The U.S. Weighs Syria Strikes: How Military Action Could Make Things Worse

As an American and European coalition moves forward with military action on Syria, lack of support from Arab nations could set the stage for a continued conflict

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Molhem Barakat / REUTERS

A Free Syrian Army fighter looks through a hole in a wall as he takes cover inside an electric company near Aleppo International airport, Aug. 28, 2013.

As the United States considers a punitive strike on Syria over the government’s alleged use of chemical weapons last week, the consequences of such an attack are already rippling throughout the region. Some ten thousand Syrians have have surged across the Lebanese border every day since the gas attack, according to Lebanese immigration, fleeing the anticipated American bombardment and fearful of subsequent chemical attacks, prompting a Lebanese immigration official to predict that by year’s end Syrians will make up 40 percent of the country’s population. Elsewhere, would-be allies are grumbling about America’s precipitous rush to judgment, even before the U.N. chemical weapons team concludes its investigation.

While the Obama Administration war-games multiple response scenarios—from the possibility that Syrian President Bashar Assad might lash out and attack neighbors Turkey and Jordan, to whether Israel will be at risk for retaliation from Syrian allies Iran and Hizballah—there may be other long term regional repercussions that are more difficult to predict. Even if the strikes go as planned, they could still alienate allies, unleash another flood of refugees on already overburdened neighbors, and put American credibility on the line just when it needs it most.

The U.S. now has the backing of France and Turkey—British Prime Minister David Cameron is supportive but is wrangling a reluctant parliament—but getting a Security Council resolution from the U.N. is all but impossible given the veto power of Syrian ally Russia. The Arab League on Tuesday refused to endorse military action, leaving the nascent coalition in a quandary. Administration officials say that they do not see the absence of support from either the Security Council or the Arab league as an obstacle. But the fact that Iraq and Jordan have explicitly foresworn use of their land and airspace—a moot point since missiles are likely to be launched from battleships in the Mediterranean—gives an American strike on Syria little legitimacy in the Arab world. Even if the region is largely allied against Assad, a Baathist despot most would like to see go, an attack on Syria without Arab backing would likely be interpreted on the street as yet another example of American imperial hubris, especially if the U.S. is not able to back up its allegations with compelling evidence that Assad did indeed order chemical attacks.

Syrian refugees, now nearing two million, half of whom are children, have flooded Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, placing extreme stress on already taxed infrastructures. Jordan has responded by building a second camp that will contain an anticipated surge of refugees. Scarred by previous experiences with refugees—Palestinians fleeing the 1948 Arab-Israeli war are still living in Lebanese camps—the Lebanese government opted from day one to integrate incoming Syrians into local communities instead of placing them in camps. But with an estimated 80,000 Syrians crossing the border every month, according to an official at General Security, the Lebanese government entity that handles borders and immigration, doing so may no longer be an option. (Not all Syrians crossing into Lebanon register as refugees, and many go back and forth, so UN Refugee Agency figures differ from Lebanese government figures).

The influx of Syrians, the majority of whom are Sunni, risks upsetting Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance, which is already on edge after a series of tit-for-tat bomb attacks in rival Sunni and Shiite enclaves over the past few months. The number of Syrians in Lebanon, estimated at about a million—nearly a quarter of the Lebanese population—are also taxing the country’s impoverished infrastructure, including its schools, medical facilities, power supply, roads and basic sewage treatment system. The problem will become even more acute in the coming weeks as Lebanese students return to schools that served as ad-hoc refugee housing over the summer.

A symbolic, punitive attack is unlikely to provoke retaliation by Syria’s staunch allies Iran and Russia, despite threats to the contrary. But moving forward before the UN chemical weapons team has concluded its investigation underscores longstanding Iranian, Syrian and Russian suspicions that chemical weapons accusations are a pretext for regime change. American Secretary of State John Kerry, laying out his case for a forceful response in remarks on Monday, further undermined American credibility in the eyes of pro-government Syrians and their regional allies when he suggested that the Syrian regime had stalled for five days before allowing inspectors already in Damascus to access the most recent alleged chemical attack. In fact, the government acquiesced to the formal request from the UN the next day, according to the UN. Kerry also said that by the time the government agreed to expand the investigation, it was “too late” to gather evidence when, in fact, U.N. chemical weapons investigators have in the past uncovered evidence of chemical warfare agents, including Sarin, years after their deployment.

The U.S., France and Britain have all cited intelligence linking Assad’s government with the attacks, but they have yet to produce evidence, which is essential in a region still smarting from the war in Iraq and the U.S.-led coalition’s insistence before the war that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when it later turned out they did not. To skeptics in the Middle East, the U.S. and its allies have exposed themselves to charges of premature action and biased evidence gathering by not waiting for the UN team to complete their investigation before launching punitive attacks. If the investigators were to conclude that chemical weapons had been used, even if they can’t assign blame, Iran and Russia, signatories to the international ban on chemical weapons, would be forced to respond. So too would the rebel’s backers, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey. White House Spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday that any U.S. attack would be in response to a “clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.” That the U.S. would preempt the findings of the very investigative body tasked to uphold the convention against chemical weapons, under the guise of defending it, threatens to cement anti-American resentment just as it embarks on another engagement in the region, setting the stage for continued conflict.