Talk about military action against the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad has been heard in Western capitals for the last couple of weeks. The contours of what any Western military action against Assad might assume are not clear but, whatever the Trump administration or the British government is considering, it would be limited in scope and will not produce any immediate outcome.
It suggests, however, long-term planning for Western involvement in Syria, which it had largely lacked in previous years and could mean increasing joint efforts to counter Iranian expansion and Russian dominance.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat that his country may carry out “limited strikes” against positions of the Assad regime, similar to what the United States conducted in April 2017 with cruise missile attacks against Shayrat Airbase, from which chemical strikes were initiated against Khan Sheikhoun.
White House officials told the Washington Post that US President Donald Trump requested options for military action against Assad in light of reportedly renewed use of chemical weapons on civilian targets. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, stated American willingness and preparedness to conduct an operation against the regime.
However, given the danger of military confrontation with Russia, any action by the United States against Syria would be limited in latitude and carefully executed.
What seems to be the case here is that the United States and leading Western powers are likely looking to draw a new “red line” for the Assad regime in the hope of countering Iranian expansion and challenging Russian dominance.
The attempt is a result of increasing concern that the West is losing its remaining leverage in the Syrian war to Russia and its allies, Iran and most recently Turkey. This unease about the role of the United States in the world is bluntly indicated in its grand strategy, revealed in December, which puts great power competition as the primary focus of its national security.
The concern is further exacerbated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that his country is developing new nuclear weapons and compounded still further by Iran being completely unleashed in Syria, expanding its reach and influence across the country in a provocative manner, which was recently demonstrated in the February 10 escalation with Israel.
While the rationale of what is driving the United States to adopt a more aggressive approach in Syria is understandable, questions remain over whether Washington would be able to enforce its red line.
The major setback the United States suffered in Syria was the Obama administration failing to act on its red line. The inaction that underlined President Barack Obama’s approach to the war in Syria can be partly blamed for the state that the conflict has reached with respect to foreign interventions.
Following reports of a possible US strike, the chief of the general staff of the Russian Army, Valery Gerasimov, reportedly threatened to retaliate against the United States if a strike was undertaken.
While any possible strike must be conducted after informing the Russians to avoid confrontation, Gerasimov’s remarks suggest Russia is ready to oppose any American escalation. The United States may want to tell Assad there are limits to what he can do. However, it is unclear how far the Trump administration’s freedom to act can go without challenging Putin’s assets in Syria.
The complexity of the war in Syria will geographically limit any US military engagement to a few regions in the country. The conflict is composed of various microscopic and multilayered battles and zones.
The United States could attack a regime airbase, like the April 2017 strike, but this would not necessarily serve its interests. In such an attack, Washington would reassert itself morally to prevent further use of chemical weapons but this alone would not stop Russian dominance nor would it contain Iran’s expansion.
The geography of the conflict suggests that the United States may strike positions in southern Syria, for example, where Iran-mobilised militias are spreading their reach. This is something from which the United States could gain leverage as southern Syria seems to be developing into a battlefield for a nascent escalation between Israel and Iran. Another region could be Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria if Assad’s forces continue to escalate against US-backed forces.
Further US military engagement in Syria could get additional support in Washington with the appointment of Mike Pompeo as the secretary of state. He is reportedly in favour of blocking further gains by Assad and Russia and of instituting a hawkish posture against Iran in the region.
Whatever is being considered in Washington on the matter of striking Assad must be executed carefully. The dynamics of the conflict are not only different from 2013, when the regime carried out its first chemical attack, but also different from 2017. Last year witnessed unprecedented advances made by the regime and the spread of Iranian reach in the country. Russia is more hostile than ever to any Western power aiming to gain leverage.
US and Western military strikes against the Assad regime are perhaps needed but would not stop the fighting nor soon bring relief to the thousands of civilians trapped under the regime and Russian bombardment.
Abdulrahman al-Masri is a journalist and analyst who focuses on Middle East politics and security and foreign policy. He is also a fellow with The SecDev Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @AbdulrhmanMasri.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.