Friday, August 30, 2013

Only bad choices left for US in Syria

Global Times
By Paul Cochrane

Over the past week the call for military intervention has grown stronger following the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. Given all the bluster by US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, and the military buildup in the Eastern Mediterranean, some form of military intervention is probable, as is upping weapon supplies to the rebels, which Western intelligence agencies have long been covertly doing.

If missile strikes are not happening, it is because the US and its allies are waiting for UN weapons inspectors to leave without, or hopefully, with, evidence linking the Syrian army to chemical weapons usage, or else calls to hold off intervention has gained strength.

A year ago, Obama said that if chemical weapons were used by Damascus, a red line would have been crossed and action would result. The first alleged chemical weapons scare back in April did not result in any action, yet this time appears different.

It was the deaths of an estimated 500 to 1,300 people in an August 21 attack that prompted the "need for action," not the 100,000 plus killed, the 1.9 million Syrian refugees, or the plight of an estimated 4 million Syrians living at the subsistence level on bread and sugary tea.

The rationale for military intervention, even if limited, is the same as Libya in 2011: to bolster the rebels and unseat the regime of Bashar al-Assad by targeting strategic military positions. It is a cliché to say that Syria is not Libya, and vice versa, but comparisons are being made and the differences should be noted.

Libya has a small population and is geostrategically relatively isolated, with broad swathes of desert between the cities and its neighbors. Syria however has over 20 million people, and is smack-bang in the middle of the Middle East, bordering Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Damascus is less than two hours drive from Beirut and Amman, and the Israeli border is equally close.

Bombing Syria could be likened to dropping a large rock in a swimming pool to soak one person and getting everyone else drenched as well. That is the danger of military intervention, not just the "what ifs" about a post-Assad Syria.

Muammar Gaddafi's Libya had no friends in the Middle East and different neighbors. Damascus though has Iran on its side and support in Lebanon, specifically Hezbollah, while Russia stands with Syria at a global level.

Yet limited strikes may very well not result in major fall out and work as a warning to Assad. After all, the US just needs to point to Afghanistan and Iraq to show it is willing and able to destroy a country if need be.

But if the attacks mortally wound the regime or are not limited, until that is the case, Iran may not brush off such a blow.

Neither would Iranian ally Hezbollah, which left the side lines this year to enter the conflict with the Syrian army, and has hooked its future to the survival of the Syrian regime.

The situation in Lebanon will also likely heat up further, with two large bomb attacks in Beirut and Tripoli in the past fortnight that were blamed on the Syrian conflict.

Yet what kind of warning are such limited strikes to Damascus? Would the international community then continue to wring its hands over the conflict, as it has since it started over two years ago, and hope the crisis simmers down? Or resort to further military intervention?

A post-conflict Syria with Assad still in power is not to the US' and its allies' liking, but neither is an Islamist Syria. There seem to be few options on the table other than the military one that will wreak death and destruction, and still see the conflict rage on.

The author is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon

Illustration by Liu Rui/GT

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