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If the West must attack Syria, then it must be limited to give Assad a bloody nose and nothing more. Otherwise they shift the tide in favour of the rebels and elicit greater support from Assad's allies, who have greater reach into Syria and are willing to devote far more to the conflict and the survival of the regime.
By Ranj Alaaldin
The UK parliament yesterday voted against British involvement in any military intervention in Syria. Despite the vote, the US is hard-pressed to deter further chemical weapons use in Syria and discourage desperate despots from using them again in the future. The US will press ahead with some form of military attack on the Syrian regime, with or without the UK.
However, whilst it seems likely that the US, along with France and others, will only engage in punitive action against the regime, they must still proceed with caution: firstly, because Western intervention may inadvertently bring about the fall of the regime and lead to consequences detrimental to Western interests; secondly, because Assad's own backers may play an increased role in the conflict, in response to Western military action. They can and will match Western military action in the conflict and have enough at their disposal to take on the West and an emboldened rebel force.
The West's limited range of options has resulted from Western inaction early on in the conflict. Rather than striking Syria in the early months of the conflict, the US and her allies pinned their hopes on the opposition as it sought to topple the Assad regime with significant but insufficient support from regional powers. That allowed radical Al-Qa'ida affiliated groups emerge as the predominant players and shapers of the conflict, with better organisation, arms, fighters and funds than other groups.
Toppling the Assad regime thus means handing over the Syrian state to these fighting forces that, with Qatari and Saudi backing, have sidelined the ineffective and disorganised moderate forces backed by the West. They have already outlined their intention to ethnically cleanse Syria of those that either supported or acquiesced to the Assad regime's efforts to suppress them. After last week's chemical attack, the predominant fighting force and Al-Qa'ida linked group Jabhat al-Nusra vowed to escalate its attacks on minority Alawite communities, in revenge for the chemical attack.
As non-state armed actors, they have already undermined regional stability and will continue to do so as they amass more arms, fighters and stronger networks that now cut across Syria and Iraq. Al-Qa'ida affiliated groups there have merged to form the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As potential victors of post-Assad Syria, they will pose a far more serious threat to the interests and security of the broader international community.
Western inaction has also allowed the conflict to transform into a regionalised sectarian proxy war between the Sunni Arab world and a Shia axis of powers comprised of Iran, Iraq and Hizbullah. In other words, it is extremist groups and regional rivals who have stepped in to fill the resulting vacuum over the course of the past two years.
This reality hovering above Syria means two things: that the West can no longer allow the rebels to win a decisive victory in Syria, either through a large-scale military operation or a sustained Kosovo-style air campaign and, secondly, that the West must ensure its actions in the coming days fall short of altering the balance of power in favour of the rebels.
Provoking Assad's Regional Supporters
Lest we forget, Assad also has backers who have provided uncompromising support to his regime. Thus far, Iran has played a monumental role in the conflict. It has taught regime loyalists the art of urbanised warfare and trained them to do what few states can do effectively: defeat armed, non-state entities such as the ragtag groups operating in Syria. Iran has created, trained and armed insurgent groups of this type for more than three decades - and with effect, as US and British forces found out in Iraq after the 2003 intervention.
Lebanon's Hizbullah, also formed by Iran, played a decisive role in the conflict two months ago when it defeated rebel forces to capture and take control of the strategic town of Qusayr. Iraqi Shia militias have also flooded Syria to fight alongside the regime. They are now playing an active role in suppressing the rebels, and honed their fighting ability and skills against US and UK forces in Iraq.
Yet, Assad's allies are only just getting warmed up. The Obama administration may be set to opt for cruise missile strikes, which could be merely symbolic, give the regime a bloody nose and nothing more. Assad, in turn, will withstand the pressure, avoid retaliating and weather the storm. Yet, if missiles hit sensitive regime targets, including Assad's elite forces or significant military command and control centres, then that has the potential to alter the balance in favour of the rebels.
This might provide some cause for optimism but any possibility of victory for rebel forces will be met with a fierce response from the Assad regime's allies. In addition to Moscow, which has provided Assad with weapons and technical assistance, the likes of Iran and Hizbullah have barely stretched their resources in the conflict and have the ability to pour more fighters and weapons on the ground.
Boots on the Ground
Unlike the US, Assad's main backers are willing to put boots on the ground and it is fighters on the ground that will ultimately determine victory. The Libya experience shows that air bombardments can be decisive but only when regime forces are ineffective, lack sufficient depth and face organised as well as effective opposition fighters. The Assad regime has already proven that it is no Libya.
Further, the Iraqi state fears the fall of the Assad regime as much as any other. Jihadist groups fighting in Syria have already merged with counterparts in Iraq and have dealt a significant blow to Iraq's security environment since the Syria conflict began. The removal of Assad would undermine the authority of Baghdad's Shia-dominated government and strengthen Iraq's anti-government and anti-Shia militants, as well as empower the country's Sunni, who have become disenfranchised with the rule of the Shia. The sectarianisation of the Syrian conflict means that Iraq's majority Shia fear that the downfall of Assad equates with a return to marginalisation and oppression. In other words, Iraq fears that it will be next and that forces in Syria will focus their attention on Baghdad, should Assad fall.
Yet, the Iraqi state has barely contributed to the conflict. The government has turned a blind eye to Shia militias entering Syria, as well as to Iranian cargo flights to Syria containing arms and funds. Any intensification of support for the rebels will, therefore, force Iraq to play its own intensified role in the conflict. Thousands of Shias could realistically be mobilised to enter Syria and fight a battle that might be perceived as a battle for the survival of the Shia.
Further, the Iraqi military is unlikely to become directly involved in Syria. However, it will not be implausible to foresee members of the military revert to civilian clothing and enter Syria as militias, as they did during the 2006 civil war in Iraq, against the Sunni, when Shia militias, soldiers and police officers were indistinguishable from one another. Just last month, Hadi al-Amiri, Iraq's Transport Minister and head of the powerful Shia militia group, the Badr Brigade, publicly threatened to send Shia militias to Syria if Shias there continue to be targeted.
The West must, therefore, stick to what it says it will do and avoid going beyond punitive strikes. Victory is no longer possible in Syria and it is now too late to save human lives by toppling the regime. In other words, give Assad a bloody nose but prevent the tide from shifting in favour of the rebels and aim to force both sides to the negotiating table. Otherwise, the US and her allies must prepare for an Iraq-style war after the war, in which the real and far bloodier battle for the Syrian state takes place.
Ranj Alaaldin is a doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he focuses on Shia political mobilisation and sectarian conflict in the Middle East.
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.