The US, having learned from the repercussions of its previous unfounded accusations regarding WMDs in Iraq, now chooses the wording of its accusations with meticulous precision. The first argument at the moment is that there is no doubt that a chemical attack has taken place. On that point, all parties including Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad are in agreement. The second and key argument made by Vice President Joe Biden this week is in the accusations that the Assad Regime is “responsible” for that attack. There is growing evidence surfacing from Syria’s ally Russia as well as videos available on-line which bring into question whether or not the Assad regime was behind the attacks. Some suggest that the FSA have the capability for such an attack. An internally divided FSA that continues to lose ground around Damascus might be trying to draw western powers in to intervene. Or in such a proxy war, it might be a third party. The available evidence provides enough grounds to take pause and allow the UN weapons inspectors time to complete their tasks.
The US Administration appears unwilling to wait for the outcome of the UN investigation and all indications are that a response is now imminent. The choice of words by the Obama Administration however covers an eventuality in which Assad is later found not to be behind the August 21 attack. The wording allows for the argument that, whether or not Assad gave orders, his regime is responsible for what takes place within Syria, whether perpetrated by the opposition or his own forces. If it is later determined that others were responsible then the specific wording used by Biden would remain technically valid: little verbal backtracking would be necessary.
The next question is what a regional response to a punitive attack by the west would be. Since 2004 Iran has signed several mutual defense agreements with Syria that were reaffirmed in September 2012. The agreements however were not acted upon after Israel’s September 6, 2007 airstrike on Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear facility, two separate Israeli airstrikes in May 2013 against arms shipments in Syria, or the June 2013 airstrike which purportedly targeted advanced missiles provided to Syria by Russia. On each of these occasions it was not in the interest of either party to retaliate or otherwise escalate matters into a broader conflict. But the scope of the pending western-led attack is uncertain.
This week Iran warned the west of the potential escalation of violence that could follow military intervention in Syria, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying that it would be “a disaster for the region”. But again other official rhetoric includes key wording to indicate what that means. The US clearly stated that it would conduct “limited punitive military strikes” and that they had no interest in regime change. With this in mind, a senior Syrian army source warned the US and its partners against “waging a full-scale war on Syria”. The Iranian Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mualem also clarified matters, warning against using strikes to “achieve a balance of power” in Syria’s civil war. The US statements rule both of these out. The deputy chief of the general staff of Iran's armed forces, Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, said “The United States knows the boundaries of the red line of the Syrian front and any crossing of the red line on Syria will have severe consequences for the White House”. So Syria’s and Iran’s choice of words could be an acceptance of US intentions and a counter warning that, should the US go beyond those stated intentions, then Iran, if called upon by Syria, would consider direct intervention. Until then, Iran will stay out.
Hizb’allah, Assad’s closest non-state ally, also a signatory to a mutual defense agreement with the Assad Regime, may also have indicated an acceptance of the declared limits of US intervention. A senior source close to Hizb’allah stated that Hizb’allah would “not retaliate if the western attack was limited to certain targets”. There is no talk by the US or other western powers of regime change or invasion, so more vehement statements being released to the media relating to repercussions of such actions only serve to clarify Hizb’allah’s “red line”.
Russia, which supplies the Assad Regime with much of its weaponry, has likewise warned the US of the repercussions of intervention, but has clearly stated that they would not get involved. Not directly anyway. But with a 400-ton arms shipment this week to the FSA through Turkey and other nations increasing their military aid packages, Russia will undoubtedly increase its ‘materiel’ support to the Assad Regime. It is thought that Russia has already been delivering its S-300 air defense systems to Syria and, perhaps related, this week Assad warned of a “surprise” if attacked.
There was also speculation this week that Israel could take US intervention as an opportunity to strike against Hizb’allah in Lebanon. But with the threat of a larger regional war and relative calm on Israel’s home front, this would be the less rational choice. The threat Hizb’allah poses is limited and calculated. Hizb’allah is a rational actor with little incentive to again draw the ire of the IDF, especially when Lebanon is experiencing its own on-going internal fighting.
The unknown element that may trigger full-scale regional conflict stems from Israel’s desire to cripple or destroy Iran’s nuclear programme. Israel has indicated for several years now that it is on the brink of acting unilaterally to remove the Iranian nuclear threat, the US ostensibly trying to curb an Israeli first strike, in favour of sanctions and negotiations instead.
The west has clearly laid out their intentions, a limited strike against Syrian military targets as a “punitive measure” for the chemical attack that took place on August 21. Syria’s allies have lain out what they are willing to accept and what red line they will not tolerate the US crossing. Provided Israel does not get involved, the conflict may be short-lived. Assad will remain in power and the Syrian civil war will continue to fester.