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
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
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
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
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
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