Many Americans have a simplistic view of “all Arabs” being the same. (Or is it “all Muslims”? The two phrases are usually synonymous, and sometimes includes Sikhs.) I just read a news article that lays out the political differences between the member states of the Arab League clearly and concisely. I thought I’d link to it here, mostly for myself, so I can find it again later.
Despite the fact that all the Middle East analysts I have read have concluded that a Western military intervention in Syria would be indifferent at best and disastrous at worst, France, the UK, and the US threatened swift attack on Syria in retribution for the chemical weapons attack which occurred a week ago outside Damascus. The UK and the US governments have announced that that they think they have found a legal justification for attacking Syria: the bad humanitarian situation may justify killing people to prevent a worse humanitarian situation.
It is just as true for governments as for individuals that when someone who wants to do something says “It’s legal,” that legality won’t necessarily stand up in a court of law. The only universally recognized legal justification for military action is self-defense (although the use of that justification has gotten progressive more far-fetched in certain areas). A mandate from the UN Security Council is not exactly a legal justification, but does ensure that the intervention won’t start the next world war.
And does the humanitarian justification make sense? If it could be known that fewer people would die as a result of a military attack than not, perhaps it could be justified in terms of raw numbers. But the best that can be said is that such a justification is unknowable. The worst is that Russia is sending its own navy to the Mediterranean, Iran has threatened Israel, and it sure looks like a Western military strike on Syria would not reduce the war but increase it. That fear is why, although almost all Middle Eastern countries have sided with the opposition against Bashar al-Assad (Lebanon exceptionally remaining neutral), no Middle Eastern country has gotten on board with an outside military strike on Syria. Not even Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, which are supplying arms to the rebels. Indeed, the Lebanese foreign minister warned of the consequences, Egypt has declined to participate, Jordan has refused to be involved, and the Arab League, while condemning the attack and blaming it on the regime, has not advocated an outside attack. I think the humanitarian justification for attacking Syria is a flimsy pretext which will get a lot of people killed.
I agree that the use of chemical weapons should not go unpunished. But no single country acts as the world judge. The UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is charged with finding an end to this conflict, said today that a US-led military intervention without a mandate from the UN security council is illegal. Punishment for the use of chemical weapons is a matter for the international community, represented by the UN and particularly by the International Criminal Court.
It is also not as clear to me as it is to President Obama that the Syrian regime is the only combatant which might have gotten their hands on chemical weapons. In particular, if one of the various al-Qa’ida linked groups or other foreign jihadi rebels got their hands on chemical weapons, I doubt they would feel much compunction about using it. The fact that they would know that Assad would be blamed for the attack would only sweeten the temptation for them. Foreign intelligence services would not necessarily acquire reliable information that jihadis had chemical weapons until after they were used. In other words, the fact that US intelligence does not believe the opposition possesses such weapons does not in fact imply that this attack was perpetrated by the regime.
A Western attack on Syria would also be a significant escalation in the war. While plenty of other countries have been involved in the Syrian Civil War, with only two exceptions that involvement has been in the form of arms or other supplies to the Syrian government or the rebels. The two exceptions are Turkey, which on a couple occasions when Turkish citizens have been killed by spillover fire has returned random fire into Syria, and Israel, which on at least four occasions has conducted air raids on military targets while publicly refusing to comment. No other country has directly involved its military in fighting within Syria. For western countries such as England, France, or the US to attack Syria with their own military, publicly and openly (unlike Israel) and without having come under attack first (unlike Turkey) would be a significant escalation of foreign involvement in the conflict.
This would be a significant escalation of the conflict even if the attack is considered legal by those attacking (Russia, Iran, and China would disagree). This would be a significant escalation of the conflict even if the attack is of limited duration or with specific targets in mind (although one US policy-maker acknowledged that there will be civilian casualties). Such a significant escalation would no doubt encourage other countries to escalate their involvement. A Western attack on Syria is not a Middle Eastern policy issue; it is a world policy issue. A Western attack on Syria would not save lives.
