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Between A Warning And A Game Changer In Syria

31 August 2013

By Manuel Almeida

We seem to be at most only a few days away from seeing Syrian army positions and infrastructure targeted by Western firepower in retaliation for the chemical weapons attack that reportedly killed hundreds of men, women and children in a Damascus suburb on August 21.

American, British, French and German political leaders, as well as the Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elarabi, all vehemently condemned the act as a barbaric violation of international norms and vowed it should not go unpunished.

Save warning messages from Iran, Russia and China against the consequences of an intervention against Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, powerful momentum for a military strike is building in Western capitals. The ghosts of Iraq will not prevent a robust response this time around.

However, it all gets more complicated when it comes to the details. One can only imagine the private doubts of the Obama administration, or of US and British military strategists, over the exact course of action.

It is widely held that the Syrian army's means of delivering chemical weapons will be the primary target of the naval or aerial attacks. Nevertheless, there is the danger of temptation to also target the Syrian army's command centers or pro-government militia training camps. The question—moral, legal, political and strategic—then becomes where to draw the line.

A key principle of the century-old "just war" theory is proportionality. From this perspective, it is vital not to forget the other atrocities committed during the Syrian civil war by both government and opposition forces. An exaggerated response to a particular incident, even one as serious as that of August 21, would send a message of obvious partiality and incoherence.

The Americans in particular seem to understand this. They have been vocal that the looming intervention will not be about regime change. Yet the deployment of military force can still become an unwarranted game changer.

At this point, the prospect of a swift takeover of some of Syria's main cities by various Salafist groups, which are becoming everyone's enemy, is even worse than the continued survival of a bloody dictator struggling to survive as most of the country he once controlled plummets further into chaos. This is what the intervention could trigger if it goes a step too far in damaging the Syrian army's core infrastructure and morale, beyond its capacity to deploy chemical weapons. Without the necessary international support, the moderate Syrian opposition is not prepared to capitalize on such a radical transformation on the ground.

The Syrian crisis, and any possible retaliation from the Syrian regime or its proxies and allies, has the potential to seriously affect the security of neighbouring states—including Western allies such as Israel or Turkey. Thus there is also a risk of the US and other Western states being dragged into yet another conflict, this time even more against their will.

On the reverse side, however, a surgical strike that aims only at sending a signal regarding the use of chemical weapons might came across as too little, too late. It is as though one came across a group of kids fighting among themselves with knives and intervene to compel them to use only clubs instead.

This is why, despite all the divergences over Syria between the West on one hand and Assad's international backers on the other, neglecting negotiations aimed at reaching a political solution to the conflict would be a big mistake. There are mixed signals on this front. The US delayed another meeting with Russia, while other reports indicate that both sides are still very much committed to the Geneva II peace conference.

Many parallels are being drawn between past military interventions and the looming one in Syria. Among these, NATO's bombing of Serbian troops in 1999 after the failure of peace talks over Kosovo stands out. This parallel has two dimensions. First, NATO troops suffered zero casualties, a record that Western leaders are certainly eager to repeat. Second, although its legality was disputed, given the absence of a specific UN Security Council resolution to back the intervention, it is still widely seen as legitimate.

By the time this article goes to print, the members of the UN Security Council will not have agreed on the draft of a UN Security Council resolution put forward by Britain. In my view, more important than having UN Security Council backing would be to wait for the release of the results of the UN investigation into the incident on August 21. But the drums of war are already beating.

 

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