BMI View: Although conclusive evidence of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime is unlikely to come anytime soon, the US and its allies could start providing lethal aid to rebels over the coming months. While this could provide a significant boost to the insurgency, we reaffirm our view that the civil war is likely to continue over the coming years.
The US appears to be shifting to the view that Syria's government has used chemical weapons against its people. The White House told the US Congress on April 25 that the nation's intelligence agencies had determined, "with varying degrees of confidence" that President Bashar al-Assad's government had used sarin, a chemical agent, on a small scale. Such claim follows the one made by the research chief of Israeli military intelligence, Brigadier General Itai Brun, who said on April 23 said that he had evidence that Mr. Assad's government had repeatedly used chemical weapons in the past month. The UK and France also said they had limited but growing evidence that the regime had used chemical weapons.
US President Barack Obama stated in August 2012 that although he had not ordered a US military response to Syria's civil war yet, "A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized." Obama reiterated this view on April 26 during a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, when he said that, while more evidence was needed, proof of the use of chemical weapons would be a "game changer". As a result, the US President is coming under renewed pressure to intervene in Syria. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said on April 25 that " The Syrians crossed the line the president had said would be a game changer", while New York Representative Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that it's " Time for the U.S. and our allies to immediately arm" elements of the Syrian opposition.
Conclusive Evidence Not Coming Soon
After the George W. Bush administration's embrace of faulty intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the U.S. would need the highest level of confidence to present evidence of Syrian chemical weapons use to the international community and make a case for action against the Assad regime. US officials said there is no consensus in the U.S. intelligence community about whether Syria has used small amounts of nerve gas, with different agencies expressing widely varied confidence in their assessments.
There appears to be two types of evidence at this stage: physical samples, of soil from the scene of the alleged attacks and human tissue samples, and videos, photographs and witness accounts. However, there are questions over the "chain of custody" of the physical evidence, while several chemical weapons experts believe that the videos and witness accounts gathered so far do not appear as sufficient indication that chemical weapons have been used. Finally, although the UN has launched an investigation in co-operation with the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the team-finding mission has not received the green light from the Syrian government to enter the country. As a result, we believe that conclusive evidence about the use of chemical weapons by the regime is unlikely to come anytime soon.
More Intervention On The Cards
The Obama administration does not wish to get drawn into another major war in the Middle East in our view, especially since North Korea and Iran are more pressing geopolitical issues. However, increased pressure to act could cause the US and its allies to increase the level of their involvement in the Syrian conflict. Among the options on the table, we highlight:
Lethal Aid: The US's 'safest' course of action would be to provide lethal weaponry to the rebels. Such step could take place even under a scenario whereby no conclusive proof of the systematic use of chemical weapons is found. However, a major risk involved in bringing lethal aid to rebels is that weapons could fall into the hands of radical Islamist insurgent groups operating in the country. As a result, the provision of lethal aid will remain relatively limited.
Military Airstrikes: The US military has enough airpower in the region to strike military targets across Syria. Moreover, strikes could be taken under the umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty organisation (NATO). That said, although NATO has installed Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, which could be aimed to shoot down Syrian aircraft, Turkey allowed the missile batteries to be placed there only for defensive purposes, and NATO nations would have to agree before they could be used for offensive strikes. Furthermore, such option would take time to deliver results. For instance, the NATO alliance bombed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia for 78 days in 1999 before a political agreement to end the Kosovo conflict was reached. We believe that such course of action is highly unlikely without conclusive evidence on the use of chemical weapons.
No-Fly Zone: US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in March that the United States was considering imposing a no-fly zone over Syria. This would involve the creation of humanitarian safe areas that would also be no-fly zones off limits to the Syrian air force, and it would entail taking down Syrian air defences and destroying Syrian artillery from a certain distance beyond those zones. Although the deployment of a no-fly zone theoretically requires the approval of the UN Security Council, which is highly unlikely given the probable Russian and Chinese veto, the US and NATO could decide to act unilaterally. However, the enforcement of a safe zone would tie the United States to a protracted presence in Syria, a risk which the US administration may be not ready to take.
Ground troops: According to an analysis by the US Department of Defense, it would take up to 75,000 troops to secure Syria's chemical weapons facilities if they were in danger of being looted. Although an actual deployment could involve far fewer ground troops, from various nations, the scope of such a deployment remains significant. We believe that a ground troop invasion will remain off the cards even under a scenario whereby the US administration comes to the conclusion that chemical weapons have been used systematically by the regime.
A Turning Point?
Although we believe that an increased Western involvement in the Syrian conflict in the form of military strikes, a no-fly zone or the deployment of ground troops is unlikely at this stage, the possible decision to provide lethal aid to rebels could provide a significant boost to insurgents. However, there could still come a point this year when pressure for direct Western military intervention becomes overwhelming, despite the clear risks. In any case, we remain sceptical that the opposition will take control of the entire country anytime soon, as the insurgents' firepower will likely remain inferior to that of the regular army even if lethal aid is provided. Moreover, divisions among the opposition remain deep-seated, which will hinder the militants' ability to undertake coordinated efforts to fight the regime. Finally, even if the rebels take over Damascus, areas in the south and the west of the country would likely remain under the control of Assad's loyalists ( see our online service, March 12, ' Set For A Prolonged Civil War').
Political violence will therefore continue over the coming years. Indeed, the power vacuum created by the regime's withdrawal from the capital would trigger intensified conflict between Syria's ethnic groups, especially if weapons continue to flow into the hands of competing organisations. In the worst-case scenario, Syria could slide into a prolonged sectarian conflict, similar to Lebanon in the 1980s.