Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1163, (5 - 11 September 2013)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1163, (5 - 11 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Limited strike, limited outcome?

Lebanese-American scholar Randa Slim tells Amira Howeidy that while the outcome is difficult to predict, Syria could emerge changed from a limited US strike

Al-Ahram Weekly

Two and a half years into the Syrian conflict, US President Barack Obama declared on 30 August his intention to go ahead with limited military action against the Bashar Al-Assad regime — but upon winning congressional approval. Currently in recess, Congress will convene 9 September, sparking a heated debate in the US on the already divisive issue of Syria. But between proponents and critics of military intervention, in the US and elsewhere, a serious dilemma still exists: is there a solution for Syria?

A limited strike won’t bring down the Al-Assad regime, a full-scale war isn’t on the table, and diplomacy has failed to stop the killing and destruction. Meanwhile shocking figures are speaking for Syria’s tragedy: a death toll of 100,000 and over two million Syrian refugees in destitute conditions. In the words of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, Syria has become the great tragedy of this century and the “biggest displacement crisis of all time”.

It’s a confusing situation for many who fear the consequences of US military intervention on a sovereign state, but have no faith in thus fair failed diplomacy. Lebanese-American political analyst and scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute Randa Slim was initially against any US active role on the ground in Syria, but like many, shifted to what seems to be the uncomfortable position of supporting a strike.

“I think what changed my mind is the chemical attack,” she told Al-Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview from Portland. Slim was alluding to the killing of hundreds of Syrians in Damascus on 21 August by chemical weapons that Washington and French intelligence accuse the Syrian regime of carrying out.

“I believe Al-Assad used chemical weapons before, and I personally met people in Beirut who were in areas where chemical weapons affected them. I saw the effect on their bodies. But the last attack was just beyond the pale.”

Slim agrees that Syria’s staggering death toll since 2011 wasn’t the result of chemical agents. “There is some hypocrisy here, because chemical weapons, even on a smaller scale, were used in the past without a reaction.” If the US had acted earlier, this chemical attack could have been prevented, she said.

On the other hand, the question of chemical weapons as a “red line” and Obama’s Congress manoeuvre — practically, a delay in action — seem to betray his reluctance towards US involvement. On 30 August, the British parliament voted against military intervention in Syria.

Obama’s top military adviser, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is reportedly sceptical of the risks that could come with even a limited strike. In a letter to Senator Carl Levin on 22 July, Dempsey said there was a risk “that the [Syrian] regime could withstand limited strikes by dispersing its assets. Retaliatory attacks are also possible… We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”

Al-Assad’s allies, Hizbullah and Iran, are reportedly on very high alert. Observers speak of intense pressure on Al-Assad — who refrained from responding to Israeli military assaults on Syria in the past — to retaliate to any strike, no matter how limited. While the Syrian regime will not tire of warning its enemies of how an attack will drag the entire region to war, this is a fear shared by many. The Red Cross says military action would trigger more population displacement and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis, while the International Crisis Group stressed the need for a political exit.

“Obama is rightly reluctant,” said Slim. “On the one hand, he used the UK vote as an opportunity to consider something he already had misgivings about, but he also created a political environment that forced him to have to respond to his base.” Anti-strike voices don’t only come from the Republicans, “but also from inside the Democratic Party”.

Obama is delaying action “because he wants more room to see if Iran and Russia might do something”, Slim says. On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was siding with Al-Assad and rejected claims that the latter used chemical weapons. 

“The Iranians are more of a greyish area. And there is a possibility something is being prepared between Tehran, Hizbullah and Damascus, and now they have more time to do that. So there’s definitely the possibility of a regional war. But it will be costly for everybody. Syria, Hizbullah and Iran will have more to lose in a regional war than Obama, in my opinion.”

While Obama will lose credibility, Slim suggests, it is in the interests of Al-Assad and his allies to keep the confrontation limited and not give justification to engage Israel — and possibly Iran — in the war.

It all hinges on a “limited” strike. But how limited is limited? The resolution sent to Congress for authorisation by the White House doesn’t clearly set limits on the duration of the military operation. Slim says this is why the White House is redrafting the request to limit the scope of the strike. It’s unclear if the outcome will achieve a no-fly and no-drive zone in Syria.

“But this won’t make a difference, because the bulk of the force that the Al-Assad regime is using is artillery. But destroying his air force and degrading its command structure [isn’t ineffective],” Slim says.

As the Obama administration proceeds with its lobbying blitz, US Secretary of State John Kerry is making countless TV appearances to sell the strike to a sceptical public. The gist of Kerry’s rhetoric thus far has been to convey deterring messages to Israel’s enemies, Iran and Hizbullah for Tel Aviv’s security. The Jewish Lobby is expected to join the debate. But it’s not what public opinion in the Arab world is willing to approve, and will certainly put pressure on pro-strike Gulf monarchies.

“Indeed. But the people who are going to vote for or against the strike are Americans. The current rhetoric is the unintended consequence of the debate.”

But unintended consequences of the expected strike, which the Obama administration made clear is not about bringing down the Al-Assad regime, could centre on the controversial rebels themselves. Not only do they also have blood on their hands, rebels like Jabhet Al-Nusra (a militant Salafist umbrella group fighting against Al-Assad’s regime with a strong military presence on the ground) are, in a power vacuum, a threat to Syrians as well. They are serving as the regime’s bogeyman and feeding the argument that the US would rather keep a weak Al-Assad in power.

“We hear that argument a lot in Syria,” said Slim, “but the US secretary of state called Al-Assad a thug and a mass murderer. You can’t have him say that and at the same time imply that the country wants to keep him in power. The Americans are aware they have limited options in how far they can go to remove Al-Assad.

“We can hear from the debate in Congress that regime change isn’t on the cards — despite what [Republican senators] John McCain and Lindsey Graham want. The rest of the country doesn’t want regime change.”

Al-Assad is weak economically and politically and his regime could fall, but the “US won’t strike to bring him down”.

Is a strike part of a strategy to eventually force a political solution? Slim is sceptical. “At this point I find it hard to leap to a political solution. However, there are always unintended consequences of military action, good or bad, depending on what kind of strike it is and how the other sides decide to react. We might see a different environment inside Syria.”

It will “at least help restore the stalemate which was upended by the Al-Qusair victory” when the strategic Syrian city bordering with Lebanon, captured by the Free Syrian Army, was regained by Al-Assad forces and Hizbullah in June.

“Since then, conflict momentum has been shifting in favour of the regime. It will also nip the narrative that the regime has been spinning until lately to its base — that the international community was coming around to re-establishing ties with [the regime].”

The longer the stalemate continues, “the higher likelihood that the Syrian conflict becomes costly for regional patrons who hold keys to a solution in Syria. The sooner Syrian parties and their regional patrons face and accept reality that Al-Assad cannot re-conquer Syria, and that rebels cannot defeat the regime militarily, the quicker we will get to a negotiation process, which is the only way this conflict will be resolved.”

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