Syria war: Not a game changer

The spooky noise from war drums continues as the US-led attack on Syria is postponed from ‘within days’ to ‘within weeks’. Political and defense pundits across the world are brainstorming and airing their views in media about the possible scale and outcome of such strikes against Syrian President Bashar Al Asaad’s regime.

The intention of planned limited strikes on Syrian regime’s military installations is not to remove Al Assad, but to rather degrade his hold on power and upgrade the rebels’ capabilities. Political scientist and president of Eurasia Group, Ian Bremmer, said the Syrian military campaign would act as “an amplifier, not necessarily a game-changer”.

In Arabian Gulf, however, there is a strong support for the Syrian rebels. The reasons behind the support have several shades – from geopolitical, business, gas pipelines to sectarianism.

There have been reports about how the senior leaders of oil-rich countries in this region have been working closely with their counterparts in the west to end Syrian conflict and oust Al Assad, and if this can be achieved militarily – so be it.

War of words has already begun, inviting nervous reactions from GCC stock markets and sending oil prices for the biggest spike in two years. Some analysts believe that oil might touch $150 per barrel in the coming few weeks, while the ones with ripe imagination are even saying that an attack on Syria may trigger a bigger war that would suck in Lebanon, Israel and Iran.

One of the palatable expositions is the comparison of upcoming Syrian attack with war in Kosovo. Ian Bremmer says “There has been much discussion of American strategy revisiting the Nato campaign in Kosovo in 1998-1999, but that’s far more engagement than the US is seeking. Kosovo was a campaign meant to stop the violence on the ground and eventually led to the direct intervention of the Nato peacekeepers in order to separate the combatants.

Ian Bremmer
Ian Bremmer

“A far more relevant precedent is the “desert fox” operations in Iraq in 1998, where the United States and the United Kingdom engaged in a four-day bombing campaign to degrade Iraqi military capacity – in particular, regarding concerns of Iraq’s non-compliance with UN Security Council resolutions around the development of weapons of mass destruction.

“The American strategy in the run-up to the Syria campaign comes from the same playbook. In 1998, the UK and the UK telegraphed to Saddam Hussein that an attack on key military facilities was coming.

He emptied those facilities, took the hit, and moved on. “That’s the likely direct outcome here – Syrian military commanders will surely intensify their activities (to the best of their abilities) against the rebels, but we should not expect significant military reprisals beyond Syrian borders.”

For defense analyst, author and journalist, Robert D Kaplan comparing Syrian campaign with Kosovo is unrealistic. “Each war is a unique universe unto its own and thus comparisons with previous wars, while useful, may also prove illusory,” Kaplan wrote in a column, arguing that Syria is much bigger in size and population than Kosovo. “The Kosovo war did not engage Iran as this war must. For all of the missiles that America can fire, it does not have operatives on the ground like Iran has. Neither will the United States necessarily have the patience and fortitude to prosecute a lengthy and covert ground-level operation as Iran might for years to come, and already has.

“A weakened or toppled Al Assad is bad for Iran, surely, but it does not altogether signal that America will therefore receive a good result from this war. A wounded Iran might race even faster toward a nuclear option. It is a calculated risk,” wrote Kaplan for Strategic Forecasting Inc – a global intelligence firm based in Texas.

Robert D Kaplan
Robert D. Kaplan

The military campaign against Syria has also fueled concerns over the spillover. Bremmer has no doubts that strategy for Syria strikes has uncertainties. “Letting Arab states know that the United States and the United Kingdom were preparing attacks allows these governments to escape culpability (rather than in Libya, where their active lobbying was required to get the Europeans over the hump on a decision to engage).” Arab League has said it opposes any military action against Syria without the UN Security Council mandate.

On the Iranian connection, Bremmer says despite threats from the Iranian parliamentarians that retaliation on Israel would follow any US intervention in Syria, direct Iranian engagement in the war is unlikely – and I’d be extremely surprised to see any disruption of the Strait of Hormuz.

“Iran’s support of Hezbollah and the group’s complete alignment with the Assad regime is much more likely to lead to the intensification of asymmetric attacks against the US and allied targets in the region.”

Internationally, the US-Russian relations are likely to further deteriorate. “It’s implausible that Russia would directly intervene to support Syria, their support for the Syrian military will escalate, and at the same time support for Syrian rebels among American allies who see the opportunity in leveraging strikes on Assad into a broader effort at regime change will also increase.

“In short, violence in Syria is set to escalate following the US engagement… making more likely the spillover of the war into neighboring countries, particularly Jordan,” says Bremmer.