In The Media

Frank P. Harvey: Coming soon — war over Syria 

by Frank Harvey

National Post
August 28, 2013

Everyone has an opinion about what the Obama administration and NATO allies should do to address the recent chemical-weapon attacks in Syria. What follows is a straightforward prediction about what Western leaders will do.

Barring a significant change of heart by Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish his hold on power, and in the absence of clear evidence of the regime’s intentions to seriously curtail its attacks against the insurgency and civilian populations, U.S./NATO military intervention is inevitable.

How do I know? Because the exact same action-reaction sequence unfolded prior to similar interventions in Bosnia (1995), Iraq (Operation Desert Fox, 1998), Kosovo and Serbia (Operation Allied Force, 1999), Iraq (Operation Enduring Freedom, 2003), and Libya (Operation Unified Protector, 2011). Each of these interventions was preceded by an almost identical set of domestic and international pressures that compelled the U.S. and key allies to launch military strikes. The crisis in Syria is following a familiar script, and the same serious miscalculations are being made by the Assad regime.

In each case, officials in Washington began by issuing preliminary deterrent threats hoping to convince the regime in question to de-escalate their attacks against a growing insurgency, or to comply with some UN no-fly-zone or disarmament resolution. But these initial threats almost always fail because none of the pre-conditions for successful deterrence were present, namely: a credible commitment to address the crisis, the capability and willingness to enforce serious consequences for non-compliance (for example, by positioning U.S. and NATO military assets in the region), and evidence of the resolve to follow through with retaliatory strikes if clearly articulated demands are not met.

Weak (red-line) threats not only fail to control these crises; they often lead to an escalation in the violence (this time in the form of chemical weapon attacks on Syria’s civilian population). As in past cases, images of these atrocities filter through broadcast and social media, eventually shifting public opinion in favour of doing more. Political leaders in the U.S. House and Senate (and across Western capitals) will see political value in supporting an approach that could arguably prevent further atrocities; pictures of the devastating effects of Sarin gas attacks will strengthen these preferences.

Barack Obama will continue to adjust his strategy in line with these political pressures by issuing ever stronger threats (and demands) as a way of re-establishing U.S. credibility, all backed by much clearer, and increasingly more credible, commitments to impose higher costs on the Syrian regime. Once these explicit threats are issued, there is no turning back. The latest stage in the sequence now includes deployment of four U.S. Navy destroyers to the eastern Mediterranean Sea. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has been tasked with updating military plans for a Syria operation, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has begun the process of building the coalition-of-the-willing by engaging in talks with NATO allies, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Once a sufficiently robust coalition is engaged, the next stage will be an attempt by Secretary of State Kerry to negotiate a UN mandated no-fly-zone, although Obama will not be deterred by the absence of a UN Security Council resolution. These moves will be followed by strikes against Syria’s military infrastructure, beginning with the country’s air defences, and will escalate to direct attacks against assets held by Syria’s leaders. The intervention will focus exclusively on a coalition air campaign and will not include the deployment of U.S. ground troops.

Bolstered by the mistaken assumption that support for the Assad regime from Russia and China constitutes sufficient protection against a sustained U.S./NATO military attack, Syrian leaders will respond initially with a few temporary (and meaningless) moves to de-escalate the violence. Over time, however, the regime will be forced to probe for weakness in the international community’s resolve by mounting new attacks against an emboldened insurgency, if only to sustain the regime’s diminishing hold on power. In the end, and judging by their decision to use chemical weapons, the regime is unlikely to meet U.S./NATO demands.

Faced with a devastating air-campaign, an inability to impose significant costs on the U.S. or NATO forces, and the imminent collapse of his regime, a desperate Assad will most likely escalate attacks against the country’s civilian populations and may attempt to draw Israel into the fight, all in an effort to expand the war, produce a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, splinter the coalition, and turn Western public opinion against U.S. foreign policy.

But the very same images that Assad believes will push public opinion in his direction will also be exploited by the coalition to justify the need to continue the campaign until the regime falls. Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi made the same mistakes, and Assad will suffer the same fate.

Frank P. Harvey holds the Eric Dennis Chair of Government and Political Science at Dalhouise University and is a Senior Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. His most recent book, Explaining the Iraq War, Counterfactual Theory, Logic and Evidence (Cambridge University Press), won the 2013 Canadian Political Science Association Book Prize for the best book on international relations.

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