Syria: Imagining Serious Negative Fall-Out

As the US gears up for a 'limited' strike on Syria, there is a danger that Washington could inadvertently escalate the conflict beyond its control.

The US has been emphasising that any military strike against Syria would be limited in scope. This cautious rhetoric appears designed to reassure American voters, and allied Middle Eastern governments, and perhaps even Iran and Syria, that Washington does not intend to get drawn into another multi-month air campaign as seen in Libya in 2011 and Yugoslavia in 1999, let alone a multi-year ground war as seen in Afghanistan (2001- present) and Iraq (2003-2011).

From our point of view, the US's planned 'limited' strike is the safest course of action (as opposed to inaction) for Washington, and the safest Syrian response would be to keep its head down throughout the duration of any punitive air campaign. This would more or less allow events to return to the status quo ante, once the US air strike is over. This would arguably suit the US, and Syria.

However, the danger is that the Syrian government will respond by lashing out with some sort of attack on US allies such as Turkey, Jordan, or Israel. Even if Syria's Assad regime refrains from this, there would be a risk that Iranian-backed Shi'a militant group Hizbullah, which is active in Syria fighting the rebels, might stir up trouble.

If Syria or its allies Hizbullah or Iran were to retaliate against a US strike by attacking an American ally, they would risk escalating the war, thus inviting a fiercer American military response. Such course of action may seem irrational, but in our view, it is far from unthinkable.

The position of Iran is the big unknown in all of this. Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, favours a rapprochement of sorts with the West, which points to new negotiations over Tehran's nuclear programme. However, many in Iran's national security establishment are deeply committed to supporting the Assad regime, for he is regarded as defending Tehran's interests in the Levant. The core interest here is maintaining a Shi'a corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

Thus, even a 'limited' US strike on Syria could substantially worsen relations between Washington and Tehran. Ultimately, this could increase the risk of an open confrontation between the US and Iran, which could in turn increase the former's willingness to attack the latter's nuclear facilities, not necessarily in the near term, but in the months to come.