Friday, 30 August 2013

The bigger picture of the Syrian Civil War

Chemical weapons usage is a "red-line" for means of intervention in Syria
Reuters/Bassam Khabieh

On Aug 29, the British Parliament voted against intervention in Syria. For a long-standing, close and special ally to the US, it comes as a surprise that it would seem that the UK will not partake in action against the Assad regime given its previous involvement in the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, there are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the Cameron government is dealing with a shell-shocked, war weary public that wishes to see budget and expenditure geared towards domestic adventures. Secondly, it must respect the democratic process that the Prime Minister has gambled its foreign policy on. Given the general public distrust and sentiment, particularly to matters relating to intelligence, the opposition, Labour, in the House of Commons felt that not enough evidence to warrant intervention at this point had been collected. Even so, British absence in the intervention won't stop the US, so what are the options for the US in fulfilling its red-line condition?

Obama made a clear condition that any usage of chemical weapons would result in a cause for intervention. Indeed, the "red line" has been echoed by many journalists alike and the cause for humanitarian is there but this goes beyond Syria. This is now a test of American credibility towards following through clear-cut conditions relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction. In the past, the US has followed a policy of intimidating actors it believes will upset the regional balance of power by those states acquiring Weapons of Mass Destruction. It does not want to see Iran achieve a nuclear weapon in the Middle East, as it will upset the balance of power and will result in an arms race between Saudi Arabia and other gulf states competing for Sunni influence in the region.

There is also North Korea, whose strategy is largely governed by irrationality, unpredictability and "crazy". This keeps the US proportionally cautious to North Korea and thus treat them with respect. Like Iran, a nuclear armed North Korea will tilt the balance of power against American interest. Such actions, or the mere prospect, affect the balance of power and we're seeing Japan spend more on its defence budget (the highest ever in 22 years) predominantly because of the foreseeable changes to the Pacific Basin in a continuing militarizing arena.

Thus, this goes beyond Syria. The United States clear condition to commit to an intervention and if it does act in violation to that condition, it sends a negative message to both state and non-state actors. If these countries and entities believe that the US is bluffing, it will increase the prospect of miscalculation by these actors and will lead to a greater chance of war in the future.

Undesirable consequences 

Obama has allowed the UN to inspect and present evidence to the Security Council. The Russians, who are allies of the Assad regime and have a regular history of opposing U.N. orchestrated interventions will veto any proposed military intervention. So too will the Chinese. The only thing going to the U.N. buys Obama is time but it highlights the complexity and the corner for which the President of the United States is in.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessarily in US interest to topple the Assad regime. Whilst it will certainly diminish the sphere of influence Iran has in the Levant and Greater Middle East which is an important component of US foreign policy in the Middle East, a regime change in Syria will lead to inevitable and undesirable consequences. Currently, Syria is becoming a greater hot-bed for transnational jihadists in the region. Most notably, the al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant have expanded its theatre of operations west from the Sunni Anbar province in Iraq, destabilizing the region but also into Eastern Syria.

It goes beyond neighbouring regions. There have been numerous reports that the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan has been operating in the Levant with the construction of a base of operations, answering calls for a transnational jihad to assist toppling the Assad regime. The cumulation of these non-state actors in Syria forces Washington to be cautious if it is to follow a policy of crippling the regime. Doing so will affect the balance of play in the region.

Mission creep 

As such, a limited punitive strike seem the most likely and most sensible. Attacking the means of launching chemical weapons is the most cost-effective and strategically sound option when compared to other options of intervention. Such an attack will encompass the striking of striking regime-heavy targets which include command and control facilities, high-value symbolic targets to apply pressure and dissuade the Assad regime from further using chemical weapons. The crucial part of this is lack of need to use tactical aviation in the theatre nor the need to penetrate the Syrian air defence network. The United States has four Arleigh-Burke class destroyers in the Mediterranean, of which two can carry a payload of 96 Tomahawk cruise missiles and 90 Tomahawk missiles. Such an arsenal will have no problem of eliminating targets of high value, for example, the Defence Ministry, Political Security Directorate, Interior Ministry and others. For hardened, bunker-busting targets, the US can rely on B-2 Spirit strategic bombers to deliver such payloads.

The potential of mission creep is limited by engaging in such an action. The US policy makers will ensure that its commitment in Syria does not involve expanding the objectives or operations. The crux of such policy the US is undertaking is protecting its capability of issuing conditions to states and non-state on actors on issues of WMDs. The US has been taking steps to remove itself from the Middle East as it has, for the past decade, disrupted its balance of power in the world and a US foreign policy concentrated in the Middle East is beneficial for Moscow. Not only that, but it will be fulfilling the wishes of the transnational jihadists that the US has clearly defined to combat. Whilst the transnational jihadists will not show support for deeper American intervention, it will certainly play into their hands by fulfilling the narrative of the West versus the Muslim world should they do so. But having learnt the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, the prospect of mission creep will be kept as minimal as possible.

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