The momentum in the United States is shifting towards a larger-scale attack on the Assad regime. But even a limited one will transform the nature of the war, with region-wide consequences.
The political and military consequences of the presumed chemical-weapons attacks in Syria on 21 August 2013 are continuing to unfold. Three days after the incident in Ghouta, on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, a strong possibility had emerged that the United States president would order a punitive assault on a symbolic target of especial importance to Bashar al-Assad's regime. The choice might be to fire cruise-missiles against a security headquarters or command-centre in Damascus, or even the ministry of defence; this would be a warning to the regime that any further use of chemical weapons would ensure a far more destructive response (see "Syria: days of decision", 24 August 2013).
This potential route carried little chance of putting the regime's actual survival at risk, not least because the growing power of extreme Islamist paramilitaries among the rebels meant that Washington was at this stage seeking transition rather than regime termination.
A day later, on 25 August, the momentum towards an early attack was stalled when Damascus surprisingly accepted the demand that United Nations inspectors already in the country be allowed to examine the vicinity of the chemical-weapons operation. Yet within another forty-eight hours, the outlook had changed again, as the potential for a much more extensive bombing campaign against Syria's regime moved centre-stage.
The neocon echo
The signs of a shift included US secretary of state John Kerry's vigorous condemnation of the Assad regime, including near explicit blaming of it for the chemical-weapons attack; both content and tone seemed part of an effort to prepare the American public for war. In addition, the Wall Street Journal reported that Barack Obama's administration had sought, and failed, to get the UN to withdraw the inspectors - thus opening the way for early military action (see Gareth Porter, “In Rush to Strike Syria, US Tried to Derail UN Probe”, IPS/TerraViva, 28 August 2013). The tough rhetoric from the British and French governments - and UK prime minister David Cameron's recall of parliament from its summer recess - also fitted the mood.
It seemed that the Obama administration had changed stance, even to be veering towards the more hawkish views of Syria held by still influential neo-conservative elements (see Jim Lobe, “US Neocons take flight over Syria”, IPS/TerraViva, 28 August 2013). They demand that the United States pursue a two-pronged strategy: undertaking major military operations with the aim of ending the Assad regime, while supporting “acceptable” rebels sufficient to ensure that the Islamist radicals would be sidelined in a post-Assad Syria (see Daniel Halper “Experts to Obama: Here's What To Do In Syria”, Weekly Standard, 27 August 2013).
The result, from this perspective, would be a pro-western Syria that would severely constrain Iranian influence in the region and end any notion that a "Shi'a crescent" could be established - from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, through Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran. This is akin to the neo-con dream of 2001-03, which believed that regime termination in Iraq would form the western counterpart of a pincer against Iran, complementing Afghanistan's role to the east.
The test of this change in the Obama administration's posture will be the nature of the forthcoming US military operation. If it is indeed limited to a symbolic strike, as seemed probable on 24 August, then the function will have been primarily deterrence. If it involves, for example, a series of attacks that starts to degrade the regime's ability to subdue the rebellion, this would indicate a transformative ambition - closer to the outlook of the George W Bush administration in 2001-03.
The latter choice would pose the question of where this change in the Obama administration's outlook had come from. A plausible answer is that on current trends the administration foresees a long-term violent stalemate in Syria that leads to the country's fragmentation, leaving large areas under the control of extreme jihadist groups. If that is its view, the chemical-weapons controversy might provide a means to hasten Assad's end and avert this outcome.
Yet both this more ambitious approach, and a limited use of cruise missiles or other stand-off weapons, would be very risky. For even a one-off attack will transform the nature of the war, much more than training or supplying arms to rebel forces. The civil war, already a proxy one involving foreign allies and backers on both sides, will have been directly internationalised, and after such action there will be no way back.
The reverse view
It may still be difficult for governments in Washington, London and Paris to recognise this. They might do by recalling a crucial aspect of the Iraq experience. In 2002, the Saddam Hussein dictatorship had little or no support across the middle east. The leader was widely regarded as a pariah, with the al-Qaida movement regarding his regime as a hated part of the “near enemy”.
But when Iraq was attacked and the regime overthrown, many in the region saw the United States and its western partners as the aggressors. This position was reinforced strongly when it became clear by the end of 2003 that the US was seeking Israeli aid in controlling the unexpected urban insurgency it now faced.
It may seem far-fetched to think that western military action against the Assad regime, when the latter is already being opposed by paramilitaries linked to the al-Qaida movement, could create the same realignment of views. Yet that is indeed the likely result.
Furthermore, it is all too easily forgotten in these capitals that any US action against Syria will not actually be the first external use of force. There have already been three sets of air-strikes, conducted in each case by Israel. Thus, it will be easy to characterise any fresh western attack as part of yet another Crusader-Zionist conspiracy. This may not seem rational or logical in western capitals, but that itself stems from a failure to recognise the reality of how their conduct is viewed by very many people in the middle east.
What may yet start as a restricted military operation could therefore trigger much greater and more damaging consequences. It could set in motion the long-term involvement of western states, on a scale beyond their own current imaginings. The road to another war may well be underway.