BMI View: US airstrikes against Syria would have consequences beyond the Middle East. Despite their opposition, Russia and China may see some unexpected benefits, while North Korea will be nervous.
As the US prepares to take military action against Syria for the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons on a mass scale, other countries are watching closely to see how the conflict would affect their interests.
United States' Power On The Wane? Not Necessarily
There is a widespread belief that US global power has been waning since the global financial crisis of 2008. Critics of President Barack Obama, in particular, feel that he is too cautious on tackling key foreign policy threats (ignoring the fact that he increased the American ground troop presence in Afghanistan substantially from 2009, and has carried out aggressive drone strikes a gainst US enemies). Indeed, some 'hawks' in the US feel that Obama should have intervened in Syria some time ago, given that the civil war 's death toll already exceeded 100,000 before the August 21, 2013 chemical attack that killed hundreds (possibly 1,400) of civilians. Proponents of military action also argue that Obama must punish Syria for so blatantly violating the 'red line' he drew in 2012 on the use of chemical weapons. Meanwhile, Obama has also been criticised for over-emphasising the 'limited' nature of planned US military action, thus reducing some of the uncertainty for the Assad regime (although we do not preclude that Obama might be being deliberately deceptive to lower Assad's guard ) . Nevertheless, even traditional 'hawks' in the US are not advocating a ground invasion of Syria to topple Assad, as they did with regard to the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003.
The Obama administration's cautious stance towards Syria is understandable, given that the US military has sustained around 6,500 troop deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 and many tens of thousands more wounded. It is hardly surprising that American voters are reluctant to see the US embroiled in another war in the Muslim world. This explains why Obama has been keen to emphasise the 'limited' nature of the planned Syria air offensive. However, t he key risk, as we have explained previously, is that Obama may inadvertently escalate the Syrian conflict, thereby requiring a more aggressive air campaign, and even eventually a ground troop deployment. We recall that w hen former US President Bill Clinton ordered limited airstrikes against Serbia and Montenegro in March 1999 to halt Belgrade's crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo, he inadvertently escalated the war. By the time the conflict ended in June, the US and its NATO allies were openly discussing a full-scale ground invasion of Kosovo.
Nonetheless, Obama's cautiousness should not automatically be construed to mean that US global power is on the wane. For the fact is that none of the potential outcomes of Syria's conflict would be particularly beneficial to US interests. If the Assad regime remains in power, this would be considered beneficial for Iran and Russia, both of which seek to challenge America, geopolitically. Yet, if Assad were overthrown, there would be a significant risk that radical Islamist groups would take power. There would be no geopolitical gain for Washington.
Overall, we do not believe that the US's global superpower status is at risk from intervention or non-intervention in Syria. The US's strengths stem from its absolute GDP, industrial-technological base, globally deployed military forces, commodity resources, favourable demographics, and its soft power. None of these are at risk in Syria.
Those who see the US as being in geopolitical decline argue that the US's reluctance for intervention in Syria is a sign of weakness. We believe this is a false argument, for it assumes that Washington should involve itself in all or most foreign wars. Yet, the US refrained from direct intervention in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), which was a far bigger global risk than Syria, without any cost to its geopolitical influence. At the end of the day, a stalemate between two countries hostile towards the US suited its interests.
The UK And France: Soul Searching
After the British parliament refused to give Prime Minister David Cameron backing for military intervention in Syria, it was said that the UK was losing its status as a world power. Again, we find this argument too simplistic. The British public is understandably war- weary after interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. In any case, the UK's global influence should not be judged solely by its exclusion from any US airstrikes on Syria. It should also be judged on the basis of its economic strength, commercial relationships, and cultural power.
In contrast to Cameron, French President Francois Hollande appears better positioned to support US military action in Syria. Unlike the UK, France has not been tainted by the Iraq War, and France proved fairly successful in its military action in Mali in early 2013. However, France faces substantial economic challenges, which are arguably more important to voters than action in Syria. Thus, even if France participates in a 'successful' US attack on Syria, Paris's bigger challenge would be domestic matters , and managing its increasingly strained relationship with Germany for the purposes of stabilising the eurozone .
Russia Could Benefit From US Strike On Syria
Although Russia is a steadfast ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, has cast doubt on Assad's responsibility for the August 21 chemical attack, and opposes US military action, Moscow could actually benefit from American strikes on Syria. Firstly, if the US finds itself becoming bogged down in Syria, then Washington will be less well positioned to challenge Russia on a host of matters, such as the Edward Snowden affair, and the Kremlin's moves to reassert its position in Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Secondly, US airstrikes on Syria, far from being seen as heroic, could come to be seen as yet another sign of American imperialism in the Arab world, thus boosting perceptions of Russia by default (because Moscow has 'stood up' to the US) . Thirdly, if the Syrian civil war escalates, this would keep radical Islamist militants who might otherwise journey to Russia's North Caucasus (which is only 1,000 km away, and which has seen an Islamist insurgency on and off since the early 1990s) within Syria itself .
China Would Benefit As US Delays Asia 'Pivot'
China shares Russia's position towards the Assad regime, although Beijing is less invested in Assad's survival. For China, any moves by the US to increase its diplomatic focus or military activities on the Middle East would distract the Obama administration from its stated commitment to 'pivot' more towards the Asia-Pacific region. Beijing , correctly in our view, regards this 'pivot' to be aimed at containing China itself.
Nevertheless, any US intervention in a foreign country's civil war is likely to make China uncomfortable, for Beijing regards state sovereignty as sacrosanct.
Iran Facing Tough Test On Syria
The country with most to lose from a weakening of the Assad regime, post-air strikes, is Iran. The Islamic Republic values Syria as a crucial part of the Shi'a Muslim corridor linking Iran to the Mediterranean via Iraq (a Shi'a majority country) and Lebanon (a country with a significant Shi'a community) . This 'corridor' allows Iran to spread its influence in the Levant. If the Assad regime were to fall, and radical Islamist Sunni rebels were to dominate Syria, this would be seen by Tehran as a geopolitical gain for Iran's main regional rival , Saudi Arabia, which supports the rebels. Yet, even if the Assad regime were to falter, we believe that Iran would be able to find actors it could work with in Syria (most probably the Alawite Shi'a sect from which Assad hails) as well as Lebanese Shi'a militant group Hizbullah) to maintain influence in the region.
For Iran, the biggest risk is that an escalation of the proxy war in Syria could spoil the atmosphere for new nuclear negotiations with Iran's quasi-reformist president, Hassan Rouhani. 'Moderate' Iranians would struggle to justify their position while the US was attacking Iran's closest ally in the Middle East. The deterioration in relations at this sensitive time could also increase the risks of eventual US air strikes on Iran's nuclear programme. However, Iran also faces risks from US inaction in Syria. Israel m ight conclude that Washington is too detached from the Middle East or too weak to challenge Iran over the nuclear issue, and could thus decide to unilaterally attack Iran.
North Korea Also Likely To Be Worried By Syria Strike
Far across the world, North Korea is likely to be somewhat nervous about any US strike against Syria. Pyongyang has a substantial stockpile of chemical weapons, has a multi-decade-long military relationship with Syria, and has reportedly sent advisors to the country. On September 5, South Korea's defence ministry stated that Syria may have received chemical weapons from the North. Meanwhile, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stated that a failure by the US to punish Syria could embolden North Korea to use chemical weapons.
In practice, North Korea's nuclear arsenal would appear to shield it from any hypothetical US attack. However, it is possible that after Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons, Pyongyang could face greater pressure to dismantle its own chemical arsenal, on top of the pressure already being exerted to denuclearise. This would further strain North Korea's relations with the outside world.