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Syrian calculations

Updated September 03, 2013

THE international community appears polarised over the issue of attacking Syria. This is not the first time the Syrian regime has allegedly used chemical weapons against the rebels.

Since the conflict began in March 2011 chemical weapons have reportedly been used on a few occasions, though on a smaller scale. Saddam Hussein too had gotten away with using them, during the Iran-Iraq war and later, against the Kurds.

These weapons are banned by international convention, though Damascus is not a signatory. In any case, despotic regimes will have few qualms about using them — as tactical terror tools — to put down rebellions that threaten their existence. How freely they use them will depend on how far they can get away with it.

Terrible as they are, these weapons work in two ways: they spread panic in enemy ranks, and devastate morale as its fighters abandon the battlefront to rush to their families and support bases against which such weapons are usually launched. Secondly, they remind other rebellious communities of the consequences of rebellion.

Increasingly grisly tactics have been used by both sides in this war. The Assad regime has bombed populated areas using helicopter gunships, aircraft and even scud missiles. It has used cluster munitions and now the US administration has concluded “with high confidence” that Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons. On their part, the rebels calling themselves the ‘Free Syrian Army’ have carried out suicide bombings and executions of the regime’s collaborators.

The fighting in the Syrian civil war is concentrated around three well-populated regions: Damascus in the south, Homs and Latakia near the Mediterranean coast and Aleppo, Syria’s largest city near the border with Turkey.

So on this particular occasion, what could the regime’s generals have been trying to accomplish with chemical weapons? The rebels’ recent acquisition of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles had unnerved the Syrian regime. The rebels could threaten the regime’s helicopters and aircraft, including civil aviation, and Assad probably was going to take no chances with tolerating them in the capital.

Iran had sent the Lebanese Hezbollah to help Assad’s forces beat out the rebels from Damascus. One suburban region was, however, proving to be a hard nut to crack. The logic of the hawks in the regime probably went as follows: let’s take a drastic measure to eliminate this clear and present danger. We will deal with any international outcry later. It will also tell us how far we can push the envelope across Obama’s ‘red line’. If it gets discovered, we’ll deny involvement and cloud the matter.

We will also delay the UN inspectors from reaching the site and use the window of time to erase the evidence. This will substantially weaken America’s moral leverage for a strike. In this window, we would have cleared Damascus of this existential threat.

This is sound war logic. But if it cleared Damascus of one threat wouldn’t it create the bigger threat of a US strike? Not really. In the regime’s calculations, this perhaps was a reasonable trade off. US strikes would only inflict limited damage, on known targets. Even then, to minimise losses some of the assets could be moved out. Any military hardware that got destroyed could be replaced by Russia, which maintains two military bases and several military advisors in Syria.

The regime correctly assessed that if the US struck, it would not take matters to a tipping point where rebel groups could gain a decisive advantage. The US would have to walk a thin line. The gravity of the scenario — with nightmarish implications for Israel’s security — is not lost on the US in which foreign fighters of the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra group get hold of chunks of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, which is one of the largest in the world.

Additionally for Russia and Iran, regime change in Syria would be a red line. Therefore the US strikes, if they came would be clinical, not lethal. The Assad regime also calculated that if the rebels got their hands on anti-tank weapons then they would only be one final and lethal push away from Damascus. Therefore this beach head had to go, even if it was going to take chemical weapons and embracing the risk of a US punitive strike.

There was another payoff. America attacking yet another Arab country would trigger outrage across the Arab world. This wave would tap into the sentiment of populations of Arab countries, most of whose governments are inimical to Bashar al-Assad. It would serve as the Syrian regime’s fifth column of sorts and create political difficulties for several Arab governments that cheered the bombing. Meanwhile Assad would gain stature as the defiant Arab leader who stood up to the West.

So what are the Assad regime’s options? Syria can likely absorb a US strike as long as it remains symbolic and from which it can create political capital. If the US does not strike, then that too suits the regime fine. Either way, it is hard to rule out the possibility of his regime again using deadly weapons — which remain at its disposal.

If, in the unlikely event the strike is somewhat harder than a rap on the knuckles, the risk of the Syrian military taking aim at the Israeli-occupied and annexed Golan Heights, provoking Israel to retaliate cannot be ignored. Nothing would flare sentiment on the Arab street faster than an armed conflict with Israel. If the stage comes where Israel is provoked into responding, then a Rubicon would have been crossed in the present stand-off. The conflict could then spiral beyond anybody’s ability to control. And that must be avoided at all costs.

The writer is a strategist and entrepreneur.