The US will not rush into Syria

2013-04-26 13:25
US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel. (File, AP)

US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel. (File, AP)

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Chicago - Early on Thursday morning The White House released a letter it wrote to Senator John McCain, who had asked the day before "Has the [Syrian President Bashar] Assad regime – or Syrian elements associated with, or supported by, the Assad regime – used chemical weapons in Syria since the current conflict began?"

This is a major question because President Barack Obama has repeatedly said that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be a "red line" – in other words, prompt US intervention in the long-running conflict.

In short, the White House answered in the affirmative, but with caveats spread throughout. "With varying degrees of confidence," it claimed intelligence existed which pinned the use of chemical weapons on the Syrian government, but "we seek to establish credible and corroborated facts".

The letter called for "a comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place". Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel repeated these assertions to reporters later in the day, but again used the get out clause, "varying degrees of confidence", which you can probably work out entails virtually everything between knowing absolutely nothing and definite certainty.

However, the US isn't the only nation that has sniffed out what it considers evidence of such weaponry. Intelligence services in the UK, France, Qatar and Israel have made similar noises since the beginning of the year.  And in the face of this, the US looks to be delaying somewhat, and there are good reasons for it.

News24 asked expert Barry Pavel to explain just what would be going on within the US government now that this "red line" was crossed. Pavel is the Director of the Brent Scowcroft Centre on International Security, and former special assistant to the president and senior director for defence policy and strategy on the National Security Council staff under both Barack Obama and George W Bush.  He also served nearly 18 years at the Senior Executive Service in the Office of the Under Secretary of
Defence for Policy.

Unanimous global support unlikely

Pavel listed five reasons for why the White House might be delaying getting involved in the Syrian conflict. The first and most obvious being what he termed "the Iraq WMD Syndrome", which was a long-term war beginning with a hunt for weapons of mass destruction that weren't actually there.

Add to that, says Pavel, Syria is embroiled in a serious and complicated conflict, "increasingly dividing on sectarian lines", and "including the increasing power of extremists within the rebel factions".

"Chemical weapons are messy stuff and dangerous – that alone is a serious caution."

While the US would likely be backed up by the aforementioned allies who have also discovered the alleged use of chemical weaponry, it is unlikely there would be unanimous global support for increased US involvement, particularly from Russia and China, both of whom hold veto power on the United Nations Security Council, and have been hesitant to act against the Assad regime thus far. Pavel agreed bluntly, and said a US initiative to be more active would be opposed and delayed by Russia and China.

And then there is the danger that plagued the US in both Iraq and Afghanistan: "If the US uses military force to deal with the chemical weapons threat, to the extent that means putting boots on the ground, you're getting yourself into a very, very messy situation. And even assuming you can secure the chemical weapons, which is a big assumption, what do you do the day after? What's the plan? No one knows what happens even if Assad says 'I'm leaving right now'. As far as we know there's no plan for a stable transition to a more durable government that's representative of the Syrian people."

Taking into account these very good reasons to be circumspect, even if the US decided to enter Syria, what might this involvement look like?

"I have no doubt the US government doesn't want to 'own' Syria," said Pavel, "so will the US be using military force to institute regime change and to occupy the country? I cannot imagine that at this point.


Other, more legitimate mission objectives include providing more assistance to non-extremist rebel groups, and using limited air power to take away Assad's use of the air. There are different purposes for the use of military force, and those purposes determine everything. I don't imagine a comprehensive, all-out proposed use of ground forces to try to settle Syria. But I can imagine uses of force shorter than that to achieve some of the types of objectives I just mentioned."

The other good reason for extra investigation by the United Nations is to make sure who is using chemical weapons. While logic would dictate the Assad regime is overwhelmingly the most likely to use such weaponry, it cannot yet be definitively concluded. "In light of the circumstances it is a very strong assumption that that use was by the Assad regime," said Pavel, but also admitted it was an assumption, and assumptions can be wrong.

And before the US even considers intervening in Syria, it needs to be cognisant of the one serious wildcard at play here: Iran. Says Pavel, "Syria is Iran's closest ally in the region, and Iran has been supporting Assad for quite some time." Pavel, however, thought Iran also might be preparing for the end of Assad, "I'd imagine they are preparing for a post-Assad Syria as well, but Iran is definitely involved and to quite a great degree in Syria – they have a huge stake in a Syria that is friendly to them."

So don't expect the USA to march into Syria within the next few days, in spite of the Assad regime reportedly crossing the "red line"delineated by Obama. There are many complicated factors at play.
Read more on:    bashar assad  |  barack obama  |  syria  |  syria conflict  |  uprisings

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