Is the West prepared to cross the Rubicon over Syria? Probably

 

Share
Related Topics

Will the night sky of Damascus soon be illuminated by the explosion of American cruise missiles striking government buildings and military bases as used to happen periodically in Baghdad between 1991 and 2003? Pillars of fire would suddenly spring up on each side of the Tigris river and bursts of tracer rounds from anti-aircraft guns would rise slowly and ineffectively into the sky.

The firing of Tomahawk cruise missiles from four American destroyers in the Mediterranean at targets in Syria are among the actions being telegraphed ahead by the US, Britain and France as the most likely form of retribution for the Syrian army’s alleged chemical attack on civilians in Damascus.

The units and bases from which the US believes rockets carrying poison gas were fired will be probable targets. So too would be Syrian airfields and probably the bases of elite units frequently deployed against the rebels.

If these attacks do take place, with Britain and France in a supporting role, then President Barack Obama will make them heavy enough to be more than a slap on the wrist but not so devastating that they herald the US becoming a participant in the war. It will not be an easy balancing act: ineffective air strikes that the Syrian government can shrug off would be a demonstration of weakness rather than strength. But strikes by missiles and possibly military aircraft will mean the US is crossing a Rubicon, committing itself more than ever before against President Bashar al-Assad and in favour of the armed opposition. This may mean that if there are missile strikes they will be limited in their timescale but heavier and more destructive than expected.

It is not probable, however, that an air campaign could closely emulate lengthy action in Kosovo in 1999 or in Libya in 2011, both of which have been cited as examples of successful military interventions by Nato. The political situation today is different. The Syrian government is a harder nut to crack than Muammar Gaddafi and his ramshackle state. It has strong regional allies in Iran and Hezbollah who see the struggle for Syria as a battle for their very survival. Syria is also a test case for Russia, which has so far firmly supported Mr Assad and is bidding to regain something of the international influence it had before the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago.

Arming the rebels on the ground is the other recipe for punishing the Syrian government. That is already happening with 400 tons of arms, mostly shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons and ammunition, paid for by Saudi Arabia and arriving in northern Syria from Turkey. 

Anti-tank weapons from Saudi Arabia are said to have been crucial in the opposition’s capture of Mannagh helicopter base north of Aleppo on 6 August. The most effective force in the battle was the al-Qa’ida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), which began the final assault with a suicide bombing carried out by a Saudi. This success emphasises a further problem faced by increased Western or Saudi arms supplies: to whomever they are initially given,  they are likely to end up in the hands of Isil or the jihadist al-Nusra Front.

The Syrian army has a tight grip on most of Damascus and the roads leading north to Homs and west to Tartous on the coast. There are checkpoints every few miles on the main roads which minutely examine documents.

Many of the rebel-held areas such as villages between Homs and Hama are largely empty because they have been heavily bombarded by artillery and from the air. The same is true in many of rebel-held districts in Damascus which have been sealed off, are short of food and have many buildings in ruins. Similarly places like Baba Amr and Qusayr, once rebel strongholds, are now ghost towns while Sunni villages at Houla are cut off.

What stops the Syrian army capturing many rebel areas is not armed opposition but shortage of troops, unwillingness to suffer casualties among trained soldiers and an inability to hold captured areas in the long term. If Syrian generals did use chemical weapons last Wednesday this lack of manpower might explain why they did so.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in hock to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before