As western forces move towards military action against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for alleged use of chemical weapons in eastern Damascus, decision-makers have continually insisted to their peers and the war-weary public that action in Syria will not result in the ‘next Iraq’. This makes great political sense – while the Iraq invasion was planned as a quick and decisive operation, the resulting eight-year conflict resulted in at least 114,000 civilian casualties and four million displaced; 4,000 coalition fatalities and 20,000 serious injuries; and by 2008 had cost an estimated $3 trillion. In Syria, President Obama has been at pains to stress that US plans are for ‘limited, tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict’.
This is not an assurance that the President and his allies have the capacity to make. Of all the lessons western governments claim to have learnt from the Iraq debacle, the law of unforeseen consequences must now be placed front and centre. While targeted strikes to command nodes, weapon stores, military facilities and economic assets can deliver a strong message to Assad that the use of chemical weapons must stop, western forces must also be fully prepared to deal with longer term consequences of military intervention.
Can Military Strikes Effectively Deter Use of Chemical Weapons?
The widely reported chemical attack of 21 August was the largest of 15 such recorded abuses by the Syrian military since 2012, according to British intelligence. US decision-makers are already aware that effectively deterring the use of chemical weapons may require more invested action. In a letter to Congress on 19 July, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, stated that effective deterrence would require ‘hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines… Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces… to assault and secure critical sites’, costing an average of ‘well over one billion dollars per month’. Even with this depth of action, Gen. Dempsey’s expectation was that ‘the impact would be the control of some, but not all chemical weapons.’ He also warned that ‘inability to fully control Syria’s storage and delivery systems could allow extremists to gain better access’.
What Impact Will Military Strikes Have on the Conflict?
Because of political declarations that strikes on Syria would be punitive and a response solely to the use of chemical weapons, debates on potential military action have tended to ignore the bearing that such strikes may have on the on-going conflict and humanitarian crisis. While chemical weapons have proved a catalyst for western movement on Syria, virtually all of the 100,000 casualties in this war have been killed by conventional weapons. The International Committee of the Red Cross stated on 29 August that "further escalation [of the conflict] will likely trigger more displacement and add to humanitarian needs, which are already immense…"
Recent statements in the public domain suggest that US military planners are far from confident of easy gains in Syria. Gen Dempsey’s July letter estimated that limited stand-off strikes, over time, would result in the ‘significant degradation of regime capabilities…’ But, in another letter to Congress on 19 August, Gen. Dempsey noted:
We can destroy the Syrian Air Force. The loss of Assad’s Air Force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict. Stated another way, it would not be militarily decisive, but it would commit us decisively to the conflict.
Assad’s continued military capability is buoyed by support from Iran, Hezbollah fighters experienced in urban warfare, and Russian arms sales and diplomatic backing. Should Assad’s capabilities be degraded, western forces must expect increased military support to his regime from his allies. Iran has long taken an active role in supporting Syria, its conduit to Hezbollah in Lebanon, both in terms of technical assistance such as intelligence and communications, and weapons. Russia admits to supplying ‘defensive’ weapons in fulfilment of Syrian orders placed before March 2011. Western targeting of Assad’s arsenals could determine Moscow to supply weapons more generally and lessen chances of Russia leveraging its influence to bring Assad towards political negotiation.
Through the logic of proxy war, escalation on one side is likely to result in escalation on the other. If Iran responded to western attacks on the Syrian regime by bolstering its own support, its great Gulf rival Saudi Arabia would be likely to increase its support for Sunni-based armed opposition groups. Turkey, Qatar, Iraqi Kurdistan and others may well do the same for their preferred factions. Beneficiaries would likely include jihadist groups, currently the most effective and expansionary anti-Assad forces. The perverse effect of western intervention against the Assad regime could therefore be to bolster their mutual enemies from local al-Qaida franchises.
Uncertainties over outcomes also extend deep into the wider region. Sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi’a factions in Iraq has reached a five-year high since May, and Lebanese cities have increasingly been racked by bombings and clashes between local Sunni, Shi’a and Alawite factions. Fighters from both neighbours have joined the battle on various sides in Syria, as have Kurds from Turkey and Iraq. There are indications that the ascendance of Syrian jihadist factions aligned with Iraqi Islamists have revived the fortunes of Iraq’s al-Qaida franchise. Hezbollah is likely to have used its support to the Syrian army to leverage greater and more sophisticated stocks of weapons for its arsenals in Lebanon. The retreat of Iranian influence in Syria could see an advance of its interests in southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah has tens of thousands of rockets capable of hitting Israel, potentially drawing Israel deeper into the Syrian conflict.
A Job Half Done?
As western leaders try to assure the public that Syria will not be the next Iraq, arguments that western intervention can be limited to punitive strikes instead of protracted engagement may prove as misleading as the ’intelligence failures’ of 2003. Politicians are mistaken if they think that ‘this is not Iraq’ means a quick operation that relinquishes them of responsibility to remain engaged in Syria. Even before the chemical attack of 21 August, the UNHCR had declared Syria the ‘worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century’. Such a crisis will not be resolved through limited ‘punitive’ air strikes. These could inhibit certain kinds of violence in the short term, but the longer term, consequence may well be acceleration through action and reaction. This could include escalation of war by conventional means, the proliferation of chemical weapons, the consolidation of jihadist groups, and the further destabilisation of the region through an escalating struggle between battle-hardened sectarian proxies.
Unintended consequences are a certainty of any military intervention. As in Iraq a decade ago, the complexity of the sectarian, ideological and geopolitical divisions in Syria and its region mean that the outcomes of intervention, or indeed non-intervention, are particularly difficult to gauge. Wilfully presenting best case scenarios and failing to understand contingencies before strikes are approved may prove irresponsible and costly, both for western governments and the Syrian civilians they claim to be protecting. Unless western powers really do believe that one-off punitive strikes will be sufficient to end Syria’s humanitarian crisis, they must ask themselves what else they are prepared to do and whether they can really walk away from a job half done.
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About the Authors
Richard Reeve is the Director of Oxford Research Group's (ORG) Sustainable Security Programme. He works across a wide range of defence and security issues and has particular expertise in Sub-Saharan Africa, peace and conflict analysis, and the security role of regional organisations. Richard has worked with a number of organisations including International Alert and Chatham House.
Zoë Pelter is the Research Officer of Oxford Research Group’s (ORG) Sustainable Security Programme. She works on a number of projects across the programme, including Rethinking UK Defence and Security Policies and Sustainable Security and the Global South.
Further available for interview is Oxford Research Group’s (ORG) Global Security Consultant, Paul Rogers, who is also Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University. Paul Rogers is widely published and has worked in the field of international security for many years.
About Oxford Research Group (ORG)
ORG is a leading independent UK think tank and has worked for 30 years to promote sustainable approaches to security and non-military solutions to conflict. www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk
Photo: Wounded civilians arrive at a hospital in Aleppo during the Syrian civil war. Source: Wikimedia