West’s military options against Syria severely constrained
Retaliation for suspected gas attack could prompt Russian and Iranian moves
Retaliatory strikes by the United States, and, perhaps, France and Britain against Syria for a suspected chemical weapons attack appear to have been put on hold by the visit to Damascus of experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who will inspect the site of the presumed attack. The mission was invited by Damascus and ally Moscow which claim chemical weapons were not used during Saturday’s bombardment of Jaish al-Islam-held town of Douma.
While Russian experts who visited the town reported no trace of chemical agents, the US complained the OPCW will only confirm or refute activists’ claims but not identify culprits if chemical residue is found.
If and when the US and allies mount strikes on Syria, they could be wide-ranging in response to an international outcry and demands for harsh retaliation after anti-government activists based in Douma reported 49 people had been killed and scores affected by toxic chemical agents.
Tough talk coming from Washington, Paris and London contrasts with satisfaction expressed last April of a one-off US cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack in the jihadi-controlled province of Idlib. The US strike has since been seen as a token strike which did not deter the Syrian air force from, allegedly, repeatedly hitting opposition-held areas with chemical bombs. The OPCW has reported Islamic State and other jihadi factions have also used chemical weapons.
A sustained assault on multiple military facilities would constitute a dangerous escalation. Russia and Iran could not abide a campaign that would cripple the Syrian army and prevent it from defending the 65 per cent of the country’s territory held by the government or impede the recapture of land ruled by jihadis. Russia and Iran have invested too much blood and treasure to allow Syria’s army to be hobbled. Doing so could lead to the resurrection of currently contained Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
Consequently, the western powers should limit the targets they strike and the the damage they inflict. The Syrian military and its allies remain the chief obstacle to the fragmentation of the country into warring jihadi fiefdoms, the last thing the West wants to happen.
Multiple strikes against Syrian military installations would also have to be carefully calibrated to avoid killing Russian and Iranian personnel embedded with the Syrian army. The US cannot afford to commit a direct assault on Russian and Iranian military personnel. Ahead of the 2017 US missile strike on al-Sayrat airbase east of Homs, Washington assured the Russians they would not be targeted.
Moscow has, so far, backed away from confrontation with Washington which has provoked Russia by deploying US-backed Kurdish-led fighters in a vast triangle of territory in northeastern and eastern Syria. The Kurds, under US command, also seized Syria’s most productive oil fields and the US air force killed 100 Russian military contractors in strikes on a column of pro-government forces advancing on a key oil installation.
The US has used its Kurdish proxies to seize these assets as counterweights to Russia’s air and naval bases in the western Latakia province on the Mediterranean and to reassert the US presence in the Levant at a time Russia and Iran have the upper hand.
They are not ready to cede their position to the US. Russia can no longer back away from a US-led challenge, particularly since involvement in the Syrian war has given Moscow the opportunity to reassert the traditional Soviet role as Damascus’s protector and recoup Russian influence in the region.
Therefore, a blitz on Syria could escalate into an outright confrontation between the west and Russia and Iran at a time relations are tense. In a bid to avert confrontation, Moscow has pleaded with the US not to mount a major attack on Syria.
Russia’s options are, however, few. It is unlikely the US and its allies will deploy war planes over Syria since Syrian and Russian air defences could shoot down aircraft. Low-flying cruise missiles are also not immune to interdiction. Russian aircraft and naval ships can harass western warships off the Syrian coast although the threat made by Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, to bomb ships firing missiles could launch the third World War.
Nevertheless, US president Donald Trump responded by saying missiles “will be coming, nice and new and smart!”
Iran is in a better position than Russia to retaliate against the US, which has a force of 9,000 in Iraq. Iranian-sponsored Shia militiamen are eager to engage US troops considered to be occupiers.
If large-scale military action is used to hamstring Syria’s army in order to change the trajectory of the war in Syria – which Damascus has been winning – the West will have to develop a politico-military strategy and become deeply involved in Syria. After seven years of warfare, the US and its allies have failed to draw up such a strategy and cannot be expected to do so in days.
Trump has rejected long-term involvement. During his election campaign he vowed to end US military deployments in the region. Last week he called for immediate withdrawal of the 2,000 US troops in Syria but was convinced by military advisers to accept a pull-out within months. Although he could expect a political boost from intervention in Syria, delivering on campaign promises is one thing Trump takes seriously.
Michael Jansen is based in Cyprus and writes for The Irish Times on the Middle East