Even if U.S. President Barack Obama has not yet decided about a military intervention in Syria, Secretary of Defense Hagel is preparing scenarios for an intervention: targeted military attacks, no-fly zones or arming the rebels. All options contain risks. One possibility remains — and that ultimately depends on Russia.
The USS Mahan was supposed to put into harbor in Naples, but the command to the U.S. 6th Fleet in Bahrain ordered the 154-meter-long destroyer to remain in its area of operations for the time being. The Arleigh Burke-class ship belongs to the most modern that the U.S. Navy has to offer. The Mahan is equipped with stealth technology — but for the time being, it can also serve as the starting platform for guided missiles like the Tomahawk cruise missiles.
These long-range weapons can attack targets in Syria without having Western pilots risk their lives in the airspace of the area. The army of dictator Bashar al-Assad is defending it with a modern anti-aircraft defense manufactured by Russia. Targeted attacks on military installations and symbolically important facilities of the regime are options for the U.S. and its allies to target — if the suspicion is confirmed that the government troops murdered hundreds of people in the suburbs of Damascus with chemical weapons, most of them innocent civilians.
In the meantime, four U.S. destroyers are cruising in the Mediterranean — twice as many as usual. Two of them should be located within striking range of Syria. However, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel misses no opportunity to make clear that President Barack Obama has not yet made a decision about a military intervention. For the West — first and foremost for Obama, with his red line concerning deployment of chemical weapons — the point seems to have been reached at which one can no longer escape from finally doing something to stop the horrible slaughter in Syria. In Washington, parallels are being drawn to Kosovo; the massacre of Srebrenica is cited as the writing on the wall.
Crisis Summit in Amman
At the same time, Obama, as well as Briton David Cameron and French President François Hollande, knows that there are no alternative courses of action that would be attractive — perhaps not even one in which the costs and risks would appear to be acceptable. U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey flew to Jordan on Sunday. In the capital city of Amman, he is coming together with his counterparts from France and Great Britain to consult about the ramifications of the Syrian civil war. Also present are NATO nations Canada and Italy, General Inspector of the German Armed Forces Volker Wieker and representatives of regional powers Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. The meeting that had been planned for months now might well become a crisis summit. The participants will weigh military options against their respective consequences and undesirable possible side effects.
An international action to destroy the Syrian chemical weapons stores no longer seems to be a serious consideration for anyone. The U.S. has trained with other countries in Jordan for such a case. But 60,000 to 70,000 soldiers would be required according to Pentagon estimations. They would have to be engaged in the war area for weeks or months, but Washington is currently ruling out sending ground troops. Bombing the five largest chemical weapons establishments as well as 35 further facilities that are deemed part of the program is considered too risky. In the process, chemical warfare agents could be released that could come into the hands of the rebels or terrorists. During the Cold War, the doctrine of the U.S. military provided for neutralizing such stocks with nuclear weapons — which is completely inconceivable today.
Meanwhile the establishment of a no-fly zone in the border area with Jordan and Turkey would be easier to implement. It would, however, hardly be a help to the people in the suburbs of Damascus who have now fallen victim to poison. In addition, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Dempsey warns that for implementation, Syria’s air defense would have to be shut down with a massive and risky bombardment. Also, the costs of at least a billion dollars a month would probably be too expensive for the U.S. military. And not least of all, allies would get into massive political difficulties: Germany and the Netherlands are stationed in ally Turkey’s anti-ballistic missile defense batteries at Ankara’s request. Without a mandate from the U.N. Security Council, which is not foreseeable, neither Berlin nor The Hague would participate in a no-fly zone. Both governments would furthermore need to get the consent of their parliaments if the mandate were to change.
What remains from the alternatives is the long-discussed possibility of equipping the Syrian rebels with modern weapons. But there are massive reservations in the U.S. against this [possibility]. All decisions must be “what’s going to be in our long-term national interests,” according to the White House — and no one in Washington believes that those in power among the rebel groups are favorable to the U.S. and their allies in the region. It would be a horror scenario if the jihadis now fighting in Syria should one day shoot down an El Al jet with an American missile or at least take power over parts of the ruined country.
Russia as a Last Hope for a Political Solution
That leaves a long-range punitive action against the command infrastructure of the Syrian military as the most practicable among many bad options. In this case, Dempsey and his colleagues must allow for political consequences in the region: Syria’s Minister of Information, Omran al-Zoubi, confidently warned that an attack on Syria will be “no easy trip.” He also threatened pointedly that the consequences of a military intervention would be “a ball of fire that would burn not only Syria but the whole Middle East.”
In Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq it is already burning anyway; in Turkey, too, there are attacks and incidents again and again. In between, millions of refugees are trying to escape the atrocities of civil war; they are even fleeing from Iraq. Israel lies in the range of the Syrian missiles; Iran’s new government, which never tires of announcing willingness to compromise in nuclear disputes, warns via Deputy Chief of Staff Massoud Dschasajeri that America knows “the red line on the Syrian front:” any crossing will have “serious consequences.”
One possibility remains that is being discussed little these days: that the dynamics in the direction of a military intervention will force a political solution. This must mean the end of Assad’s rule, but could leave large parts of the regime intact. At least U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi saw a growing chance for that on Thursday. He said both sides had realized that there is no military solution.* For the interests of Russia, which up to now has acted as Assad’s protecting power, this could be the most attainable variant in the end. And Moscow is currently the only stakeholder who could implement such a solution in Syria.
*Translator's Note: This indirect quotation could not be verified and in fact appeared to be contradicted by an official U.N. statement.