Brian M Downing
A year ago, after Syria used chemical weapons on its civilians, President Trump retaliated within 72 hours with a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield. Unfortunately, it had no deterrent effect on Assad. Attacks on civilians have continued, most recently in Douma, near Damascus.
It’s been five days since Douma. Israel has responded with a relatively small strike, at least as much on Iranian targets as Syrian ones. Meanwhile, the US, Britain, and France are weighing a coordinated effort, possibly along with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Delay and cooperation suggest something more than a quick retaliatory strike. Several days of heavy attacks might be in the works but a few more complicated scenarios might be under consideration.
The US, Britain, and France were hostile toward Russia before Douma. There have been cyberattacks, election tampering, and poisoning of Russians in the UK. The most recent outrage in Syria gives further reason for countering Russia and a location to do it in as well.
The West is already supporting the Ukraine against separatists, some of whom are Russian citizens. The US recently devastated a probe by Russian mercenaries in eastern Syria, inflicting several hundred casualties.
Careful strikes on Syrian bases with Russian personnel might wear on the Russian population. They admire a strong leader, especially one who stands up to the US, but Putin’s efforts in Syria do not enjoy great support. Combined with more sanctions, his popularity may decline, but only very slowly. In any event, he will present Syria as another case of the West’s trying to stifle Russia.
Regime change in Damascus
A concerted and protracted effort could kill many prominent political and military leaders in the Assad government. When done in conjunction with air campaigns on command and control centers, logistical hubs, airbases, and troop concentrations, the Syrian army and state could collapse.
As welcome as this might sound just now, it would bring disaster in Syria and embarrassment to the foreign powers responsible. Western Syria has a modicum of stability now and regime collapse would lead to disintegration, warlordism, interminable chaos, and millions more refugees.
Many rebel forces are hardline Sunni Islamists embittered by high losses from Syrian and Russian airpower. They would exact fearful revenge on Alawi and Shia civilians. In this moment of Sunni exhiliration, Christian and Jews would suffer, too.
Alter the calculus of war
Rather than bring down the Assad government, the US et al may seek to gravely weaken its ability to continue the war and cause it to risk losing ground. A protracted campaign against military targets and concurrent ground probes by US- and UK-backed militias could cause great strain on the beleaguered Syrian army, Hisbollah units, and Iranian militias.
This might set the stage for meaningful talks leading to a settlement. Damascus and its allies would no longer have any illusion of reconquest and accept that further fighting risks disintegration of the army and loss of more territory. An agreement would force Assad and his backers to accept a Shia rump state in the west and the partition of Sunni and Kurdish parts of the country into Turkish, American, and British protectorates.
Alter Damascus’s strategic alignments
Military operations in conjunction with diplomatic pressure from Saudi Arabia, could force Assad to reconsider his strategic partnerships. In exchange for a cessation of hostilities, Assad will break with Hisbollah and Iran. Syria will then be part of a Sunni coprosperity sphere administered from Riyadh. Russian military facilities and backing will remain and the Sunni powers will reward Putin with sorely needed defense contracts.
It will be a hard sell, of course. Nothing will come easy. However, Assad would do well to remember that Saudi Arabia and Israel pressed for this realignment at the outset of popular protests. He declined, civil war ensued, and Syria was destroyed. Naturally, Riyadh and its Sunni allies would be helpful in reconstruction, more so than Iran could ever be.
Copyright 2018 Brian M Downing
Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis for her patience.