As a Western-led military strike on Syria appears increasingly likely in the wake of an alleged chemical-weapons attack last week, the Syrian government’s friends are warning the West that any attack could prove disastrous for the region.
According to the office of British Prime Minister David Cameron, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Cameron on Tuesday to tell him there was no evidence that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons. And Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich warned in a statement the same day that military intervention in Syria without a U.N. Security Council resolution would have “catastrophic consequences.” U.N. political-affairs head Jeffrey D. Feltman, in Tehran for a regional security meeting, got an earful from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who warned: “The use of military means [against Syria] will have serious consequences not only for Syria but for the entire region,” according to an account by Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araqchi given to reporters covering the event. (Araqchi went on to state that Russia had already submitted to the U.N. Security Council “proof” that Syrian rebels, not regime soldiers, had used chemical weapons.)
These kinds of apocalyptic warnings are to be expected in times of heightened tensions, and when it comes to Syria, not entirely misplaced. The Syrian conflict is multilayered, pitting not just the regime against the opposition, but Islamists against secularists, Sunnis against the country’s religious minorities, Iranian-backed Hizballah against Saudi Arabia–funded militias and an Iranian, Chinese and Russian axis against a Western coalition bent on regime change. The potential for a full-blown conflagration that could engulf the region in a drawn-out proxy war cannot be overlooked.
But for the moment at least, the threats from Iran and Russia appear intended to avert an attack rather than to suggest either country plans to engage in the war themselves. Likewise, the U.S. and its allies — probably Britain, France, Turkey and others — appear to be discussing launching strikes that are likely to be limited to known military installations rather than an all-out attack on the regime of President Bashar Assad. And if that’s the case, neither Russia nor Iran is likely to respond in any significant matter. President Obama has made it clear that he has no desire to get involved in a war that has the potential to suck in vast amounts of troops, equipment and cash for years, if not longer. That’s a desire both Russia and Iran share.