Following reports of a chemical weapons attack last week in Syria–reports supported by no shortage of grisly evidence–the chatter began to build around the possibility of a long-sought Western intervention against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s embattled regime. Over the weekend that chatter seemingly turned from abstract and hypothetical into concrete and inexorable.
Earlier this morning, the Times of London reported that British Prime Minister David Cameron was putting the full-court press on President Obama to lead a strike against Assad in the coming days as international fury continues to rage over the purported chemical attack.
On Monday, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will meet British military chief Gen. Nick Houghton to discuss options for a strike, with a single lighting-quick barrage of strikes fired from warships in the Mediterranean the leading option, the Times reported.
A British government source told the paper that Washington and London are looking at a “very targeted attack” launched within the next 10 days to “prevent and deter” Assad.
In the meantime, Assad seems keen on saving his hide by offering to let the United Nations inspect the site of the attack, an offer which has been pre-empted by some very dismissive language by the Obama administration. Yesterday, a White House official told Reuters that “very little doubt” remains about the use of chemical weapons in last week’s attack that killed hundreds and led the organization Doctors Without Borders to conclude that more than 3,000 Syrian civilians showed signs of exposure to toxic nerve agents.
Despite Russian calls for patience with Assad and the UN investigation, the Obama official added that Assad’s willingness to let the United Nations inspect came far too late.
“At this juncture, any belated decision by the regime to grant access to the UN team would be considered too late to be credible, including because the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime’s persistent shelling and other intentional actions over the last five days.”
This morning, a UN convoy of chemical inspectors was shot at by unidentified snipers as it traveled to the site of last week’s chemical attack near Damascus. No one was injured, and UN Spokesman Martin Nesirky confirmed the team would return to the area once the vehicle was replaced.
So what’s in store? At this point, as the deliberations continue, alarms are also being sounded. Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weighed in, rejecting the previous common wisdom among Israelis that American involvement in Syria would draw away focus from Iran and its nuclear program.
“Assad’s regime has become a full Iranian client, and Syria has become Iran’s testing ground. Now the whole world is watching. Iran is watching, and it wants to see what would be the reaction on the use of chemical weapons.”
It seems fair to say that the Arab world, much of which also opposes Iran’s nuclear program and has been stepping up efforts to arm the rebels in recent days, feels the same.
Talk of American action has centered heavily on the likelihood that the U.S. would target Syrian installations like “government and military sites, including the missile batteries that could be used to fire nerve gas or other chemical munitions” with cruise missiles. But that approach, distant as it is from boots on the ground, has its skeptics. Writing in the Washington Post, Eliot A. Cohen offered that while a response is necessary, American action in Syria (even limited to the air) is fraught with peril.
For one thing, and despite the hopes of some proponents of an air campaign, this would not be surgical. No serious application of air power ever is, despite administration officials’ claims about the drone campaign, which, as we now know, has killed plenty of civilians. A serious bombing campaign means civilian casualties, at our hands. And it may mean U.S. and allied casualties too, because the idea of a serious military effort without risk is fatuous.
Cohen also warns that American or Western action could draw more of the neighborhood into the fray, bring more fire upon Israel, and might compel Syria’s friends and benefactors–Hezbollah, China, and Russia to name a few–to get more involved.
After two-and-a-half years of Syrian civil war with over 100,000 dead, over seven million new refugees, and countless calls for American intervention, restraint, and prudence, the next week will no doubt be a watershed one.
Meanwhile, the trope about choosing between bad and worse holds truer still: The Syrian opposition is not without extremely troubling factions. Also, with the United Nations Security Council consistently hamstrung by the Russian veto, any American action would have to take place without the official support of the United Nations. The same goes for Congress, which won’t reconvene for another two weeks.