How a US strike on Syria might play out

Syrian President Assad is likely to ride out a US attack that's designed to be limited.

Molhem Barakat/Reuters
Free Syrian Army fighters run to take cover from snipers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad near Aleppo International airport Wednesday, August 28, 2013.

An airstrike by the US and its allies against the Syrian regime appears imminent, and many observers are pondering whether the region is on the brink of a new regional war.

Britain is drafting a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing all “necessary measures” to protect Syrian civilians. Damascus and its allies in Russia and Iran have warned that a US attack could have “catastrophic repercussions” on the region. Russia has evacuated dozens of its citizens from Syria. Israeli citizens have been stocking up on new gas masks in case the Assad regime chooses to retaliate against the Jewish state. In Lebanon, eyes are on the militant Shiite group Hezbollah, waiting to see if the Iran-backed group and Syrian ally will employ its powerful arsenal, potentially dragging the country into a destructive war with Israel.

“The intervention of America will be a disaster for the region,” Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the supreme leader of Iran, told the Iranian Fars news agency Wednesday. “The region is like a gunpowder store and the future cannot be predicted.”

But while the US seeks to punish President Bashar al-Assad's regime for its alleged chemical weapons attack against Damascus suburbs last week that left hundreds dead, it does not want to trigger a retaliation by Damascus that could spark an escalation leading to a Middle Eastern war, analysts say. The goal is to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again. 

On the other hand, if the attack is limited in scope and duration, it could send entirely the wrong signal to the Assad regime.

“The more limited and symbolic it is the more disastrous it would be for the US and its partners… It would be worse than doing nothing,” says Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East who previously served as the Obama administration’s liaison with the Syrian opposition.

“It would only confirm Assad's view that it is safe to walk up to the president of the United States and slap him in the face, as appears to have been the case in this most recent incident,” he adds, in reference to last week’s chemical attack, believed to be the deadliest single poison gas attack in quarter of a century.

No regime change, no retaliation

The scope of the Syrian regime's reaction is dependent on the scale of the attack against Syria, analysts say. Mr. Assad's priority remains the defeat of his domestic opponents, not a broader regional conflagration that could end up destroying his army and toppling his regime.

"[The regime's’] interest is that if the attack is going to happen, let it happen and let the Americans leave. If they really retaliate in a major way, the only effect that might have is to drag the Americans back in,” says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut. “They will wait for the attack to happen, wait for the Americans to go home, and then continue from where they left off.”

The Obama administration is reportedly ready to inflict a short, sharp strike to punish the Assad regime for its alleged chemical weapons attack against Damascus suburbs last week that left hundreds dead. But the White House has made it equally transparent that the US is unwilling to be dragged more deeply into Syria’s bloody quagmire and is not interested in an attack that could be interpreted as a bid for regime change.

“I want to make it clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change,” Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday. “They are about responding to a clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons."

Analysts assess that the US will probably settle for a series of airstrikes possibly using air-launched standoff munitions and ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles to target a potential range of facilities associated with chemical weapons storage as well as conventional military sites such as rocket-launching bases, air defense assets, and command and control facilities.

The intention would be to punish the Assad regime without tipping the balance in favor of the armed opposition and possibly provoking a retaliation from Damascus.

“I think it would be more like Kosovo-lite, with a smaller target set and limited air involvement,” says Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, referring to the 1999 NATO air campaign against the former Yugoslavia. “Perhaps a heavy initial round, followed by [battle damage assessment] and then additional strikes or re-strikes to make sure the targets were well hit…. But it all depends on what the president thinks is enough to achieve the goals of punishing and deterring.”

The Israel test

One possible indicator of how the Assad regime will respond to a US attack is its reaction to a series of Israeli air strikes this year targeting convoys carrying advanced weaponry potentially destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. There have been four alleged attacks so far – one in January, two in May and one in early July. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied the air strikes, all of which apparently were conducted with long-range missiles fired from jets flying outside Syrian airspace.

Syria responded to the first strike – reportedly against a convoy of trucks carrying SA-17 anti-aircraft missile systems – by accusing Israel of bombing a scientific research center and showed footage of bomb damage on Syrian television. On May 3, Israeli jets reportedly struck a warehouse containing Iranian Fateh-110 rockets at Damascus International Airport. Syria denied any attacks occurred.

Two days later, Israeli jets staged the largest attack so far, hitting ammunition dumps and military bases to the west of Damascus. The city was rocked by powerful explosions and footage of huge blasts was uploaded to the internet. There was no denying the air strikes this time. The Assad regime warned of an “automatic retaliation” should Israel stage another raid and hinted at the possibility of launching a campaign to liberate the Golan Heights occupied by Israel since 1967. Israel counter-responded with a threat that it would “bring down Assad” if he staged any retaliation.

Israeli jets reportedly struck a fourth time on July 5, this time against a warehouse containing advanced Russian anti-ship missiles at a military base on the coast north of Latakia. However, the attack drew no comment, let alone retaliation, from the Assad regime.

Israel appears to calculate that Assad will tolerate isolated attacks against advanced weapons systems so long it does not impede his army’s ability to confront rebel forces.

Limiting the fallout

Damascus’ restraint is also aided by Israel’s refusal to confirm reports that it launched attacks in Syria. Such reticence would not be the case with US-led airstrikes into Syria with the attacks doubtless topping the news cycle and being accompanied by statements from Washington, London and Paris.

The Assad regime would face a challenge similar to the one the US faces: find a means of retaliation that sends a strong signal to the West without incurring a counter-retaliation that could spark a broader regional conflagration. Israel is an obvious and geographically close target. An anonymous Syrian army official on Tuesday told Iran’s Fars news agency that “If Syria is attacked, Tel Aviv will become a target and a full-scale war against Syria will essentially justify an attack against Israel”.

But Israeli officials have clearly stated that the Jewish state will respond forcefully to any attack by Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that “We’re not part of the Syrian civil war, but if we’ll spot an attempt to harm us, we’ll respond with great force."

Hezbollah, which has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to assist the Assad regime, boasts a powerful arsenal of rockets aimed at Israel. But if Hezbollah and its allies in Damascus and Tehran launch a rocket strike against Israel, it would likely spark a major war that would prove devastating for Lebanon and Israel and offer no guarantee of immunity for the Assad regime.

A full-scale war with Israel would leave Hezbollah exhausted, weakening its ability to deter a potential future attack against Iran's nuclear facilities and leaving it politically vulnerable to its domestic and external enemies.

Still, Assad’s calculus of restraint toward Israeli airstrikes would probably also apply to a US-led assault. The intense international speculation over a US strike and the flurry of stern statements from Western capitals has given the regime plenty of advance warning to remove key personnel and equipment from potentially targeted sites.

That should help limit the impact of the air attacks when they occur. As long as the attacks do not directly threaten his regime or cripple his ability to fight the rebels, Assad in coordination with his Iranian allies may well simply ride out the storm and continue to concentrate on the struggle against his domestic opponents.

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