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Syria strike

Interview: Michael KniggeAugust 27, 2013

Despite public opposition to a military strike against the Syrian regime, it would be wrong to ignore the apparent chemical attack against civilians, says a US Middle East expert. But regime change is not an option.

A boy holds a cup of water as he walks near survivors from what activists say is a gas attack inside a mosque in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus August 21, 2013. Syrian activists accused President Bashar al-Assad's forces of launching a gas attack that killed nearly 500 people on Wednesday, in what would, if confirmed, be by far the worst reported use of chemical arms in the two-year-old civil war. The Syrian armed forces strongly denied using chemical weapons. Syrian state television said the accusations were fabricated to distract a team of U.N. chemical weapons experts which arrived three days ago. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh (SYRIA - Tags: CONFLICT POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Image: Reuters

Mona Yacoubian is a senior advisor with the Middle East program of the Stimson Center in Washington. She also co-directs the Stimson-US Institute of Peace Lebanon Working Group.

DW: After the suspected large-scale chemical weapons attack against civilians, it seems military action against the Assad regime is now inevitable. Is that a good or a bad idea?

Mona Yacoubian: Given the fact that it seems increasingly clear that the Syrian government used chemical weapons again in a large-scale attack, I think particularly in light of the fact that President Obama has set the use of chemical weapons as a red line means that to ignore or to not answer this latest provocation by the Syrian regime would be wrong. So yes, I think there is at this point a rationale for limited military action against the Syrian government.

President Obama has been sending mixed signals on the Syrian conflict. For a long time, he avoided speaking out and taking any clear position, then he drew the famous red line you mentioned and then he tried to stay away from the conflict again. Do you think it was the horrible images of dozens of dead children that triggered this strong reaction now?

I think it was the scale of this most recent attack, the fact that it was undertaken indiscriminately against civilians - including a large number of children - absolutely played a role in any decision, should a decision be taken to undertake military action. I think that the reason you have seen so much caution on the part of the Obama administration with regards to Syria is because of the complexity of the Syrian conflict and the very serious downside risks to engaging in any sort of significant military intervention.

Mona Yacoubian is senior advisor for Stimson's Middle East program. Mona Yacoubian Mittlerer Osten Senior Beraterin
Mona YacoubianImage: Kaveh Sardari

Is the American public - after the Iraq war, the war in Afghanistan and the most recent military action in Libya - supportive of another military intervention, especially one that as you alluded to could get messier than the one in Libya?

No. I think all polling suggests that the American public is opposed to any sort of significant military intervention in Syria. That has borne out time and time again with polling, including very recent polls.

Does the Obama administration have a game plan for what is going to happen after the military intervention in Syria?

I think that any time military action is undertaken - and it is undertaken after quite a bit of deliberation - one would certainly think that there has been a lot of thought of what happens afterwards, and I think that is going to drive the type of military intervention. It's precisely because I think there is a desire on the part of the Obama administration to not to be dragged into a quagmire in Syria. So for that reason, I think the most likely military intervention will be one of targeted and limited military strikes.

So you just expect a brief military campaign. Or could the goal also be regime change?

No, I don't think that the military action will be aimed at regime change. I think military action will be designed to send a very strong signal to the Assad regime that it indeed crossed a red line, it has violated international law by the use of chemical weapons. So I think it is going to be a punitive strike. I don't think it is going to be intended to change the regime or establish a no-fly zone. I think it will most likely be undertaken by cruise missiles as opposed to direct aircraft over Syrian airspace.

What kind of repercussions do you expect after a military strike against the Syrian regime. President Assad has already promised to draw the US into another Vietnam war and of course the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon might also get involved?

I think it's very difficult to know. I think that it is quite possible that the Assad regime will seek to expand the conflict perhaps by undertaking provocative action in Lebanon, perhaps even with Israel. It's hard to know. And I think that is part of the reason one has seen so much caution this far. That there is real and understandable concern that undertaking military action can in fact prolong and expand the conflict.