The West should beware the law of unintended consequences in Syria

A victory for the rebels, which include al-Qa’ida-linked groups, is not a comforting scenario

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Those still hoping that conflict may be avoided may choose to believe that US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s declaration that plans were in place for Barack Obama to choose the best option for attack was the final ratcheting up of pressure on Bashar al-Assad. But all the indications are that it is now only a matter of days before the West enters Syria’s civil war.

Voices of caution have included a number of senior defence figures in the US and Britain who have stressed that Syria will not be like Libya. The Damascus regime’s anti-aircraft defences are a lot stronger and the public should be forewarned that there will be losses.

Nevertheless, the world’s most advanced war machines should be able to hit chemical sites with the aim of preventing Assad using weapons of mass destruction on his people in the future. But those targets would not be the only ones facing Tomahawk barrages. The regime’s command and control system, its missile and airbases, communications systems, will have to be “suppressed” to secure the safety of Western air crews, if warplanes are deployed.

This has certainly been the case on previous such missions.

The first major action following Nato’s imposition of the “no-fly zone” on Libya was not shooting down Muammar Gaddafi’s planes and helicopters, but the bombing of his armoured columns outside Benghazi. Those of us there were convinced that it saved the city from falling and the possible slaughter which may have followed; but there was also the realisation that this was the West’s declaration of war on the Tripoli regime.

In Libya, the underlying agenda was regime change and the US, Britain and France have made repeated demands that President Assad steps down. However, senior members of all three administrations also privately acknowledge that a total victory for the rebels – with al-Qa’ida-linked groups among them the most powerful – is not a comforting scenario.

But the fact remains that the destruction of some of the Syrian regime’s most important military assets would leave it considerably weaker. Destroying its aircraft and missiles would remove one of the key advantages it holds over the rebels. Similarly, among the targets supposedly being looked at is the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armoured Division of the Syrian Army, commanded by President Assad’s brother Maher. The brigade has been blamed for last week’s attack on Ghouta, but it is also one of the best-trained and equipped and its loss would have a significant impact on the course of the conflict.

The ones to benefit directly would be the extremist Islamists because they are the best equipped to seize ground. This would hardly correspond with President Obama’s stated vision of a future Syria which is “peaceful, non-sectarian, democratic, legitimate and tolerant”.

Hanging over the mission is the warning of General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, that air strikes “would not be militarily decisive, but it would commit us decisively to the conflict”.

What, for example, would the US-led coalition of the willing do if there were signs that the regime’s troops were transporting stocks of WMDs by road? Under the aim of eliminating stockpiles, these convoys would have to be hit. What would happen if chemical and biological agents were placed in civilian areas where Tomahawk strikes would inevitably lead to unacceptable civilian collateral damage? The only means of securing the material would be to send in troops – which all the Western leaders are adamant that they are unwilling to do.

The ideal scenario, say British and American officials, would be that the air strikes would bring the regime to the negotiating table. “One of the reasons why Geneva 2 [proposed talks] have not taken place is because Assad has been making territorial gains. This will even things up,” said a senior diplomat. He went on to add: “But we are all, of course, aware of the law of unintended consequences.”

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