Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The Impending Intervention in Syria

Seen as how it's the hot topic right now, I thought I'd pitch in with my own thoughts on Syria and the possibility of air strikes against the Assad regime. For additional opinions, there's two articles that have gone up recently on Think Defence which are worth checking out, one from the blog host Mr. TD himself (click here) and another from his guest contributor, Phil (click here).
As for me, I wrote a piece about Syria back in May (which you can read here) which advocated an intervention after the use of chemical weapons in Syria back in late March/April. The main thrust of that piece was that intervention was required in order to deter the further use of chemical weapons, whether by Assad and the Syrian Regime, or anyone else. 

I opined that if nothing was done in response - especially after US President Barack Obama had earlier drawn his "red line in the sand" over the use of chemical weapons - then it would send the message that chemical weapons use was frowned upon, but ultimately acceptable, in the sense that it wouldn't be sufficient to provoke a military response from the International community. The risk was that the use of chemical weapons could be "normalised" and seen as a legitimate weapon once again. 

Nothing happened at the time. And now here we are.

There had actually been four attacks back in the spring, but evidence of at least three of these attacks was patchy at best. What we've seen in the last week is a much larger, more comprehensively documented (by video, photo and eye witness) series of attacks. The targets were a series of towns just to the east of the Syrian capital Damascus. 

I say 'series' because it's important to understand that this was not just one attack on one area. Many people are wondering why Assad and his forces would use such a weapon, especially so close to the centre of power. But when you understand that it's believed that as many as seven or eight different towns have actually been hit in separate attacks as part of a wider offensive, it becomes much clearer.

The areas hit are occupied by various rebel elements that have held these positions for quite a while now. The area is predominantly Sunni and the rebels have previously resisted a number of conventional attacks against their positions. Indeed, at one point these rebel forces seemed to be threatening to push towards the capital, before the governments lines were buttressed with reinforcements from Hezbollah (a group that owes much to Syria for its survival and continued operation).

The bombardment of these areas started in the early hours of August 21st (last Tuesday), with a combination of high explosives and what is now believed to be some form of nerve agent, possibly Sarin gas, though some experts have - based on the study of video evidence - disputed whether Sarin was used (while acknowledging that a chemical attack of some form had taken place).

Naturally the call went out for UN inspectors to investigate the sites, with permission finally granted by the Syrian government on August 25th (Sunday). The Inspectors visited one small site the next day, but only for a few hours before being withdrawn by the Syrian government, and without having had the opportunity to investigate any of the main sites or to remove any of the material believed to be part of the delivery mechanisms (possibly mortar or artillery shells).

This should be kept in mind by anyone questioning why Assad would allow the Inspectors to conduct a survey of the area if it was him (or members of his regime) who ordered the attacks. The Inspectors were held back for several days, they were only allowed to visit one site and only for a short period of time, and they were denied the opportunity to bring back important evidence that could help identify who launched the attack.

When combined with the context of the regimes offensive, as well as reports coming from the US that they have both satellite imagery of activity around a known chemical weapons site in the days preceding the attack, as well as rumours of communications intercepts related to the attacks, the evidence against Assad and his regime is beginning to mount.

For leaders like President Obama and David Cameron, this is crucial. The memories of 'dodgy dossiers' and even more dodgy evidence sessions in front of Congress are still fresh in the mind. If Cameron and Obama press for action on what turns out to once again be faulty/fabricated evidence, then I doubt the British or American public would ever trust their leaders to intervene anywhere again, even if there was an immediate national interest at stake. The gradual coalescence of credible evidence against Assad is certainly a boost to their cause.

And let's be honest here, we're firmly on the road to some form of intervention, whether the Russians and Chinese like it or not. 

Obama's red line in the sand was a statement made probably in the expectation that Assad would not be that stupid and that he would never have to follow up on the threat. It appears he was wrong. Which leaves Obama in an awkward position. If he backs down then he looks weak, "all show and no go" so to speak. This sets an extremely dangerous precedent for the world in general regarding chemical weapons, and for the US in particular in its international dealings. Inaction will lead to the spread of a message that says 1) that chemical weapons are ok, and 2) that America will not follow through on its threats.

Point one could manifest itself in a number of ways. It would almost undoubtedly lead to further use of chemical weapons in Syria itself, in what could become quite an unpleasant orgy of chemical bombardments on rebel positions across the country. But the wider impact would be to tell despots and dictators the world over that although a nuclear weapons program is out of bounds, the development and use of chemical weapons will not meet with any serious action.

Some have scoffed at the danger posed by chemical weapons, though I'm not quite sure why. Chemical weapons have the potential to inflict significantly more casualties than an explosive device for a given size and weight and can leave an area contaminated for a significant period of time unless properly dealt with.

As an example, the humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF - better known to the English speaking world as 'Doctors Without Borders') have gathered reports from their people in the affected area (they support three hospitals that have received casualties from the gas attacks) that suggest as many as 3,500 people have been treated for exposure to neurological toxins, of which over 350 are dead so far. 

Even aid workers, first responders and some medical staff are reported to have suffered effects from chemical exposure, some due to travelling to the target sites to collect casualties and some simply from treating contaminated patients. Chemical weapons, much like mines and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), can end up affecting significant numbers of people who are not part of the fighting.

Point two is just as troublesome and in some regards might be considered more serious than point one. The United States is involved in a number of international disputes, such as with Iran and North Korea over the development of their respective nuclear weapons programs, and with China over its actions in the Pacific. 

A signal that the US is not prepared to follow up on its threats of action could lead to serious miscalculations in the future, as actors hostile to the US ignore American warnings as nothing more than hot air, and take action that genuinely does cross a "red line" for the US, prompting serious military action that would otherwise be avoided.

