The response to chemical weapons use in Syria

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Martin Blank
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The response to chemical weapons use in Syria

Post by Martin Blank » Sat Aug 31, 2013 10:07 pm

I've posted this elsewhere, and have modified it slightly for today's events.

Syria appears to have called the US bluff over chemical weapons, and now the US has to either react or risk losing credibility on the world stage with nations like Iran and North Korea. Signs are strong that there will be a military strike of some sort against Syria by forces from the United States and possibly also France. The major question now is how strong the strike will be. There are several possibilities:

1. Limited strike intended to hurt but not remove the Syrian government. This would be intended to send a message. It would be helpful to the rebels, but not hand them victory as happened in Libya. This is the option with the least painful outcome for the US, though it's certainly not an easy one in any case.

2. Hitting the delivery mechanisms like artillery and rocket units, as well as aircraft and airfields. This would also involve hitting armories and missile storage sites, but probably not the chemical weapons storage sites themselves as this could cause more problems if they get into the open. It also makes the war much, much easier for the rebels and implicitly takes sides, something the US has not wanted to do as it has pushed for a political solution.

3. Securing all chemical weapons in Syria. The problem is that the chemical weapons are spread out across dozens of known sites and probably some unknown ones as well. As such, this option basically requires an invasion, and the only ways to do this until one or more ports is captured are amphibious landings on the Syrian coast and paratroop drops. Land invasion isn't possible as none of the bordering nations (Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon) want to get directly involved.

The latter two options have the further downside that al-Assad has nothing to lose from using chemical weapons at that point. He's already losing them, so why not use them first? The first may lead to it as well, which could lead to option 2, which could lead to option 3. It's an ugly situation overall.

There's another possibility that could remove all of these options: an internal coup that removes al-Assad from power. It's been speculated that the chemical weapons that were used were fired without senior permission. If that's the case, it would suggest that al-Assad doesn't have the grip on power that is commonly believed. But the chances of it happening are extremely slim.

Here are some of the countries with interests (in two parts due to Facebook comment length limitations):

1. Russia: Long a friend of the Syrian government, Syria represents one of the last bastions of Russian influence in the Middle East. It used to be right in the Soviet backyard, after all. However, like it did with Iran in the 2000s, Russia has been slowly distancing itself from Damascus. It's not enough to call the friendship over, but the wording that Russia has used over the last two years or so has slowly transformed from that of overt support toward something not quite neutral but also not so enthusiastic. Yet Syria also represents a way for Russia to keep the US busy and distracted, especially if hostilities start. That allows Russia freer rein in pushing its influence in Europe and the former Soviet republics. I don't think Russia is entirely opposed to the US getting militarily involved because it would mean months, maybe years of distraction, but at the same time Moscow doesn't want to lose its last real influence in the area.

2. Israel: Not a fan of intervention or regime change. Despite the human costs of the civil war, Israel would be happier with the predictable al-Assad regime in place rather than one whose interests will be less predictable and less certain. Still, they're not allowing the fighting to get anywhere close to Israeli territory, returning fire when apparently stray rounds have landed in the Golan Heights (still technically part of Syria), and have killed a couple of Syrian soldiers and possible one or two rebels. The only way that Israel would get directly involved is if Syria started throwing chemical weapons into Israel, and even then the entire world would be pleading with them not to because it would throw the entire operation into chaos.

3. Turkey: Hundreds of thousands of refugees are costing a lot of money, and there are Syrian Kurds who like the idea of an independent Kurdistan just as much as Iraqi and Turkish Kurds do. Turkey fears that al-Assad losing power in a war would empower the Kurds. But Turkey also has a vocal part of its population who is shocked at what Syria is getting away with. Still, Turkey is trying to get its economy and civil rights together for EU membership and doesn't need the stress of involvement. The government there is also leery of mobilizing the military as the military isn't entirely happy with some of the moves against complete secularization; a taste of blood and the wrong move back home could trigger (yet another) coup. However, if Syria actively starts shooting north, the Turks will not hold back. There are already tank divisions near the border due to Syrian government shells landing on Turkish territory earlier in the war. Ankara doesn't want to fight, but it's also not going to get pushed around.

