The United States is now actively building the case for a military intervention in Syria after having equivocated for days over the al Assad regime's chemical weapons attack. On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry kicked off Washington's public relations campaign for the intervention by graphically describing videos of children suffering from the attack, appealing to parental sensibilities and invoking a universal "code of morality." Well aware that so many Americans are opposed to another military engagement in the Middle East, particularly one as complicated as Syria's, the White House is trying to clear up any ambiguity over the details of the attack and focus on the justification for a military response.
When Kerry said the attack "goes beyond the conflict on Syria itself," he was referring to a universal intolerance for chemical weapons. But underlying Washington's newfound stance on Syria is an imperative to maintain the credibility of its threats. The White House cannot erase U.S. President Barack Obama's declaration from a year ago that chemical weapons would be his red line for intervention in Syria. But ultimately, the assumption that the Syrian regime carried out the attack will prevail no matter what comes of the ongoing U.N. inspection. The Obama administration appears to have calculated that the general risk of not following through with its threats will be more harmful than a continued policy of restraint — despite mounting evidence that the president's red line was crossed.
What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.
The U.S. government will try to distinguish the intervention in Syria from previous interventions, such as those in Iraq and Libya. For example, by using terms like "undeniable" and "grounded in facts" and by citing independent organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, the administration is being careful to avoid using the same kind of rationale that led to the Iraq invasion. Meanwhile, the United States is trying to build a large, capable and willing enough coalition to share the burden of the operation.
To this end, on Monday Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey co-hosted an emergency meeting in Amman, Jordan, attended by the defense chiefs of Turkey, Jordan, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Though all countries could participate to some extent, the countries most relevant to a military response include Turkey, France, the United Kingdom and Jordan. Turkey, Jordan and the United Kingdom (from Cyprus) have the most bases to contribute to a Syria operation, and NATO members Turkey, the United Kingdom and France could play a potentially significant role in air and naval strikes. Given that Turkey and Jordan are particularly vulnerable to retaliation from Iran and Syria, the diplomacy surrounding their participation will be critical to watch in the coming days. The more serious the United States is about building a legitimate coalition for an attack, the longer preparations for an attack will take.
Notably, the White House has yet to define the mission of the impending operation. The United States can opt for a largely symbolic, limited strike that relies on stand-off weapons, such as Tomahawk cruise missiles. Such an operation could get the other coalition partners more involved. It would also be relatively brief. The problem is that it would invite retaliation, and it would still probably fail to eliminate the actual chemical weapons stockpiles, which are difficult and dangerous to strike from the air.
Otherwise, the United States could opt for a more systematic military campaign, which would involve air and naval strikes against command and control nodes, artillery sites, air bases and weapons facilities to severely degrade the regime's military capabilities. Such an operation would run the risk of cracking the regime and the armed forces. In this scenario, the United States would have to consider a more comprehensive military campaign that would entail deploying ground forces to secure all weapons sites and prepare for the resultant power vacuum in Damascus that jihadists are bound to exploit. The United States would have to move more resources into theater if Washington decided to execute a comprehensive military strike.
We will be monitoring military movements closely to discern how the U.S. administration is defining the mission. The diplomatic and military commitments from Turkey, the United Kingdom, France and Jordan will determine how much of the cost Washington is willing to absorb in ousting Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Our attention will thus be focused on the military preparations and diplomatic motions surrounding these countries.
We will also be monitoring Iran's and Russia's response. Russia is facing another blow to its credibility as the United States builds a coalition to circumvent a U.N. Security Council veto. Moscow could always try to raise the cost of a strike by inserting Russian personnel at Syrian military sites and air defense systems, but time is short, and it is not clear that the Russians feel the need to go that far — after all, Russia could still benefit from the United States becoming bogged down in another Middle Eastern war. Iran will try to activate its militant proxies in the Levant, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militants in Iraq, and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories. However, each of these groups will face limits in how far they go in serving the Iranian and Syrian regimes now that a U.S. strike appears inevitable.