Ari LiebermanThe writer is an attorney and former prosecutor who writes on Israel military matters
As talk of an imminent U.S. or coalition strike against Syria gains momentum, a number of issues, such as exit strategies and retaliation contingencies need to be addressed. With prolonged wars winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan and seemingly never-ending sectarian violence in the Arab and Muslim worlds, the United States clearly has no interest or stomach for an entanglement in yet another Arab sectarian conflict.
Nevertheless, the President drew his line in the sand and that line has been crossed. Inaction by the U.S. would severely undermine the deterrent credibility of the United States and rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran will be emboldened by Western indecisiveness, much in the same way as Hitler was emboldened by Western enfeebled responses to Nazi aggression during the years preceding World War II.
Despite the combative talk from France and Britain concerning the need to punish those who act outside societal norms, the chances of them acting alone without the U.S. taking the lead are nil. Unlike Libya where NATO took the lead, Syrian air defenses are formidable and the Syrians have powerful backers. For all their tough talk, France and Britain are incapable going it alone. That leaves the United States.
With two aircraft carriers in the Arabian Gulf and other cruise missile carrying platforms in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as other assets including radar-evading B-2 Stealth bombers, the United States is poised to do serious damage to the Asad regime while exposing U.S. personnel to minimal risk.
Targets may include unconventional weapons facilities, command and control centers, airfields as well as elements of the Republican Guard, believed to be responsible for executing the gas attack. Much of Asad’s weaponry is delivered via air transport and destroying his airfields would seriously undermine his war efforts.
Some have argued that Asad is the lesser of two evils and that he is preferable to the alternative. There is no question that Sunni extremists and al-Qaeda elements operate in Syria and would like nothing more than to create and Islamic caliphate operating under Sharia laws. But there are also more moderate Sunni elements who want nothing to do with al-Qaeda and with whom we can cooperate.
In addition, the greater strategic threat to the region is Iran’s hegemony that extends from Iran through Syria and into Lebanon. Undermining Assad seriously destabilizes Hezbollah (which effectively controls Lebanon) and weakens Iran, thus indirectly adversely affecting its nuclear ambitions. It is therefore in the United States’ interest to see Assad fall.
For all his bellicose talk and belligerent displays, Assad’s threats are mere bluster and should not be taken seriously.
Assad and the Iranians have threatened to retaliate against Israel should an attack be forthcoming and Syria’s Prime Minister, Wael al-Halqi, comically noted that Syria will, “surprise the aggressors as it surprised them in [the 1973 Yom Kippur War].” Obviously, al-Halqi is either suffering from Arab amnesia syndrome or failed to consult the history books, because the Yom Kippur War did not work out too well for the Syrians. For all his bellicose talk and belligerent displays, Assad’s threats are mere bluster and should not be taken seriously.
The past year has witnessed at least four Israeli military strikes targeting Syrian military assets (and there were likely other covert operations) inflicting serious damage. Assad was embarrassed by these attacks but failed to retaliate because he knew that it would invite a devastating Israeli response that would hasten his downfall. It therefore stands to reason that Assad, as Syria’s chief warlord (he can no longer be considered a legitimate ruler) would not retaliate against Israel in response to an action devoid of Israeli involvement.
Comparisons have been made to the 1991 Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein fired scuds at Israel in response to the coalition’s operations. These comparisons are misplaced. In that war, Saddam hoped to draw in Israel in a plausible attempt to splinter a tenuous coalition that included sworn enemies of Israel. Saddam viewed the coalition arrayed against him on his doorstep to be a more dangerous threat to his existence than a distant Israel and so he acted with that strategy in mind.
The situation in Syria’s civil war in vastly different. Assad’s goal is to survive and to hold on to whatever territory he has left, possibly forming an Alawite enclave. A Syrian attack would invite an Israeli response, so devastating in size and scope that it would almost certainly result in the toppling of the regime and possibly the death of Assad himself. Moreover, those currently warring with Assad would almost certainly welcome Israeli action, much the same way as Lebanon’s Christian Arabs welcomed Israel’s attack on the PLO in June 1982.
Assad may attempt to contract out retaliation to its proxy, Hezbollah but this too is a remote possibility. Israel has already made clear to Assad that it views Hezbollah and Asad to be one and the same. It is unlikely that Hezbollah, already stretched in Syria, would act independently and open a two-front war. Hezbollah’s primary interest is to maintain its hegemony over Lebanon and starting a war with Israel would result in a substantial weakening of its position there.
In addition, it is unlikely that Hezbollah chief, Hassan Nasrallah, forgot the thrashing his forces took in the summer of 2006 when as many as 1,000 of his troops were killed battling the Israelis during the one-month conflict. Quite tellingly, Nasrallah himself noted that he never would have initiated the provocation that led to the war had he known in advance how forceful Israel’s military response would be.
A U.S. military attack is in America’s strategic interest. It will restore American credibility, deter other rogue nations from utilizing WMDs, disrupt Iran’s hegemony, weaken Hezbollah and most importantly, hasten the downfall of a reckless warlord who makes his murderous father, Hafez, look like a girl scout by comparison.