Syria, the path to new war

The United States's military preparations, and Israel's growing involvement, reveal the momentum to a dangerous escalation in the middle east.  

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
5 September 2013

The previous column in this series outlined the evidence that the United States would carry out a missile attack on Syria as the start of a major operation to weaken the Assad regime (see "Syria, a fatal choice", 29 August 2013). After the chemical-weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August, the most discussed option in Washington was a small-scale "punishment" reprisal. But in a fast-moving situation, the momentum for an attack has in recent days both stalled and then accelerated. Now, something much larger than initially envisaged is on the agenda.

Within hours of the publication of last week's column, on the late evening of 29 August, the British parliament voted against the government over support for military action against Syria. In the aftermath, President Barack Obama decided to seek approval from Congress for what again looked like a more limited, selective attack to deter further Syrian chemical-weapon usage.

Now, though, there are renewed indications that a clear attempt to weaken the Syrian regime is again under active consideration. This would represent a departure from the Obama administration's stance since it arrived in the White House in January 2009 - with Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and even Mali reflecting new doubts over large-scale military campaigns. Yet a confluence of three incidents points again towards military activism, even if little is certain and there is still time (just) for more positive developments.

Three pointers

The first is that Obama appears to have promised more than only a “deterrence strike” to key congressional Republicans in order to get their support, and there is also strong support in the right-wing press and especially from pro-Israel groups (see Jim Lobe, “Top Republicans, Israel Lobby Weigh for Obama's Syria StrikeIPS/TerraViva, 4 September 2013)

The pro-Israel organisations, in particular, link action against Syria directly with limiting Iranian influence in the region. This reflects serious concern in Israel itself that Iran's new president, Hassan Rowhani, might do a deal with Washington on the nuclear issue that fell fall far short of Israeli requirements. Among the results of a United States attack on Syria would be to strengthen the hawks in Tehran and weaken Rowhani's position in even trying to negotiate with Washington.

The second incident is the supposedly routine Israeli missile-test in the Mediterranean on 3 September, with its close US military connection, which seemed almost an “in your face” repost to those who oppose action. This coincided with the visit, again described as routine, of the 25,000-tonne USS San Antonio­ - an amphibious-warfare ship - to the Israeli port city of Haifa  (see "USS San Antonio arrives in Haifa for 'routine port visit'", Jerusalem Post, 4 September 2013). These moves may be described as if they were everyday and unconnected to wider events, but they undoubtedly confirm in the minds of many people across the region that the United States and Israel have common interests which transcend Washington's commitment to the Arab world.

The third is reports of an especially close relationship between Israeli and US intelligence agencies over the crisis. The former may be the source of some of the claims in the US intelligence assessment published on 31 August that the Assad regime was responsible for the Ghouta attack (see Gareth Porter, “How Intelligence Was Twisted to Support an Attack on Syria”, Truth Out, 5 September 2013).

These trends run counter to the administration's previous caution over military intervention in Syria, and create a dynamic that points in the direction of a much wider campaign.

The steps to war

This is further suggested by the political and military context of the Syrian conflict. Israel's position has long been that the security dangers to it of the Assad regime are relatively minor. An outcome of the war that left a weakened regime across Israel's border would be acceptable, as would the fall of the regime and the fragmentation of of Syria (especially if Iranian influence was diminished).

More recently, Israel has been alarmed by the growing prominence of extreme Islamist elements among the rebels and their establishment of control over significant territory.  Both Israel and the United States would find anathema a position where Syria became a new centre for al-Qaida-linked paramilitary movements, whether or not Assad survives. From this perspective, now could seem a good time to tip the balance against the regime before the Islamists gain even greater influence.

In military terms, the US navy currently has five destroyers armed with Tomahawk land-attack missiles within range in the Mediterranean, with other units in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf also able to strike. The Gulf-based aircraft-carrier battle-group centred on the USS Nimitz would normally be returning home to the United States being relieved by the USS Harry S Truman and its ships; now, though, the Nimitz group is remaining in the Arabian Sea, at least for now. Neither carrier battle-group is currently in the Mediterranean, but a strong indication of preparations for a substantial conflict would be if either transits the Suez canal in the next week and then stays in the eastern Mediterranean.

The ships, however, are not essential: the United States has major bases with powerful air-assets in Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. It also has an especially powerful legacy of the cold war in that four of the huge Ohio-class nuclear ballistic-missile submarines of that era were subsequently converted to carry conventionally-armed land-attack cruise-missiles. Each can carry 154 missiles and one, the USS Florida, was used extensively at the start of the war with Libya in 2011 (see Grace Jean, “US positions assets as it prepares to punish Syria”, Jane's Defence Weekly, 4 September 2013).

What all this amounts to is a steady march towards war, with the Israel connection stronger than it was a week ago. Somewhere in the inner recesses of the White House there appears to have been a change of mood centring on a view that the Assad regime does now have to go. It is possible that confidential G20 discussions in St Petersburg on 5-6 September 2013 involving the Russians and Chinese might find a way forward that avoids a conflict, but this is becoming less likely as the effect of the British parliamentary vote diminishes and Israeli influence increases.

A momentum that seemed to have stalled just days ago is now again accelerating. If it is not checked, a sharp escalation in the Syria conflict seems likely before mid-September, with consequences that are almost impossible to predict but augur worse for ordinary Syrians than even their current predicament.

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