Syrian air forceImage: picture-alliance/dpa

What effect could a military strike have in the short term?

That depends on the type and extent of the action. So far the Americans have been talking about limited rocket attacks lasting two or three days. The Institute for the Study of War in Washington has calculated that 72 Cruise missiles launches in one night could cause so much damage to the Syrian Air Force's central installations, such as landing strips and barracks, that these would be rendered unusable for several days at least. Taking the air force temporarily out of the equation would shift the balance of power in the opposition's favor.

How strong is Assad? How much support does he have?

Since this past spring, Assad's army has regained control of numerous towns and regions that the rebels were thought to have gained. The most spectacular reversal was the re-conquest in early June 2013 of the strategically significant central city of Qusair. Hezbollah militias allied with Assad played a key role in the fight for the city.

Iran also supports Assad with troops, training and weapons. Russia says the weapons it is supplying to Damascus were ordered before the start of the unrest, but experts claim Russia is also providing the regime with money and fuel. As a result, Assad's army is still very strong, and he has a major advantage in being able to fight the rebels from the air.

What do Syria's allies say?

Iran has issued a clear warning to the US and its potential allies against launching an attack on Syria. Revolutionary Guard Commander Mohammed Ali Jaafari announced that "any such attack would signify the immediate destruction of Israel," and warned Washington that Syria would become "a second Vietnam for the United States."

Plakat des syrischen Präsidenten Baschar Al Assad und des Hisbollah-Führers Hassan Nasrallah in der schiitischen Pilgerstätte Sayyida Zainab bei Damaskus, aufgenommen am 27.07.2010. Foto: Matthias Tödt
Hezbollah militias are fighting on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-AssadImage: picture alliance/ZB

Islamic scholar Udo Steinbach said that these are not empty threats: Iran's status as a regional power is at stake. "The country is contending with Saudi Arabia for supremacy in the Middle East," he explained.

Russia also rejects a military strike. President Vladimir Putin has dismissed as "nonsense" the claim that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack, accusing the US of using this as an excuse to try and affect regime change. Moscow has also warned against any kind of intervention without a UN mandate. The Syrian regime itself has said that it would defend itself against any international attack, and that the consequences would be very serious indeed.

Where do Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the United States' main Arab allies, stand?

Both states have supported the Syrian opposition from the start, both financially and with arms shipments. However, with military action looming, they are being cautious and letting the US take the lead, presumably so as not to isolate themselves too much from the other Arab countries. The majority are in fact also opposed to the Assad regime, but they insist that a military strike can only be carried out on the basis of a UN resolution.

How many radical Islamists are in the opposition ranks?

This remains unclear. Both Western and Arab intelligence services have been warning for more than a year now that radicals are increasingly present in Syria. Western governments in particular provide this as the reason why they are reluctant to arm the opposition. They fear the weapons could fall into the hands of extremists, who may then use them against Westerners.

A fighter from Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra holds an Islamist flag in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, in March 12, 2013. REUTERS/Hamid Khatib/Files
Radical Islamists are among the opposition forcesImage: Reuters

The Syrian opposition itself insists that the role and influence of Islamists is overestimated by the West. Hisham Marwah, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition, told DW: "The fundamentalists are not in the majority. Most members of the opposition are not fundamentalists. They respect the law, and they would not respect any government that wasn't properly elected."