West Divided Over Post-Attack Scenarios in Syria
By: Mohammed Ibrahim
Published Friday, August 30, 2013
The US president's decision to launch a strike on Syria is going through a difficult labor. There seems to be a sudden return to awareness and concern for the ramifications of such a strike.
Berlin – The US military command proposed a set of options and potential targets to US President Barack Obama. However, only two options seem to be realistic: a limited strike on several targets or a full-scale war.
The US administration and the UK government announced several times that the operation will not aim to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, that it will merely punish him for using chemical weapons.
Obama fears that the first option might lead to the second, in case Syria decides to reply to the strikes and set fire to the region, according to both the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers
US attempts to test the waters with Iran gave negative results. UN Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman failed to obtain a clear answer from Iran concerning the red lines placed by Tehran and Damascus on the operation and the ceiling that can be reached before the two capitals decide that they are obliged to reply.
The US administration and its European allies are taking a range of possibilities into serious consideration. They might control the decision to start the battle, but what will follow might get out of control.
On these options, Josef Holtman, expert at the German Institute for Strategic Studies, told Al-Akhbar that the West is wondering whether Assad would feel he is in the last throes of a battle for survival. He remains in power today thanks to the strength and cohesion of the army and its current successes against the armed opposition.
If the army suffers blows that could weaken it, Holtman explains, Assad will lose control completely and his rule will definitely collapse. The expert concludes that, in this situation, Assad might make the monumental decision to attack targets inside Israel.
This is what Saddam Hussein did in 1991. At the time, Israel did not retaliate, since the losses were negligible. But what if Israel suffers heavy losses this time and things get out of control? A look at the situation in Syria will show that Assad has nothing left to lose. The country is already destroyed, so the destruction of some additional buildings will not be a disaster.
In connection with Israel's security, the European Union – especially Germany – is worried about Hezbollah’s reaction. The party has a large stockpile of firepower and its Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah repeated several times that they have the range to attack anywhere in Israel.
According to Holtman, however, the biggest concern is the position of the Iranians, who, in the past few days, have escalated their language. What if Iran felt it was the next target after Damascus, or that the strike would topple its only ally in the region? What if the front between Hezbollah and Israel becomes active? Will Iran rush to the aid of its allies or launch a preemptive strike?
If this happens, then the whole Gulf, its oil sources, and the Strait of Hormuz will be in the eye of the storm. However, Holtman believes this is the weakest scenario, but it is still on the table.
He adds that the West is facing another dilemma. A war against Damascus will mean they are positioned along the same front as al-Qaeda, in the form of al-Nusra Front. The strongest and most heavily armed groups fighting in Syria, under several names, belong to al-Qaeda. They are the de facto force on the ground and will use any setback faced by the regime or weakening of the Syrian army to their advantage.
Holtman's statements are consistent with warnings by German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich about the return of Islamist fighters from Syria to Germany. He announced that more than 120 Islamist fighters and a thousand fighters from other European countries might return to Europe. This is seen as a danger threat to the security of the European Union.
Head of the German police union, Rainer Wendt, said the philosophy behind the Islamist groups is incomprehensible. They might believe that the Western attack on Syria is an attack on an Islamic country and react in a terrorist manner. He fears this might reach Germany, since they are not able to differentiate between one European country and another.
On the other hand, both Washington and London face internal difficulties preventing them from making rushed decisions. The majority of citizens in both countries refuse to go into another war. In addition, there is internal political opposition to such a decision.
As a presidential candidate, Obama had declared that he will not go to war unless the US is under actual threat. However, he broke his rule when he participated in the war on Libya in 2011. This could explain the statements by the White House press secretary that failing to reply to the use of chemical weapons is a threat to US national security.
In any case, the US president's options are getting narrower, according to German experts. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he needs to be inside the country to declare war or carry out a military attack. Obama will need to decide before September 3 – the day of his scheduled visit to Sweden, followed by the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg in Russia – or postpone his decision.
The mission of British Prime Minister David Cameron seems to be more complicated after the British parliament voted against military action in Syria on Thursday, August 29.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel was relieved by the easing of the threat of war. She had declared several times that the solution in Syria should be political. She rejected an attack against Syria without an international mandate, which she knows will not happen.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.