4. Jordan: Also hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees, the Kingdom is going through turbulent political times. King Abdallah is allowing some power to devolve to Parliament, but it's not enough for some parties, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. There are also political parties supporting all sides in Syria's civil war, and Amman doesn't want the violence in its own territory. That's a major reason why it's preemptively denying the use of its territory (including the air base where the US keeps a squadron or two of fighter aircraft) for any military action.

5. Iraq: Still dealing with internal strife, they're just trying to keep the border secure. Some men and supplies are going to the fighting for both sides, and some refugees are crossing into Iraq. But Baghdad still doesn't have a lot of influence in the area and isn't really looking for it, at least not while Tehran still pulls some very large levers there. The people may have turned against al-Assad, though; the memories of chemical weapons used against them are still fresh as there are many, many survivors who linger with injuries and ailments from Saddam Hussein's attacks.

6. Palestinian Territories: Hamas is in a position so bad that if they were almost anyone else, I might feel sorry for them. Their Iranian backers want them to send men to fight for al-Assad. The people of the Territories generally support the rebels. Hamas has sent a token force, justifying its limited response by claiming it needs them at home to defend against Israeli aggression. Iran was not pleased, and severely cut support in terms of money and supplies, including food which has exacerbated the strife in Gaza. I'm not certain about what's happening in the West Bank; I get the feeling that the PLO has its hands full governing what it has and working on the peace process and doesn't want to take sides, though I imagine the sympathy is with the rebels.

7. Egypt: The people of Egypt want to see a democratic process take hold. I'm not sure what the interim government's view is, but the military probably doesn't much care either way as long as it doesn't send a stream of fighters into the Sinai that they'll have to fight. Ultimately, I expect Egypt will want to regain some of the influence it had with Syria, maybe not to the levels of the United Arab Republic, but where there's at least a stronger friendship.

8. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Qatar, etc.: They're trying to counteract Iranian influence and as such support the rebels. But they're not really so keen on another democratic state opening up in the Middle East. Despite some slow reforms in some of these countries, the monarchies have no intention of giving up their overall control.

9. Lebanon: Hezbollah has been sending a lot of men to fight alongside Syrian forces. This has triggered the threatened re-arming of a number of groups who previously disarmed following the close of the Lebanese Civil War. It's also apparently triggered Syrian rebel reprisals inside Lebanon, and fighting has occasionally erupted near or in Tripoli. Syrian thanks to Hezbollah appears to be in the form of weapons shipments, at least two of which Israel has struck using JDAMs (or something similar) so that strikes could be launched from within Israel and land in Lebanon.

10. Libya: The new government, shaky as it is, seems to be quietly backing the rebels with arms. They're disarming tribes and militant groups, boxing up the gear, and smuggling it to Syria, possibly via a convoluted route involving Sudan, south Asia, and then up through the Arabian Peninsula. I expect that Israel knows which shipments are for the Syrians, because random Sudanese weapon shipments get bombed regularly by Israel if they seem to be headed for Hamas or Hezbollah.

11. Iran: Of course Iran has interests. No other nation wields as much power in Syria as Iran. But while Tehran looked ascendant for a while, exercising a great deal of control over Iraq and much influence among opposition, rebel, or terrorist groups in Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, and Yemen, among others, it may have bitten off more than it could chew under Ahmadinejad. A combination of stretching influence too thin, trying it in too many countries at once, and sanctions proving unpopular enough to have the most liberal presidential candidate (who is still fairly conservative, but still the most liberal allowed to run) elected by a landslide.

