As horrific, yet unconfirmed, reports of an alleged chemical strike by Assad forces start filling the news, a question is being raised in the mind of global decision makers: is it time to intervene? Is this latest massacre attributed to Bashar Al Assad the one that makes it no longer possible for the international community to physically remain outside of the Syrian conflict? While there is an evident lack of precise information about the attack, it seems that chemical weapons, in the form of medium range missiles armed with chemical warheads, targeted the eastern suburbs of Damascus, possibly causing thousands of dead.
In the coming days, the UN Security Council will convene meetings to discuss the latest escalation in the Syrian war and calls for further investigations will be reiterated as the international community will increasingly voice the need of “doing something.” The problem is exactly this romantic perception of interventionism. While it seems unquestionable that the massacre of civilians through the use of chemical agents is utterly unacceptable, the option of waging a full blown military campaign based on weak intelligence in a country torn by a disastrous civil war hardly abides by any strategic logic.
Dictators understand that better than anybody else. When in 1988 Saddam Hussein killed more than five thousands civilians in Halabja, he knew that he wouldn’t directly pay the price of his actions. In fact, had Saddam Hussein not further developed weapons of mass destruction and invaded Kuwait in 1991, it is plausible to think that the Halabja massacre wouldn’t have received the legal attention it did. The strategic error Saddam Hussein committed was to bring his atrocities outside Iraq. Bashar Al Assad is testing the freedom of action he has inside of Syria, and, in a very cynical way, it may be asserted that it is close to absolute.
In fact, due to the current nature of the Syrian conflict, a foreign intervention targeting the regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles would have little strategic sense, receive weak international diplomatic approval and may result in further operational complications.
Due to the multipolar nature of the Syrian war, a military intervention against regime forces is likely to generate counter-productive strategic results. To successfully neutralize the Syrian regime’s ability to use chemical weapons, operations would need to be conducted against military air-bases, anti-aircraft batteries and vector systems such as short and medium range missiles and rocket launchers. The result of these strikes could effectively tilt the strategic balance of the conflict and result in an increased weakening of the Syrian army over the territory. If in itself this sounds like a positive scenario for those who support the Free Syrian Army, a humanitarian-led military campaign aimed at defusing the Syrian WMD threat would undermine the political objectives for a post-Assad situation. It would leave the country in a status of complete power vacuum, which would result in radicalization of the warring factions and almost certainly in greater operational freedom for Al Qaeda related groups.
However, the answer to the question of whether to intervene may not be entirely negative. A two-fold strategy could be put in place to avoid any expansion of the conflict and limit as much as possible Syrian civilian casualties.
Israel has been stating for the last year that any game-changing weapons movement from Syria to any other regional party would not be tolerated. Secret single strike raids have been limiting the risk of WMD proliferation toward Lebanon. This policy needs to be embraced globally and implemented by all regional actors with clear intelligence coordination. Any WMD movement outside Syria’s borders needs to be prohibited.
Along with that, Syrian terrorist groups such as the Al Nusra brigades and Al Qaeda related organizations should not be allowed to obtain chemical and biological weapons. For this, interdiction raids should be ordered not only if suspect movements are verified along international borders but also inside the Syrian territory.
The second part of this would involve the use of cruise missiles and drones to target possible vectors in the process of delivering a chemical strike. This would generate high operational difficulties as the timeliness of the intelligence needed as well as the international coordination to conduct such strikes would require a far reaching agreement including Russian and Chinese approval. If this does not look like an option in the foreseeable future, the plan should nevertheless be presented as a clear alternative to a full blown military campaign.
No one can disagree that the ruthless murder of innocent civilians resulting from the use of chemical weapons is an unspeakable atrocity. However for the interest of regional security, the US, France and the UK should not rush into a military campaign deprived of long term strategic options and exit strategies. Such a decision would not only hurt Western interests in the region but would also result in further complications for the Syrian people.