Syria: High Possibility Of ‘Limited’ US Air Strikes

Business Monitor International (BMI) sees a high risk of ‘limited’ US airstrikes on Syria, owing to the government’s alleged responsibility for a major chemical attack last week that killed hundreds of people.

In our latest crib sheet on the Syria conflict, published on Business Monitor Online on August 16, we suggested that direct Western military action against the Assad regime was unlikely for the time being. However, we also warned that “Washington could [also] intervene militarily under a scenario whereby Assad uses chemical weapons on a very large-scale against the Syrian people.”

Although UN inspectors on the ground have yet to confirm culpability for the attack, and Damascus has vehemently denied blame, perceptions are growing in the international media and policy circles that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime carried out the chemical strikes. Given that US President Barack Obama has long maintained that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would constitute a ‘red line’ that could trigger American intervention, many believe that Washington now has little choice but to respond militarily. Indeed, previous assertions that the Assad regime used chemical weapons, albeit on a much smaller scale, proved insufficient to galvanise the US into action. Even if Syrian government responsibility for the latest attack is never proven, some hawks in Washington, London, and Paris, in particular, feel that Western intervention is overdue, owing to the high death toll – estimated at 100,000 – already incurred.

The Precedent Of The Kosovo War

The Obama administration appears reluctant to intervene in Syria directly, due to very real concerns about drawing the US into a third conflict in the Greater Near East (the first two being Afghanistan, which is still ongoing, and Iraq), and strong opposition from the American public, according to opinion polls. Nevertheless, the White House has reportedly been studying the Clinton administration’s 1999 US-led NATO war on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on behalf of Kosovar Albanian separatists as a potential model for American intervention in Syria. NATO’s intervention in 1999 consisted solely of an air campaign, and resulted in only a handful of aircraft downed or personnel killed. Russian and Chinese objections were ignored, as NATO bypassed the UN Security Council.

If the US does respond militarily to Syria’s chemical attack, then we believe that Washington will choose ‘limited’ strikes against key strategic targets (i.e. military command centres and bases) in Syria, probably carried out by cruise missiles.

The danger, of course, is that there may be no such thing as a ‘limited’ strike. Indeed, a ‘limited’ strike may prove too ineffective, and could actually embolden the Syrian regime, since the latter could conclude that it can handle a few cruise missile attacks, and that the US does not have the wherewithal for more concrete action. At present, the possibility of eventual US attacks on Syria serves as potential constraint (albeit limited) on Damascus’s actions.

We recall that in 1999, NATO intervention against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was intended to be ‘limited’ in scope, lasting several days, or perhaps a fortnight at most. However, NATO substantially underestimated the resolve of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and the severity of the Serbian response, namely an escalation of military operations in Kosovo that resulted in mass refugee flows of the province’s population. NATO’s air campaign was gradually expanded and eventually lasted 78 days. During that time, it was ratcheted up so that at its peak, the war involved more than 1,100 aircraft with more than six hundred sorties being carried out each day, entailing major attacks on Serbia’s industrial economy and infrastructure.

In other words, what begins as a ‘limited’ strike against Syria may well need to be followed up by more aggressive military action.

US Intervention Would Entail Substantial Risks

Yet, the Obama administration is unlikely to want to drag the US into such a long air war. Indeed, the NATO air campaign against Libya in 2011 lasted even longer than the Yugoslav campaign, albeit with reduced intensity. Even though Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi was eventually overthrown, the chaotic aftermath of Libya’s civil war can hardly be deemed a ‘success’.

Syria today is much more formidable, militarily, than the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was in 1999 and Libya in 2011, and has much more solid external backing, from Russia and Iran. (Yugoslavia and Libya were largely isolated in 1999 and 2011.) In addition, Syria’s conflict is far more complicated than the Kosovo conflict, or the Bosnia conflict before it, due to the multiple ethno-religious groups and rebel factions (some of which are linked to al-Qaeda) involved. Thus, even if the US carries out airstrikes against Syria that weaken or topple Assad’s regime, the outcome would not necessarily be ideal for US interests. General Martin Dempsey, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has stated as much. In our view, even if the Assad regime were overthrown, the civil war would go on, as various groups stepped up their struggle to maximise territorial gains.

There is also the possibility that if the US attacks Syria, Russia and Iran would increase their military support for Damascus. The conflict has already become a proxy war between the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar on the one hand supporting the rebels, and Russia, Iran, and Hizbullah on the other hand supporting the Assad regime.

Finally, given Iran’s heavy military backing of the Assad regime, the question must be asked whether a US strike on Syria may eventually be followed by an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, if there is no progress in negotiations on this front, or if an American attack on Syria leads to open confrontation with Tehran.