26 Aug 2013

Syria: the military options

Britain and the US have been moved to strong words against last week’s suspected use of chemical weapons in Syria, but what should be their objectives if pushed into military action?

Britain, the United States and their allies are rightfully wary of starting any military action in Syria after the huge human cost and regional fractures caused by interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

But even if they had the appetite for more, the objectives of using military force remain unclear, not least because Syria possesses formidable air defences. In addition, any intervention risks seriously inflaming civil divisions and may provoke a hostile response from the current regime’s international backers.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said earlier that Britain may launch military action against Syria after chemical attacks last week that claimed hundreds of lives. There are a range of military options but each carries serious dangers of civilian casualties and worsening an already dire situation.

For now, the focus is on whether the US will launch cruise missiles against Syrian targets after reports that the US has moved naval forces closer to Syria.

I fear that the way that we’re handling Syria looks too much like the way we handled Vietnam. Kenneth Pollack, Brookings Institution

Kenneth Pollack, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former member of Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, told Channel 4 News he was most concerned that any immediate action would be for show and ultimately ineffectual.

He expected to see the US administration “incrementally increasing what it’s doing”, but feared a short-term emphasis that was more concerned with “immediate” public relations gains, including the “cruise missile pin-prick”: military strikes akin to the cruise missile attacks carried out by the US in the 1990s against Iraq.

“We’re looking at all these options that seem cheap to us,” Mr Pollack said. “The focus is on the short-term – ‘what can we do to make it all go away?'”

“I fear that the way that we’re handling Syria looks too much like the way we handled Vietnam. We’re more focused on what we are willing to pay instead of ‘what are we trying to achieve?'”

To be effective in the short-term, cruise missile attacks would need to target something of “great value to the regime” such as important army units or essential infrastructure to deter future hostile action from the regime, Mr Pollack said.

Targeting chemical weapons

The US and its allies may want to strike at Syria’s chemical weapons, be that the chemicals themselves or the missile launchers that deploy them, although this approach carries its own risks, he added.

“It would probably make it easier not to get sucked into the wider conflict which would make it more attractive to the US administration,” Mr Pollack said.

“It’s still considered a very risky option because of accidental release. It would obviously be catastrophic if a release of Sarin killed hundreds of people.”

Such attacks would be best carried out by manned aircraft rather than ‘stand-off weapons’ such as cruise missiles and may be incomplete if the locations of some weapons are unknown.

Proxy war

Syria has so far enjoyed strong support from Russia and Iran, raising additional fears that any action taken by the US and its allies against Bashar al-Assad would risk sparking a proxy war.

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said today that intervention by the US and its allies in the Syrian conflict without a UN resolution would be a “very grave violation of international law” and risked repeating “past mistakes”.

The prospects for a no-fly zone, as used successfully over Iraq in the 1990s, appear to remain bleak and would in any case seem unlikely to achieve significant results. The US played down the option in June because of its uncertain effect and open-ended costs while Russia opposed such a move.

Britain and the US committed in June to providing more military assistance to Syrian opposition forces, including arms, but remain unwilling to give them heavy weapons for fears that the array of rebel groups ends up using them against civilians or western powers.

Training the rebels

Training and equipping the opposition is troublesome for this very reason, with the added complication that it would take months to form an effective fighting force within Syria.

Mr Pollack favoured training the opposition as a long-term solution, possibly while the US and its allies pursued other options over the coming months, but warned that “the only way it works is to have these guys and train with them for years.”

He added: “The US did this over a three year period in Iraq. I know that there are people in the US government who get this and want this to happen.”

Whatever the immediate choices, full-scale war or the so-called “boots on the ground” option is not being openly considered and seems a long way off.