Future US Military Involvement in Syria

Bashar al assad

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Image from The Telegraph.

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On August 21, the Syrian government launched a series of chemical weapons attacks that killed around 1,000 of its own citizens. Since that time the Syrian regime has faced the threat of US airstrikes as a deterrent for future use of chemical weapons. In order to avoid airstrikes, President Bashar al-Assad has agreed to allow Syrian chemical weapon stockpiles to be destroyed. As the United States engages with Syria in a deal to disarm the regime of its chemical weapons, many still wonder if at some future point the United States could become involved in the conflict. One of the most outspoken advocates of US intervention on behalf of the Free Syrian Army is Arizona Senator John McCain.  President Obama has stated that if dialogue fails then the US is prepared to act. Elaborating on potential US action, John Kerry has said that “It won’t get rid of [the chemical weapons], but it could change [Assad’s] willingness to use them.” Despite this military posturing, it is not likely that the US will perform these strikes. President Obama has continually showed an unwillingness to be heavily involved in the Syrian issue. This is evident in the lack of clarity that haunted the White House policy for the first two years of the Syrian conflict. After the red line was crossed, which was supposed to trigger a US military response, the President instead turned the decision over to congress, which was not likely to vote in favor of military strikes. The Whitehouse will continue to use the chemical weapons deal as a means to safely remove weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from Syria to avoid US involvement and decrease the risk of chemical weapons falling into the hands of al-Qaeda affiliated rebels after the fall of the Syrian regime.

Syria is likely to continue to work with the United States to make progress in the chemical weapons deal. They will do just enough to show the United States and the world they are complying with the terms of the agreement, thereby not allowing the Obama administration any grounds to declare an air strike, which he does not want to perform anyway. According to UN Resolution 2118, Syria must “complete the elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment in the first half of 2014.” The resolution also mentions that by mid-November 2013, intermediate destruction milestones will be created to measure the progress of removing the chemical weapons. Syria’s work ethic to achieve these milestones will show the United States and the international community how committed Syria is to the removal of WMD. It should be noted that Syria has reported 19 chemical weapon sites around the country and this process would take time even without a civil war under way.

Strategically, President Assad has nothing to gain from keeping chemical weapons. By keeping WMD Assad would broaden the divide between his government and the international community, and further use of chemical weapons would force the international community to act, spelling the end of his regime. He would also risk forcing the United States’ hand in following through on military strikes. The US Navy and Air Force currently have the capability of firing Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) from the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf while staying out of range of Syria’s Integrated Air Defense System (IADS). Tomahawk missiles could easily be used to target airfields currently used by the Syrian Air Force (SAF). These airfields are currently being used for three primary purposes: To receive supplies, weapons, and ammunition from Iran and Russia; to resupply the Syrian Arab Army; and to bombard rebel forces. A small US operation targeting Syrian airfields would impair Syria’s ability to perform these three crucial missions for weeks until repairs to infrastructure could be completed. The possibility of such an operation taking place is too great of a risk for the Syrian regime, who cannot afford to have inoperable airfields.  Assad will comply with the terms of the agreement to avoid even the possibility of such a strike.


A Tomahawk Land Missile (TLAM) being launched from a US vessel. Image from The Aviationist.

It is also important to note that the peaceful removal of chemical weapons from Syria could be the most important development in Syria for US national security. The United States does not have the capability to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles through airstrikes. It is likely that airstrikes on WMD sites would release chemicals into the atmosphere. If this were to happen the US could potentially become responsible for the deaths of civilians. In order to be safely destroyed, chemical weapons must be incinerated or neutralized in facilities with the necessary equipment to ensure the breakdown of chemical agents. The only true option of forcefully getting rid of the chemical weapons stockpiles would be a land invasion and taking over every single chemical weapons site.  It is already clear that this is not an option that the US has any interest in. For this reason, the peaceful removal of the chemical weapons is the most effective path for the United States. It is less costly and does not risk American lives.

If the Syrian regime falls, then any of the chemical weapon sites currently in the country would be in grave danger of falling into the hands of rebel forces. Rebel forces would begin fighting among themselves for control. This post- civil war conflict is likely to occur between three groups: the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian Islamic Front, and al-Qaeda affiliates such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq. The possibility of WMDs being in rebel hands, particularly al-Qaeda affiliates, is even more of a security threat to the United States than these weapons being under the control of the Syrian regime. It is in the interests of the United States that the government of President Bashar al-Assad remains in power until the chemical weapons are destroyed.

A post-regime Syrian war zone is much safer for US national security if chemical weapons are no longer accessible to rebel forces. For this reason President Obama will continue to work with Syria to remove chemical weapons peacefully and not conduct airstrikes that might dissuade Syria from further participation in the deal. Furthermore, the continued discussion of US airstrikes are now contingent on whether or not the Syrian government complies with the chemical weapons deal. Since it is likely that President Assad will comply, the potential of US airstrikes has become extremely limited in the foreseeable future.


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2 Responses to “Future US Military Involvement in Syria”

  1. FW Axelgard Says:

    Good piece of work! Two quick comments. Syria is working with the international community, not just the US, for the removal of CW. This is an important point in both short- medium- and long-term. US national security hinges on return of stability to the region; this is clearly a long-term scenario and will hinge on having broad international cooperation – to include Russia. Key lesson to learn from Iraq: don’t try to go it alone. Additionally, degradation of Syria’s CW delivery capability would also be effective, and less risky than air strikes vs CW sites. This is probably what Kerry referred to in the comment you quoted.

  2. Michael Fields Says:

    Axelgard, thank you for your comment! You bring up a good point that it is important to remember that Syria is working with the international community and not just with the United States. The OPCW, which is responsible for the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, is itself an Intergovernmental Organization. Since the purpose of the article was to discuss future US military involvement in Syria there is an emphasis on the US.

    I also agree that airstrikes on Syria’s chemical weapons delivery capability is much more effective than airstrikes on CW sites. Because of the risk involved in attacking CW sites directly I do not think it is a viable option. If the US was to conduct airstrikes for the purpose of stopping Syria from using chemical weapons it would have to target airfields as well as artillery since CW can be fired from both.I believe that such an attack would need to be measured carefully since it is not in the US interests for the regime to fall before chemical weapons are removed from the country. Inability to conduct airstrikes could hasten rebel advances in several areas. However, I think as long as Syria shows a willingness to get rid of its chemical weapons through diplomatic means that airstrikes are not likely.