Attacking Assad: to do or not to do

A military escalation over Syria presents huge dangers. So how else to act?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
12 April 2018
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US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley (R) and British Ambassador to the UN Karen Pierce (L) veto Russian-drafted resolution on investigation by the OPCW into alleged chemical attack in Douma, Syria, at UN HQ, New York, April 10, 2018. Li Muzi/ Press Association. All rights reserved.The chemical-weapons attack on Douma, an area of Damascus beyond the control of Bashar al-Assad's regime, on 7 April has led to high expectation of an imminent military response by the United States, possibly with the involvement of United Kingdom and French forces. Trump's instant assurances of punishment of the "animal" Syrian president fuel the sense that sudden escalation is likely. 

The American president's later tweets, early on 12 April, imply a delay in any timetable. But the prospect of dangerous military confrontation remains high. So what, realistically, could happen?

There is a spectrum of offensive options for US and other western militaries. But in broad terms there are three levels of action against the regime:

* Symbolic action involving strikes against one or more Syrian bases, most likely centred on the use of cruise missiles – but at a higher level of intensity than a year ago when the US fired cruise missiles after a chemical-weapons (CW) attack.

* Major action to damage the regime’s military capabilities, sufficient to deter it from further CW use and its more general targeting of non-combatants.

* Sustained military action designed to terminate the regime.

This column assumes that the first, limited symbolic action, is unlikely, not least given Trump’s personality, his initial tweets, and the guidance he will be getting from his latest national-security adviser John Bolton and the CIA chief Mike Pompeo.

It also assumes that full regime termination is not currently on the US agenda. That would require many weeks' preparation, expansion of air power in the region, movement of ground forces and then their substantial use. In turn those elements would be very risky, certainly involving major confrontation with Russian and Iranian forces and, even if successful, an entirely uncertain post-regime outcome.

This column therefore focuses on the middle, “punish and deter”, option.

What has happened?

Before taking military action against the Assad regime, recent experience should be noted:

* In late 2001 the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was terminated and al-Qaida dispersed in less than ten weeks, Bush’s subsequent state-of-the-union address in January 2002 was couched in terms of victory – and even extended the war to an "axis of evil". After sixteen years of war the Taliban is back, ISIS and other al-Qaida offshoots are active and the Afghan war continues.

* In early 2003 the Saddam Hussein regime was terminated in three weeks and Bush gave his “mission accomplished” speech three weeks later. The war then continued for seven years.

* In 2011 the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya was terminated in six months. A deeply unstable and violent failed state endures seven years later.

* In 2011 Obama withdrew remaining troops from Iraq in the belief that the insurgency was at an end. Instead, ISIS arose from the supposed corpse of AQI (al-Qaida in Iraq).

* In 2014 an intense air war started against ISIS and lasted over three years. At least 60,000 ISIS supporters were killed, along with at least 6,000 civilians. The caliphate has gone but ISIS is returning to guerrilla tactics in Iraq and Syria; has groups active in Sinai, Afghanistan, the Philippines and Indonesia; has links with groups across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia; and is encouraging and inspiring actions in western Europe, to the extent that the head of MI5 has stated that the terror risk in Britain has never been higher.

How prepared is Syria?

Syria’s military, especially its air force, has long assumed that its main enemy is Israel with that state's own advanced military capabilities. The Syrian regime has therefore prioritised the hardening and dispersal of its own military capabilities. Those mean duplication of support systems, a dispersed production and repair capability, and an extensive air-defence network. A case in point is the Tiyas T4 airbase attacked by Israel on 9 April. This has a vast network of thirty-six hardened aircraft shelters and at least twenty hardened munitions and supplies shelters, stretching over a large area. Even after seven years of war the regime still has many capabilities, with these aided by much recent Iranian and Russian support.

For the US and its allies to take military action may be cathartic, but this will have little or no political effect on the behaviour of the regime – unless it is large scale. And “large scale” does not mean a few dozen cruise missiles, it means a protracted air campaign over many days and probably weeks.

This would be intended massively to degrade Syrian military capabilities: air defences, military communications, almost all reconnaissance and strike aircraft, fuel supplies, repair facilities, army firepower, munitions storage sites and armaments factories.  All significant targets would need to be subject to attack followed by damage assessment and, most likely, further attack.

Moreover, as capabilities were restored they would need to be attacked again, bearing in mind that Iranian and Russian resupply should be expected to be readily available. Initial and subsequent attacks could not avoid Russian and Iranian personnel and facilities, nor could they avoid civilian casualties. There are strong indications that, right from the start, Russia would provide direct support. This support would escalate immediately once there were Russian casualties. Russia might also engineer crises elsewhere to enhance political uncertainty.

The Syrian regime and its allies would mount a sustained propaganda campaign emphasising civilian casualties. There would be direct reference to Israeli connections with the western coalition, to current Israeli operations in Gaza, and even an emphasis on the “crusader-Zionist” axis. The latter tactic has been employed systematically by extreme Islamist groups, especially in the past decade. 

A further problem is that western politicians believe that they have the moral authority to confront the Assad regime. In reality, any such talk is likely to be met with cynicism if not hollow laughter across the Middle East and beyond because of the disastrous effects of the previous western interventions.

Finally, in the unlikely event that the regime really suffered severely through this military action and could not quickly recover, this would be welcomed by diverse extreme Islamist groups in Syria, including ISIS, vying to fill any security vacuum no matter how temporary. It would also be feared by Syrian Kurds if welcomed by Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

What should be done?

There is no easy, immediate and clear-cut alternative, and the situation is made worse by the current antagonism between the west and Russia. By far the strongest argument against attacks is that war will most likely make matters much worse. Nevertheless, some other approaches can be recommended.

* Do everything, in any way possible, to support the United Nations secretary-general, quite likely the best incumbent of that post in decades albeit he faces a near-impossible task.

* Britain, in spite of current relations with Russia, still has half-decent diplomatic relations (not counting Boris) with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel. Recall those ambassadors and other key regional staff for an intensive meeting in London, also with Washington and Moscow ambassadors, to share approaches and ideas in closed meetings not chaired by politicians. By this means get the considered views of experienced diplomats and then listen to them.

* On the basis of these and other inputs, seek to formulate plans for cooling tensions that might be pursued in the coming days and weeks and aiming for a renewed peace process. This will be very difficult but if the UK eschews support for a military escalation it may be in a position to do so with other like-minded states, and is one of the very few countries with the professional diplomatic competence and experience to even be in a position to try.

In the longer term, and in recognition of the appalling failures of recent years (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere), expend serious and sustained effort to enhance and expand UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding capabilities. Work to strengthen and fully resource the International Criminal Court and the process of establishing and supporting war-crimes tribunals. 

This is all a very long way from a perfect answer, but it may provide some hope at a time of considerable risk.

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