After months of skirting around the diplomatic edges of a year and a half old Syrian crisis the U.S. finally drew a red line. If chemical weapons enter the conflict the U.S. will act with force. That prompted two of Assad’s last remaining benefactors to step up their rhetoric against greater U.S involvement in a civil war that has killed approximately 18,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more (see PBS for a succinct timeline.)
The AP is reporting that Russia, main military backer and advisor of the Assad regime, received Syrian assurances that stockpiles would not be used and they remained firmly under government control. China, echoing Syria, said the Americans were using the risk to justify intervention.
Why the sudden interest in kinetic involvement (aka bombs and bullets) rather than the continued non-lethal support the U.S. is already providing, including humanitarian assistance and commmunications? Syria, after years of speculation finally stated publicly that it has chem/bio weapons. An attack by “external forces” could trigger their use, according to Syrian government officials via the New York Times.
If the regime is teetering on the edge, as many suspect it may be considering the overwhelming use of conventional force, including fighter jets, helicopter gun ships and tanks, then chem/bio may be its last resort. Defining “external” could be as easy as saying foreign fighters, which are already battling alongside the Syrian Free Army.
Assad has shown a callous disregard for the non-Alewite majority civilian population so far, reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s murderous rampages of the past. There is little reason to believe that the Iraqi Kurdish fate of a chemical gas attack might not befall Syrians as well.
At the moment Assad appears to favor a fight to the death having rebuffed the UN and two approaches by the Arab League to step down with safe passage. The BBC reported that during a recent visit to Moscow, Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil added an Assad exit to the standard talking points of “options”, but not if Assad had to resign first – a clear non-starter.
Radicalized opposition groups possessing chem/bio weapons pose a definite threat of enhanced terrorism well beyond the region. Both Russia and purportedly China face potential Islamic fundamentalist uprisings within their borders which is perhaps one reason they favor these weapons under Syrian control. Even more importantly long standing economic interests including oil and Cold War era positioning for spheres of non-U.S. dominated influence define Russian and Chinese alliances with Assad.
Syria also has one of the best equipped conventional militaries in the region. With a virtual arms bazaar for the budding terrorist group, landmines and shoulder mounted rockets that can take down aircraft would pose an immediate threat if seized by radical groups. The Monterey Institute’s Deputy Director Leonard S. Spector lays out five categories of weapons and associated concerns in his July Congressional testimony.
Intentionally or otherwise this last hold-out of the Arab Spring has turned into a battleground for influence while a captive Syrian populace pays the ultimate price. Still a U.S. ground invasion remains a remote possibility. There is no stomach for more U.S. casualties after Iraq and Afghanistan and even less so in the run-up to elections this fall.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot at stake for the U.S. if only that were better defined.