Less than a week after President Bashar al-Assad’s forces unleashed an apparent chemical weapons attack on civilians, killing several hundred people, the scenarios for a Western-led military strike against the regime are taking shape. The campaign will likely focus on targeted hits against Assad’s crack artillery units, rather than try to take out the chemical weapons themselves or, for that matter, oust the regime. Such a strategy would draw support from Washington’s European and Arab allies, who might be wary of jumping into a sweeping US-led war. “This will be a one-off operation, one or two days, and then it’s over,” says François Heisbourg, chair of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and former strategic advisor to the French Ministry of Defense. “This is not a declaration of war. It is not an international coalition entering Syria to overthrow Assad.”
Preparing the ground for France to join military strikes against Syria, President François Hollande told French ambassadors from around the world, gathered in Paris on Tuesday, that he was certain Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons on civilians, an attack which may have killed up to 1,300 people. “France is ready to punish those who made the vile decision to gas those innocents,” Hollande said.
For some E.U. leaders, the notion of backing a Washington-led military operation in the Arab world is a stark departure from 2003, when the U.S. invasion of Iraq bitterly divided the continent and caused a deep rift between France and Washington that endured for years.
A decade on, the situation is far different. The bitterness between France and the U.S. over Iraq began to heal in 2011, when then-president Nicolas Sarkozy pushed Western leaders to mount military action against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya, then persuaded the Arab League to co-sponsor a U.N. resolution that resulted in the NATO bombing campaign. The operations succeeded in preventing the slaughter of civilians in Bengazi.
In an effort to quell doubts in Europe that the continent could get drawn into a war to overthrow Assad, European leaders are insisting that a Syrian campaign would not be aimed at regime change. The chemical weapons attack last week has provided an ideal political motivation to hit Assad’s forces. “This is not about getting involved in a Middle East war or changing our stance in Syria,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron, who rushed back to London on Tuesday from vacation to deal with the crisis. He said the sole motivation for military action was to respond to Syria’s chemical weapons attack. “Their use is wrong and the world should not stand idly by,” he said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who faces elections for a third term next month, has struck a similar tone, backing international military strikes against Syria—although only in retaliation to the chemical weapons attack. Her spokesman Steffen Siebert told reporters on Monday that the attack “has broken a taboo,” and “requires consequences and a very clear response.” Despite that, Germans—who tend to be strongly opposed to military interventions—could still balk at Western strikes, especially if the mission leads to a broader operation that lasts longer than expected. In 2002, Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, narrowly won reelection after vowing to keep German troops out of the looming Iraq War. “German participation in a military strike, however peripheral such a contribution might be, could have a considerable impact on Merkel’s vote total on September 22,” German news magazine Der Spiegel said this week.
For the U.S., coordinating efforts with E.U. allies has been crucial, in part to stave off any possible opposition of the kind Washington faced in Europe a decade ago. White House officials on Monday said President Obama has discussed military options with Hollande. France’s military links with Washington solidified further during last year’s war in Mali. When French troops invaded and seized back the northern half the country from the control of al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups, U.S. surveillance drones provided crucial overhead support. Besides bringing the U.S. and France closer together, the two campaigns have also given France some clout in the current debate over Syria. “Libya and Mali have been quite important,” Heisbourg says. “They have given us [France] military street cred, and political heft with countries in the region.”
But the challenge in Syria could be far greater than either of those wars. Neither Mali nor Libya had serious air-defense capability, and both crumpled quickly under Western firepower. By contrast, Russia has equipped Assad with sophisticated air-defense systems, including long-range surface-to-air missiles, many of which are believed to be in good shape two and a half years after Syria’s civil war erupted. “The Syrian air defense is pretty much intact,” Philip Stonor, Britain’s former defense attaché to Paris, told France 24 Television on Tuesday. “It will not be easy, but it will not be impossible.”
Aside from E.U. support, Arab League backing would also give the military operation far broader credibility. That looks unlikely to happen: On Tuesday the League voted to stay out of any Western-led military operation, despite confirming that it believed the regime was responsible for the chemical attack. Still, individual countries might be persuaded to add support to Washington’s plan. “It would be important that the operation be seen not to be purely Western,” Heisbourg says. “The notion that you’d have a number of Saudi Tornadoes (missiles) and Emirati F16s (fighter jets) would be quite nice.”
The diplomatic politicking over Western strikes is almost as crucial as the military strategy. That is because leaders will almost certainly bypass the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China would block any vote on military action—a far different scenario than NATO’s Libya campaign, which was authorized by the council, after Gaddafi’s forces threatened civilians in Benghazi.
In stark contrast to the U.S. campaign in Iraq, which France virulently opposed, there’s a growing consensus among major Western powers that military strikes are necessary. In recent days, President Obama has thrashed out options with French President François Hollande over the telephone, according to White House officials on Monday. France’s aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, whose base is in Toulon, in southern France, is less than a two-day sail from the waters off Syria and was heavily used against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces during NATO’s 2011 bombing campaign.
Western and Arab leaders could tap international laws to justify military action without seeking U.N. approval. Two international treaties ban chemical weapons use, and the second, dating to 1993, outlaws governments from even possessing them. Syria is one of only five countries in the world never to have signed the second treaty.
While the treaties do not specifically allow member countries to launch military action against those using chemical weapons, according to Heisbourg, Syria’s only big-power ally—Russia—has few good options to retaliate if the West launches military strikes. Russia has blocked three U.N. Security Council votes tightening sanctions against Syria since the conflict began in early 2011. “The Russians will holler, but what can they actually do?” Heisbourg says. Canceling the Group of 20 meeting in St. Petersburg early next month would weaken Russia’s position internationally, he says. So too would anything that might provoke an international boycott against the Winter Olympics in the Russian resort town of Sochi next February. “The Russians are in a very uncomfortable position,” Heisbourg says. “My assumption is that they are going to tone down their reaction. If it is too shrill, they will appear to be powerless.”
The strikes’ most likely targets are key artillery, communications and signals units situated close to Assad’s palace in Damascus. Hitting stocks of chemical weapons risks causing widespread contamination. Yet the strikes could still leave Assad’s forces largely intact—especially as the regime could be taking steps to move its crack troops out of the line of fire. “External military intervention that could potentially end the war or significantly change the balance of power remains unlikely,” IHS Jane’s Intelligence Weekly said after last week’s chemical attack. “Any targeted destruction of missile launching sites or air force capability that did occur would still leave Assad’s ground capability intact, hindering rebel capability to make gains.”