Should al-Assad be deposed violently, Iran's sphere of influence and its ability to smuggle weapons to its allies will be dramatically curtailed. That could have a ripple effect on Hezbollah (which controls the government but not by a huge margin) and Gaza (which is dealing with multiple challenges to its relevance and thus survival). Iraq probably will remain under its control for the foreseeable future. Yemen is a big question mark, but there will probably be excess fighters in Syria to go to war there--unfortunately for the Yemeni, they will fight for both sides.

The next country Tehran is trying to influence is Afghanistan, which makes sense as they share a long border (more than 900km). Tehran could be useful even to the US there as it has been vehemently anti-Taleban (there were some possibilities of an Iran-Taleban war in the late 1990s) and has a drug trade (opiates and hashish) primarily from Afghanistan that it's been trying to tamp down. Should al-Assad be toppled, a more pragmatic approach could come out of Tehran focused on this and on finding a way to reduce international sanctions.

-------------------------

That's the best summary I can come up with right now for those with more-or-less direct interests. China is against force but always is when it comes to external entities interfering in purely internal fighting; it would have the same feelings in an Australian or Bolivian civil war.

The whole thing is ugly all around, but chemical weapons have a special way of grabbing the world's attention.
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Re: The response to chemical weapons use in Syria

Post by ampersand » Sat Aug 31, 2013 10:28 pm

Couple of comments.
  1. I found it interesting how a lot of the plebs in the Western countries don't want any retaliation, whether this was the no vote in the British parliament or US polling data and how the President is now asking Congress essentially approve war documents. I think this comes down to that the actions the Syrian government or Al-Assid directly have nothing to do with their country. In many cases, we're still in a Occupy Wall Street-ish war-weary state of mind where public pressure is for economic improvement internally before looking into foreign affairs.
  2. The other factor that I think hasn't been mentioned in the President allowing Congress to ratify a yea or nay on military strike is that, well, Tea Party members are threatening (again) not to allow the debt ceiling to be raised. And that deadline is October. Whether this is to get them distracted from their debt mantra or buy time so that another stop-gap measure could be introduced is another thing altogether. I'm not sure you can continue a war if no one will let you pay for it.
  3. To me, North Korea is still wanting to show itself as a serious world player. Iran has a new President, Hassan Rouhani, essentially the mouthpiece for the Supreme Leader of Iran, and you haven't heard anything from him like you did with Ahmadinejad. I think Iran is serious in wanting to control the region. I think that's the real danger here.

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Re: The response to chemical weapons use in Syria

Post by Martin Blank » Sun Sep 01, 2013 10:01 pm

The West is absolutely weary of war. The alliance involved in Afghanistan has turned it into the longest war in US history, and one of the longest the West has faced in the last century and change. If the US actually does wind down its operations in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, it will mark 13+ years of continuous warfare in one operation, longer even than Vietnam, which lasted about nine years, depending on one's markers. France's engagement in Mali was not without opposition, though it had one of the cleanest entries and departures in recent memory. But then, Mali was a French colony, and the mission very specifically described. Syria is not encapsulated quite so well.

Obama is seeking congressional approval, but not congressional permission. There's a difference here. He believes (rightly) that if the government is unified in taking action, it will present a stronger image to the world. But there are issues involved with this. If Congress disagrees and he declines to act, it sets a powerful precedent for future presidents. This is not necessarily a bad thing in the long term since it favors the balance of power among the federal branches, but in the short term it can cause problems. If Congress disagrees and he acts anyway, he expands precedent (at least under the War Powers Resolution) already set by Presidents Reagan and Clinton to ignore congressional disapproval.

The president of Iran is something more than a mouthpiece, but less than independent. Rouhani isn't a reformer, but he's also not a conservative. There is some freedom of action, but it's subject to approval of the Supreme Leader of Iran.
Last edited by Martin Blank on Sun Sep 01, 2013 10:02 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Reason: Minor typo.
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Re: The response to chemical weapons use in Syria

Post by Healer24 » Wed Sep 04, 2013 5:13 pm

Martin Blank wrote:Obama is seeking congressional approval, but not congressional permission. There's a difference here. He believes (rightly) that if the government is unified in taking action, it will present a stronger image to the world. But there are issues involved with this. If Congress disagrees and he declines to act, it sets a powerful precedent for future presidents.
After the things the President has said about Syria, I don't think he'll really be able to back down from at least some strikes without seeming very weak.

