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Blundering into Syria

September 01, 2013

THE US, together with a ‘coalition of the willing’, appears on the verge of launching air strikes against the military assets of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

The declared purpose is to punish Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons (CW), deter their future use and degrade the Syrian army’s CW stocks and, most likely, also its conventional military capabilities. Such strikes, especially if undertaken without world support, will be a major strategic mistake.

Under the UN Charter, the use of force is allowed only in self-defence or, collectively, when authorised by the UN Security Council. Neither of these two preconditions are present in the Syrian situation to justify military strikes by the US or its allies.

To be sure, the use of chemical weapons is a serious violation of international law and can be considered a “crime against humanity and a war crime”. Neither the 1925 Geneva Convention, prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, nor the Chemical Weapons Convention, authorises the unilateral use of force to punish or deter the use of chemical weapons or to degrade the CW stocks of the perpetrator or his other military assets. Even where CW use is established, the authority to sanction penalties rests with the UN Security Council.

So far, US intelligence’s evidence of the alleged use of CW by Assad’s forces, denied by Damascus, has not been provided to the international community or the Security Council. Unless such verification conclusively proves the charge, the Security Council is unlikely to authorise penalties.

In any case, following the misuse by Western powers of Security Council resolutions on Libya to conduct expanded air strikes, Russia is unlikely to agree to any resolution that could be construed to justify the use of force against Syria. Without such Council authorisation, any unilateral use of force will be illegal, various arguments to the contrary notwithstanding.

The proposed air strikes are being triggered by President Obama’s past declarations that the use of chemical weapons by Syria would oblige the US to retaliate militarily.

In fact, this arbitrary ‘red line’ was designed to deflect earlier calls for US military support to the opposition forces. All the good reasons that have held back US intervention are still applicable. US military action is being contemplated now mainly to preserve President Obama’s ‘credibility’. This is a tenuous political rationale to commit an anticipated strategic blunder. The Russian foreign minister has argued that CW use may well have been stage-managed by the opposition to trigger US military strikes.

The reported ‘deal’ for the planned attacks, proposed by the US to Russia and other permanent members of the Security Council, displays both naiveté and cynicism. Evidently, the air strikes would target Assad’s military assets but not seek ‘regime change’.

If these strikes are limited in scope and duration, they will fail to serve the opposition’s objective of equalising the military power of the warring forces in Syria. If, however, the strikes are significant, extending to the imposition of a ‘no fly zone’ and the elimination of Syria’s air force and air defence systems, the US will be fully engaged in the Syrian conflict to change the power balance and facilitate Assad’s military defeat.

If the US and a ‘coalition of the willing’ do succeed in enhancing the opposition’s chances against Assad’s forces, the most likely beneficiaries will be Al Qaeda-affiliated factions within the opposition, evidently the most effective among those fighting the regime.

In any event, US air strikes, whether limited or extensive, will provoke a strong response from Assad’s allies. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, has already warned that the US will meet the same consequences as in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Western support to the opposition will be limited to air strikes, and perhaps enlarged weapons supplies, Iran will be able to justify significant and overt support to Assad’s forces. Such support will be ‘on the ground’ and thus more meaningful than air strikes.

If the balance on the battlefield tilts further in favour of Damascus, despite the air strikes, or if military engagement results in American and European casualties, the US and its allies will come under internal pressure to widen their involvement. America could be sucked into this conflict.

Even if this is avoided, external intervention will serve to escalate the intensity and scope of the conflict. The Assad regime will launch larger attacks on opposition strongholds with even less regard for civilian casualties. Even after Western air strikes, its arsenal, refurbished by its allies, will not lack weapons to match the opposition’s capabilities.

The fragile prospects of a political solution in Syria, under the so-called Geneva 2 process, will be extinguished. Both Assad and the opposition will have lesser incentives to come to the negotiating table. Russia will not be able to counsel compromise to Assad. Syria’s division into warring regions and cities is likely to become permanent.

Inevitably, Syria’s neighbours will feel the blowback. From Lebanon, Hezbollah would be more open in supporting Assad while some of the Sunni groups aid the opposition. The coalition in Beirut may collapse and Lebanon become engulfed in another civil war.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s vocal support for the Syrian opposition has already angered secular Turks and exacerbated the alienation of Turkey’s Kurds and Alawites. Turkey’s policy of ‘peace with all neighbours’ is falling apart.

Iran’s more vigorous support for Assad could extinguish the hope aroused by President Hassan Rouhani’s election for a negotiated solution to the nuclear issue. The contest for regional influence between Turkey and the Gulf states versus Iran, Iraq and Syria will intensify as will the Sunni-Shia divide within the Muslim world.

Hopefully, the US and its allies will accept the UN secretary general’s appeal “to give peace a chance”. The process of UN inspections and the requirement, under international law, for a UN Security Council mandate for military action, provide a safety valve that must be availed of to prevent another lit match thrown into the West Asian powder keg.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.