Israeli soldiers check artillery shells in the Golan Heights near the border with Syria. (AP)
Beirut, Aug. 31: President Obama says he is considering a “limited, narrow” military strike against Syria — an aim that many West Asian experts fear overlooks the potential to worsen the violence in Syria and intensify a fight for regional influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Supporters of the President’s proposal contend that a limited punitive strike can be carried out without inflaming an already volatile situation. But a number of diplomats and other experts say it fails to adequately plan for a range of unintended consequences, from a surge in anti-Americanism that could bolster Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, to a wider regional conflict that could drag in other countries, including Israel and Turkey.
“Our biggest problem is ignorance; we’re pretty ignorant about Syria,” said Ryan C. Crocker, a former ambassador to Syria and Lebanon, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The American strike could hit President Assad’s military without fundamentally changing the dynamic in a stalemated civil war that has already left more than 100,000 people dead. At the same time, few expect that a barrage of cruise missiles would prompt either side to work in earnest for a political settlement. Given that, the sceptics say it may not be worth the risks.
“I don’t see any advantage,” said a western official who closely observes Syria.
In outlining its tentative plans, the Obama administration has left many questions unanswered. Diplomats familiar with Assad say there is no way to know how he would respond, and they question what the US would do if he chose to order a chemical strike or other major retaliation against civilians.
That would leave the US to choose between a loss of credibility and a more expansive conflict, they said. “So he continues on in defiance — maybe he even launches another chemical attack to put a stick in our eye — and then what?” Crocker said. “Because once you start down this road, it’s pretty hard to get off it and maintain political credibility.”
For the US, the challenge is to deliver the intended message to Assad without opening the door to a takeover by rebels linked to al Qaida, the collapse of state institutions, or a major escalation by Syria’s allies.
Sceptics doubt that the US — or anyone else — has the information to calibrate the attack that precisely.
That is partly because the US is preparing to inject itself into a conflict that is no longer just about Syria, but has become a volatile regional morass that pits Iran and Hezbollah, the Shia group in Lebanon, against Qaida affiliates backed by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf benefactors.