This was a very well drawn out analysis of the region, I think, given my somewhat limited knowledge (I read the news every day, but don't do a ton of research). It also underscores why I so rarely posted in this forum. I always feel somewhat unqualified to speak.
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Re: The response to chemical weapons use in Syria

Post by Deacon » Wed Sep 04, 2013 8:09 pm

Well broken down. I think the part that's been left out are the ramifications on the world stage in two areas: 1) setting additional precedent for handling rebellion and 2) entanglements with Al Qaeda.

On the latter, my understanding is that Al Qaeda may not be the entirety of the rebellion but is at least significantly involved. This seems to be a pretty tricky situation politically, as nobody wants to ever side with Al Qaeda, right? Or does it depend? What about the rebels who released video showing them using a knife to engage in an old-fashioned beheading of several Christians (I declined to watch the whole thing, but I made it through two of them)? Doesn't sound like people who we want to support, even if we don't support the government they're rebelling against. But then that begs the question of WHY they're rebelling. I'm not 100% on that. Is Syria not Muslim enough and must be made more conservative, more aggressive toward Israel, and ushering in a new era of hardcore Sharia law complete with death penalties for even fairly minor transgressions? Or is it really people just yearning for freedom and peace?

On the former, it seems a little odd to pick and choose the weapons with which a government is allowed to kill its own people. Blowing limbs off is OK, but gassing them is not? And if governments aren't allowed to retaliate against rebel forces, then what's to stop rebellions from popping up all over the place? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I'm not really sure, but I think arguments could be made both ways.
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Re: The response to chemical weapons use in Syria

Post by Healer24 » Thu Sep 05, 2013 12:46 pm

Deacon wrote:On the former, it seems a little odd to pick and choose the weapons with which a government is allowed to kill its own people. Blowing limbs off is OK, but gassing them is not?
I could be wrong here, but I think the distinction is that conventional weapons can be more precise whereas chemical ones are completely indiscriminate. Sure you can take out the whole population of a town with conventional weapons while fighting rebels, but you have the option of just killing the rebels and leaving most of the civilians alone. Chemical weapons just kill/maim everyone. I think that's the reasoning anyway.
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Re: The response to chemical weapons use in Syria

Post by Deacon » Thu Sep 05, 2013 2:23 pm

Right, I do understand those kinds of things (plus possible environmental impacts) and was mostly being facetious. That and the fact that we know of other "regimes" like Saddam Hussein in Iraq who we actually know used chemical weapons on his own people (well, the Kurds), but it didn't appear to be any "red line" then. Somehow it is now, though. I think Obama either mishandled this whole situation or is acting according out of integrity, driven by deeply held beliefs about human rights. I'm leaning heavily toward the former.
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Re: The response to chemical weapons use in Syria

Post by BtEO » Thu Sep 05, 2013 4:41 pm

Healer24 wrote:
Deacon wrote:On the former, it seems a little odd to pick and choose the weapons with which a government is allowed to kill its own people. Blowing limbs off is OK, but gassing them is not?
I could be wrong here, but I think the distinction is that conventional weapons can be more precise whereas chemical ones are completely indiscriminate. Sure you can take out the whole population of a town with conventional weapons while fighting rebels, but you have the option of just killing the rebels and leaving most of the civilians alone. Chemical weapons just kill/maim everyone. I think that's the reasoning anyway.
Mostly right, Indiscriminate conventional weapons (missiles, mortars, bombs, etc…) also tend to damage or destroy infrastructure as well as people. (That was the part you missed.) Discriminate weapons (guns) carry a larger risk of death or injury for the user due to having to be near to any fighting. Chemical weapons avoid both those pitfalls — you can kill/maim everyone without putting your own guys in harm's way or leaving you only victorious over a pile of rubble.

