There’s little question according to international observers that forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad used the nerve agent Sarin (GB) during a rocket offensive in Damascus on August 21. Well over 1,000 people are suspected to have died, while the true count will almost certainly never be known due to a paucity of impartial observers on the ground, repeated denial, and use of the incident by both sides for propaganda purposes.
The international response has been muted. From an interventionist perspective, benign. The US in 2003 went to full-blown war over the mere suspicion of chemical weapons being stockpiled in Iraq- never mind deployed or used- and based on ridiculously flimsy (and heavily manipulated for political purposes) evidence. Together with NATO allies, it carried out less extensive but none-the-less influential air-strikes against the ailing Gaddhafi regime in Libya. The Obama administration’s response to Syria amounts to little more than sabre-rattling, at least in public, despite this being by far the most egregious of offenses- and arguably more intensely violent than the Iraq conflict.
It’s not entirely clear what diplomacy is happening behind the scenes. Al Assad is reportedly agreeing to a framework for the elimination of chemical weapons- presumably under considerable pressure from various bilateral or multilateral sources. The diplomatic scene itself is crowded, specifically with Russia’s continued defence of its client al Assad limiting both diplomatic and interventionist options or risking an escalation in the conflict. Whether the threat of force truly existed behind the posture of the US and other western nations- or whether it would have truly deterred al Assad from his current course- isn’t clear.
From one perspective, a diplomatic agreement on the removal of chemical weapons seems like a weak resolution. Not so much as a slap on the wrist for a man who has contributed to the deaths of over 100,000 of his own people, and has reportedly carried out the worst attack using weapons of mass destruction the 21st century has seen.
Naturally, things aren’t that simple. Even from a strictly humanitarian perspective, intervention is a grey area at best. The coalition invasion of Iraq unsettled a relatively stable nation which has degenerated into a state of low-level civil war and seen as many as a million of its citizens die. Whether intervention in Libya saved lives or not is a matter for debate.
The situation in Syria is so chaotic and deeply embroiled that it’s hard to see what any strikes would bring about other than guaranteeing more peoples’ deaths. As well as the difficulty in getting up-to-date tactical information in such a chaotic theatre, the nature of warfare has decentralized considerably, with multiple small warring parties each enjoying relative autonomy, their own mission and command structure, and reliant more on small groups of mobile fighters than sophisticated (and therefore more easily targetable) weapons, communications or command systems.
Of course, in a realpolitik consideration of Syria, humanitarian concerns are far from the top of the list. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have left the US- in particular- highly sensitive to any further military intervention where significant numbers of troops might be put at risk (versus, say, small numbers of pilots, or Special Forces operators). Domestic approval is a lynchpin in almost any decision relating to foreign intervention. It was heavily manipulated prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
There was a public cry of ‘do something’ in Libya, where it was relatively easy to pin the role of ‘bad guy’ on Gaddhafi, while the notion of the Arab Spring still enjoyed something of a honeymoon in western favours. Of course, public opinion around the Libya intervention has been re-cast in the light of the Benghazi attack, and many Americans recall Libya as the place where four Americans- including an Ambassador- were killed under dubious circumstances, and remain undecided whether this sacrifice is worth it.
Since Libya and the rise of fundamentalist Islamic groups in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, western sentiment has been decreasingly supportive of populist movements in the Middle East and North Africa. Word that many of the Syrian opposition groups are influenced by, infiltrated by, or openly identified as fundamentalist militias makes them distasteful to support. The overflow of anti-American fundamentalist militias from Iraq into the Syrian opposition means that taking a military stand against al Assad- necessarily supporting the aims of al Qaeda in Iraq fighters in Syria- is virtually untenable.
The more cynical viewpoint sees Syria as an extension of the Iraq war- if not in a causal fashion, then from a Foreign Policy perspective. It’s no secret that one of the main drivers behind engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq- and which justifies the cost of thousands of coalition soldiers’ lives overseas- is that by engaging fundamentalist footsoldiers on the ground in Central Asia and the Middle East saps their capacity to strike at targets on western soil. However distasteful the sight of coffins draped in the Stars and Stripes being offloaded from C-5s, C-17s and C-130s, it’s a fraction of the public outcry and sense of governmental failure that would accompany a terrorist attack- even a relatively small one- on domestic soil.
Syria has become a grist-mill for fundamentalist fighters, a lamp to mothlike jihadis who are swelling the ranks of al Assad’s opposition in the tripartite hope of winning physical ground, gaining valuable combat experience, and the ever-present enticement of martyrdom. From a short-term foreign policy/domestic security (the two are intractably interwoven) perspective, this is ideal. Thousands- literally- of fighters who could be targeting American soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan are currently tied up for the indefinite future fighting in Syria. Likewise vast amounts of resources- cash, weapons, explosives, as well as the human resources involved in planning, tactics and leadership- are likewise being used up. Resources that might otherwise be planning attacks on embassies, tour-buses, or attractive targets in Western nations. Many jihadis will never return from Syria. It’s more than possible that some of those who died in August’s chemical weapons attack might otherwise have fought coalition troops in Iraq.
Why would any standing democratically-elected government in the US, the UK and other ‘net-receivers of terrorism’ states (as they might perceive themselves) wish to put a stop to this?
The political cost of not acting- of not making sense of a chaotic red-on-red civil conflict, of not being ‘humanitarian enough’- pales against the cost of acting and losing more soldiers overseas to a war-zone nobody cares about, of freeing up more would-be jihadis who might turn their attention to troops overseas or, worse, domestic targets, or most risky of all, backing the wrong side and turning large swathes of already-fragile Middle-Eastern sentiment against them.
Right now, the US, the UK and others are technically bystanders to the conflict- trying to solve it through diplomatic courses, perhaps, and maybe even seen as ineffectual. But the moment the first strike is launched, the first shot fired, they become intractably party to the conflict, and will carry the legacy for its outcome.
Of course, while in the short-term (usually the most prominent of polticians’ horizons) inaction makes more sense, there are two critical reasons why inaction is perhaps the most dangerous path of all, from a foreign policy/domestic security perspective. First, because regardless of involvement, the US (particularly) will carry the legacy for the conflict’s resolution. Whoever wins, and whoever loses, blame will still come back to the US for failing one side or another, or multiple sides (in as much as the conflict is anything but bilateral)- and not just in Syria, but in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine… All nations to which the Syria conflict is deeply tied in one form or another.
The second issue, which gets remarkably little press, is that the decision to allow would-be jihadis to remain wrapped up on the ground so they don’t target western interests is frightfully myopic. They are not preventing this from happening, only postponing it. Whether this war ends next year, or in ten, when it does finally wind down, there will be tens of thousands of battle-hardened, scarred, angry, PTSD-suffering fighters streaming out from frontlines. Many of these already align themselves with fundamentalist philosophies. Others will increasingly lean in that direction as they are exposed to more and more of the horrors of a 21st-century battlefield.
Some of these may return to Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and others, where they may set themselves against western targets with the benefit of years of combat experience. But many of these fighters are already citizens of western countries. They will return in significant numbers, and bolster the ranks of the so-called ‘home-grown’ fundamentalists of which the US, the UK, Spain, Germany, France, Australia and others are now touting as the latest iteration of the threat posed by fundamentalist groups. Only, unlike their bumbling contemporaries who have proved largely incompetent in their efforts, and who are often driven by ideology without experience, these will be highly-trained urban guerrillas, practiced in the use of improvised explosives, in a daily dance between life-and-death, and completely unfazed by the notion of death. This is the real threat Syria’s conflict poses to western domestic security.