The Syrian Chemical Attack: Things Fall Apart, the Centre Cannot Hold

by on 2013-08-21 in Duck- 5 Comments

The news out of the Damascus suburbs this morning is highly disturbing and, if the reports are confirmed that this was a chemical attack, no doubt will mark a turning point in the conflict.  Dan is somewhat skeptical that it will change the intervention calculus. I disagree.

For the better part of the past two years, the Obama administration has pursued to a strategy of conflict management and containment.  It doesn’t look like that policy has worked.  Today’s events appear to have been a major chemical attack with a large loss of civilian life.  The raw and devastating images will alter the political landscape in Washington, throughout Europe, and throughout the region.   This looks to be Syria’s Srebrenica.

If you recall, Srebrenica did not fundamentally change the traditional, realist strategic logic on the ground during the Bosnian conflict — yet all of the internal notes on White House deliberations (as reported in Ivo Daalder’s Getting to Dayton or Derek Chollet’s history of Dayton) reveal how conceptions of interests and ideals became intertwined with the scale of the atrocity.   Domestically, there was some Congressional pressure to do more in Bosnia, but very little pressure from public opinion. Srebrenica was a game changer.  I think this is what we are likely to see happen now in Syria — and I think it changes the equation regardless of whether or not there is definitive proof as to who perpetrated the attack.  The mere fact of such a large scale loss of life in a chemical attack — along with changing dynamics throughout the region — will produce significant pressure on, and within, the administration to commit resources — airstrikes on key Syrian military installations and probably no-fly, no missile zone over Syria — something, anything, to move the conflict to some kind of end-game.

I just spent the last two weeks in Istanbul and southern Turkey talking to Syrian opposition groups, refugees, Turkish officials, and journalists.  I heard two major narratives from the ground.  First, the regional fallout from the conflict (and Egypt) is escalating and folks are really getting nervous.   There are now more than 2 million Syrian refugees who have crossed into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. This is an enormous financial burden that is fueling frustration in all three countries.  But, it is also having very real and profound security effects:  there have been more bombings in Beirut this week as well as increased fighting, Iraq has seen a dramatic spike in violence, and there is a real fear that the combined pressure of more than a million Iraqi, Palestinian, and Syrian refugees in Jordan will break the state.   Meanwhile, the Kurds from Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey are meeting later this week in northern Iraq — which just opened the borders to a massive flow of Syrian Kurds.

The second narrative I heard was that unless something dramatically changes the current strategic landscape, this has all the trappings of a very long war and things will only get worse in the months to come.  The opposition is committed to the fight.  Assad controls many key urban areas, but he doesn’t control large areas of the country and there is a sense of frustration among Assad’s supporters that he hasn’t been able to clear and hold areas.  There is increasing pressure on him to escalate.  More than 100,000 people already have been killed — a number that almost certainly suffers from some sizable undercounting bias. And, I heard a lot of whispers that the estimate of internally displaced persons may be  upwards of 8 to 10  million — more than twice the current official estimate — and real fears of a much larger humanitarian crisis looming.

What does all of this mean?  The current policy objective has been focused on conflict containment.  The current policy instruments have failed to achieve that.  I think there is concern in Washington and throughout much of the region that American policy has been too passive — that without some kind of major policy shift, this is going to get a lot worse for American interests in the region. And, if the reports of a major chemical attack are true, we are almost certain to see a new policy that will almost certainly include some element of U.S. military force to try to change that. That’s my general reading of how American foreign policy develops.

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  • j.ottopohl

    I don’t think there is any strong domestic support for greater US intervention in Syria especially on top of the recent Iraq and Afghan adventures. I could be wrong, but unlike Iraq under Bush I don’t see any real push for the US to scale up its role in the Syrian conflict.

  • Oscar Creveld

    What will the post-Assad Syrian state look like and what could Western powers do to advance movements and groups amenable to their interests in that inevitable struggle for state power? Assad’s fall is very likely to precipitate an exceedingly complicated civil war — in many ways it’s already underway — and interventionist arguments have been exceedingly vague as to what is supposed to come after Assad. The “centre” of Syria may not be holding, but no coalition of Western states has offered any plans for reconstructing it, indeed, from the French foreign minister to John McCain, most interventionists have stressed the limits (notably excluding ground troops) on what they wish to do.

  • Jon Western

    I agree that a post-Assad environment will be very messy and no one would consider any kind of Iraqi occupation scenario — or even a Bosnian IFOR/SFOR structure. Nonetheless, the question is how to change the strategic dynamics for both Assad and the opposition to get to some kind of end-game? The Obama administration’s position up to now has been to do what it can to contain the conflict. That’s not working and my reading is that things will get a lot worse — both in Syria and in the region — if we stay on the current course. That trajectory is going to change the strategic calculations — which coupled with compelling evidence of a chemical attack will change the overall political calculations in the U.S. and the West. Nothing will happen today or tomorrow, but I think we are now on that track. Regardless — whether we have some kind of limited intervention or not — this is going to be messy.

  • Oscar Creveld

    I certainly concur that Syria will be messy whatever option chosen but have come to believe that the very vagueness of that “some kind of end-game” is currently Assad’s strongest geostrategic asset. No one in the West has put forward the particulars of what sort of state form or pluralist arrangement the deeply divided opposition is supposed to stop their fratricide and agree to, or why Assad would sign on to a temporary truce when he apparently has the military momentum. Western powers cannot guarantee that an opposition autonomous zone would not become a jihadist/AQ base, and the Egyptian military massacres have demonstrated that most of the world will stand by if the conflict is portrayed as a total war against an Islamist threat. Assad’s end-game is clear: to annihilate the opposition and regain the monopoly of violence, and anything short of that will remain an existential threat to his regime. What is the West possibly going to offer him short of that outcome?

    And if the political calculations for the Western powers must end with the removal of Assad, then the imperatives of the aftermath must be answered first. His chemical weapons could fall into potentially even worse hands . . .

  • Jon Western

    I think you capture the dilemmas, “vagueness,” and risks very well, but this wouldn’t be the first ( or last) time the US and intl community shift policies without a clear road map to “some kind of end game.” We all know that uncertainty is an elemental feature of international politics. We also know that decision-makers routinely make major decisions of war and peace under similar conditions of uncertainty without answering the “imperatives of the aftermath…first.”

    One other point, I’m not sure that Assad has the current military momentum. My reading is that the battle is ebbing and flowing in various local communities — but the country-wide military picture shows a protracted stalemate. Assad’s goal probably is to “annihilate the opposition” — and that may explain the chemical attack (if his forces were behind it). But, it’s not a goal he can achieve — and the thinking that will likely come out of Washington and Europe in the coming days (I’m completely speculating here, but this is how I read past cases) will be that the international community needs to demonstrate some kind of action to make that point very clear to him and his supporters. If it can do that, then they’ll move to next stage to figure out what the end-game will look like and how it might get there. We’ll see….