The question then becomes, what could the US, UK and France do? What will their response actually be? All signs currently point to a limited attack, one that may involve nothing more than a few cruise missile strikes against a limited number of targets. The scale of the attack is constrained by a number of factors.

The first is the issue of blowing up sites that may contain chemical weapons. Any attack would involved the delivery of high explosives, which runs the risk of actually dispersing the chemicals into the open. Much depends on the nature of any such facilities, such as their proximity to civilian areas, fresh water supplies or water tables, and how their general construction would respond to an internal blast. An underground facility miles from anywhere of interest is certainly a more viable target than a street level facility close to a population centre.

Other aspects of the regime that could be attacked include command, control and communications facilities, parts of the Syrian air defence network, buildings related to the Syrian intelligence agencies, conventional ammunition dumps,  military barracks, and repair/fitting facilities for armoured and artillery units. 

The concern for some is that if strikes against Syria do too much damage to the regimes military capability then it may open the door for the rebels to take over. The unfortunate fact is that the rebels are not currently (nor likely to be) a cohesive, easy to gauge entity. They are a mix of groups who are all unified only in that they are fighting Assad, but often with very different motivations. Some groups are religiously driven, others politically. Some are fighting only because they were attacked first.

This collection of disparate forces are, like the Libyans before them, unlikely to drop their weapons and start holding hands the second that Assad is ousted from power. They are much more likely to keep a strong grip on those weapons in the short term, and begin a long process of negotiations about forming a new government, while settling any old scores in the interim.

The removal of Assad is not guaranteed to lead to stability, nor is it guaranteed to leave behind a government that is to the liking of the west (though its Arab neighbours may be more pleased). Assad on the other hand is seen as a more stable figure, someone who can keep the various groups in check.

To this I have to say; I think I'd take my chances with the rebels. If Assad wins, he's not going to meekly sit back and say "well, I'm glad that's all over. Let's all go back to being a peaceful and quiet nation". He's going to exact his revenge in true tyrannical fashion and "mop up" various parts of the country, potentially punishing various areas for their actions during the war.

And nor is Assad going to go back to being a stable leader with reasonable relations with the west. Countries like the US, UK and France have made their bed and Assad is unlikely to forget that. You can only expect him to be come out of this more hostile to neighbours like Israel and Turkey, and even to states like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other gulf nations. His ties with Iran will only strengthen, as will his resolve to punish all those who tried to bring him down. If you think any of the rebel factions gaining power would be bad, I suspect Assad clinging to power would be even worse.

There is still an opportunity though for the west, for limited strikes on targets such as the Syrian air defence network. This could offer the chance to punish Assad without seriously hampering his ability to fight the rebels, allowing the balance of the civil war to remain largely as it is for now. This not only buys more time for the intervening powers to come up with a more complete solution to the Syrian problem, but it also softens Syria up for any potential air campaign in the future, should the US et al decide to go "all in" with the rebels.

Now whatever the scale of the action should turn out to be, Britain and France will likely play a key role in it. This seems like an odd thing to say given the much greater American military capabilities, but this is an odd situation (to say the least). 

The predominant problem that the American military has is that it's likely to be constrained by political caution about sending in aircraft to attack targets in Syria. The Syrian air defence system is more capable than that possessed by Colonel Gaddafi's Libya, even if it has been degraded somewhat by defections, rebel action, and the strain of operations during the civil war.

Washington (and indeed London & Paris) are likely to be cautious about any kind of operations that might, however slim the chance, lead to allied aircraft being shot down over Syrian territory. Further, from the US perspective, they're unlikely to be overly keen about the prospect of an advanced aircraft like a B-2 "Spirit" bomber suffering some kind of fault that leads to it coming down over Syrian or Lebanese territory (like the USAF F-15E Eagle that crashed in Libya after suffering a mechanical fault), handing the Assad regime a jackpot of American technology that can be shared with the Russians, Chinese and Iranians, just for the sake of a punitive strike.

This means that cruise missiles and other stand off weapons are likely to be the order of the day, which poses a unique problem for the US in that the bulk of its cruise missiles will be Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM), launched from naval platforms. Analysis after the first Gulf War showed that while TLAM was generally very reliable and accurate, its unitary warhead was seldom sufficient to penetrate hardened targets like bunkers.

Without aircraft over head dropping bombs specially designed for "bunker busting", this leaves only the USAFs AGM-86D Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile (CALCM) and the AGM-154C Joint Stand Off Weapon (JSOW) with its BROACH (Bomb, Royal Ordnance, Augmented CHarge) warhead. 

As an unpowered glide bomb the JSOW, even when launched from high altitude and high airspeed, will struggle to reach targets around Damascus without the launching aircraft over flying Lebanon and exposing itself to the Syrian defences.

And this is where the UK and France come in. The Storm Shadow air launched cruise missile carries the same BROACH warhead as the JSOW, but with a range that would allow it to be fired from beyond the reach of Syrian air defences, as a supplement to US AGM-86Ds. As such, both Britain and France could potentially play a key role in hitting important hard targets inside Syria, leaving softer targets to the US and Royal Navy TLAMs.

In conclusion then, the situation in Syria remains chaotic and bloody. It is not likely to improve any time soon. And now, attacks by the US, UK, France and others seem inevitable. There is a clear interest here for the UK; as part of the responsible international community, preventing the normalisation and proliferation of chemical weapons.

That is a national interest. Not a feel good interest. Not a bleeding heart interest. Not power playing or posturing. But a genuine issue of importance to our country, its people and the International community at large. For the US, it has no real choice. It must act. 

We have a choice. And I believe we should act.

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