The situation in Syria is awful, but as one commentary put it, “Outsiders have no tool to fix Syria.”
Despite official silence, it is reasonably clear that the Israeli Air Force bombed targets in Syria twice since late Thursday night. The putative reason for the attack was to prevent the transfer of Iranian long-range missiles to the Lebanese Hezbollah, which is fighting in Syria on the side of the Assad regime, and which started the 2006 Lebanon War with Israel. This weekend Israeli fighter jets flew over Lebanon to shoot missiles into targets outside of Damascus, the capital of Syria. Syrian State News reported the strikes and threatened retribution. When US President Obama was asked about the Israeli strikes, he responded that Israel is entitled to defend itself by preventing the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah, serving Israeli national security interests.
Leaving aside questions of international legality and morality, which rarely trouble militarily superior countries in relation to what they identify as national security issues, were Israeli interests served by these airstrikes? The attacks were not subtle, and there is no pretense that anyone else carried them out. The Assad government responded by interpreting the attack as a declaration of war, as Israel itself would have done if Syrian jets had used Jordanian airspace to bomb Israeli military installations near Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Syria’s Information Minister al-Zu’bi said the attack “opens the door wide open for all possibilities” in terms of retaliation. Heads of most Arab states condemned the Israeli airstrikes, as did the Syrian National Coalition, which could gain from the weakening of Assad’s forces by the Israeli attacks. Israel is perhaps hoping that this preemptive strike, like the one in Khartoum last October, will blow over in the international community. Hezbollah certainly isn’t going to profit from whatever was destroyed in the attacks, and Assad is unlikely to expend energy on a retaliatory strike when he has his hands full with domestic troubles.
But in striking Mount Qasyun above Damascus, Israel has dramatically made the point that it can bomb the Syrian capital at any time. This detail is unlikely to be forgotten by whoever emerges as the last force standing in the Syrian Civil War. The number of Syrians who blame all the casualties of war on Assad personally mean that there can probably be no place for Bashar al-Assad in a post-war Syria. Since he has vowed to “live and die” in Syria, the best possible outcome for Israel might be a partitioning of Syria between regions loyal to Assad and regions which elect a new government. This would prevent any one government from mustering Syria’s full military power against Israel, as they would likely jealously watch each other first and foremost. But instead of one Lebanon north of its border, Syria would have several Lebanons to keep track of. But a stably partitioned Syria also seems to be a fabulously unlikely possibility.
Whatever government might replace Assad is likely to be worse for Israel. If the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra takes over the country, they are unlikely to preserve the uneasy ceasefire between Syria and Israel which the Assad dynasty has observed for the last few decades, and might declare the Israeli government their next target. A war between Israel and a newly radicalized “Syrian Islamic Republic” could draw in regional support from Egypt and perhaps Saudi Arabia as well, leading to a new Arab-Israeli war which could damage Israel more than the rockets destroyed this weekend.
A Western-backed secularist Arab government in Syria may be more inclined to be circumspect with regard to Israel, given shared allies in Western Europe and North America. But there is unlikely to be any love lost between such a government and Israel, and it is more likely to work closely with the Arab League to oppose Israel in international politics, which Assad’s relative diplomatic isolation prevented. The threat of a future Israeli preemptive strike on Damascus could encourage moving the capital of Syria further north to Aleppo (or what’s left of it after the war ends), and might encourage Syria and other Arab states to strike first and lethally in any future conflict. The increased paranoia on both sides of the border is unlikely to facilitate regional stability and peace.
A failed state environment, similar to Somalia after 1991, might resemble the outcome of an al-Qa’ida controlled Syria with the advantage of reduced firepower but the disadvantage of less readily identifiable targets, and greater difficulty distinguishing which group may decided to target Israel at any time.
Given the potential long-term costs, I wonder whether Israel’s decision to conduct airstrikes in the region around Damascus will push their enemies towards more brutal violence, and thus whether Israel’s airstrikes have sacrificed long-term interests for short-term tactical goals.