It has been "decided" that the rules of war, in as much as such a thing can exist, should prevent one side of a conflict from being able to wipe out large groups of people with no cost to your own side.

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Re: The response to chemical weapons use in Syria

Post by Deacon » Thu Sep 05, 2013 7:21 pm

No, there was no suggestion that they could only fight using small arms. Hell, they were bombarding their people from gunships on the Mediterranean.
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Re: The response to chemical weapons use in Syria

Post by Martin Blank » Thu Sep 12, 2013 8:49 pm

I am not at all condoning Iraq in what I'm about to say, but it was a different time. The concern then was the defeat (or at least not utter victory) of Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, especially if Iran (formerly a US ally) were to align itself with the Soviet Union. Iraq started it, overplayed its hand, and then got pushed back, though a significant portion of Iran's retaliation was through the use of teenagers told they would be martyrs and sent onto the battlefield with no real training and either acted as bullet magnets or suicide bombers. Iraq did use chemical weapons against Iran, and when border villages (mostly Kurd, some Shiite) sided with Iran, Iraq turned the weapons on them, too. I think the US did a cautionary denouncement (something like, "If they were used, then shame on Iraq") but there wasn't really a strong move to do anything about it.

Chemical weapons have been in a special category since World War I. Once seen as a way to end warfare forever (just like machineguns and dynamite and nuclear arms and dozens of other inventions), their effects were seen as so horrific that their use could not be justified. Early chemical weapons were more likely to maim than to kill, a concept that is still seen as abhorrent in warfare. Research continued for decades, but eventually almost everyone signed the CWC.
Deacon wrote:On the latter, my understanding is that Al Qaeda may not be the entirety of the rebellion but is at least significantly involved. This seems to be a pretty tricky situation politically, as nobody wants to ever side with Al Qaeda, right? Or does it depend? <snip> But then that begs the question of WHY they're rebelling. I'm not 100% on that. Is Syria not Muslim enough and must be made more conservative, more aggressive toward Israel, and ushering in a new era of hardcore Sharia law complete with death penalties for even fairly minor transgressions? Or is it really people just yearning for freedom and peace?
It's a lot like Afghanistan turned out to be, and I fear that Syria may be in for a decade or more of warfare before things settle. A lot of groups are fighting. It started with largely peaceful demonstrations that were then crushed by the government. Soon after, armed groups started resisting, and it turned into a full-fledged war backed by a major power (the Soviets in Afghanistan, Iran in Syria). Jihadists streamed in from around the world, ostensibly fighting for the rebels but the main rebel groups only tolerate them because they need the manpower.

There has been dissension in the ranks of the Jihadists, such as when the leader of the al-Nusra Front in Syria publicly announced that the main al-Qaeda-linked group in Iraq had merged. The Iraq group then publicly denied this, and there may have been some actual armed fighting between the groups before Ayman al-Zawarhi had to step in and tell them that they were not and would not be merged and to stop fighting in public and in private.

The Syrian government is now making overtures toward the Kurds, probably offering them some level of autonomy in exchange for their loyalty. The Alawite group of which the al-Assad clan is a part has historically been very good at playing different groups off of each other. They're still trying it. How well it works is uncertain. Syria's been played up recently as being on the offensive and the side with momentum, but not that much territory has changed hands. Damascus has been in play but largely under government control for a few months, but the rebels still hold a lot of territory. Some pockets of Syrian Army troops are cut off but holding out as best they can, hoping for relief or resupply but sometimes turning to pillaging, and some are defeated by the rebels. The same thing happens in the other direction.

There is the recent possibility that Syria will deal with the chemical weapons diplomatically. They've offered to join the CWC but have said that they won't be able to provide a detailed inventory for about a month. I don't know if that will be good enough. I think it will depend on real actions on the ground. I know the rebels won't like it if there are no strikes, but if it means that Syria won't use chemical weapons again--and will actually destroy what they have--then I can live with this option.
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