Response to a U.S. strike uncertain
- Article by: Anne Gearan
- Washington Post
- August 30, 2013 - 10:01 PM
WASHINGTON – U.S. military analysts say any Western strike against the Syrian government is unlikely to draw an immediate counterattack by President Bashar Assad’s forces. That, however, does not make the response of the Syrian government — or its allies Iran, Hezbollah and Russia — any easier to predict.
Assad possesses few if any real defenses against long-range precision missiles launched from U.S. ships far away. Russia and Iran, which have navies capable of engaging those U.S. ships, are not expected to do so, defense and diplomatic experts said.
Still, the consequences of a U.S. strike could be complex: the Assad regime could intensify its assault on outgunned rebels; Iran or Hezbollah could launch attacks on Israeli or Western targets; or Al-Qaida or other jihadist fighters could exploit a moment of government weakness to gain new ground.
Separately, rebels might be tempted to exaggerate any more limited use of chemical agents by the Syrian government in the future, or even to stage further attacks and blame the regime, just as Syria and Russia have accused them of doing in the Aug. 21 attack that sparked international outrage.
Russia may broaden its weapons supply to Assad and pull back from plans to work alongside the United States to settle the Syrian conflict peacefully. Iran may use the attack as pretext to refuse any negotiation over its disputed nuclear program.
Several analysts said that the most likely outcome is that there is little discernible reaction, at least not right away. “What does the day after look like? We’re likely to see something from a very limited response within the region to maybe nothing at all,” said security analyst Mark Jacobson of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
In every case, the nations with the most reason to retaliate also have bigger problems or longer-term aims that argue against getting into a tit-for-tat with the United States, analysts and diplomats said. “All of the main actors have stronger incentives not to respond with violence than to do so,” said Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East analyst at the Brookings Institution.
“The Iranians have their hands full,” in Syria and at home, Pollack said. “They are not looking for a fight — not with us, not with the Israelis, not with the other Arabs.”
President Obama said Friday he has not yet made a final decision on a military strike, but is considering only a “limited, narrow act.”
Iran’s disputed nuclear program is likely to figure in its decision about how to respond to any U.S. strike on its ally, diplomats and analysts said. Retaliating either directly or indirectly on Assad’s behalf could invite the same kind of strike against its nuclear facilities, Pollack said. Obama drew two red lines in the Middle East — one against Syrian use of chemical weapons and one against an Iranian nuclear bomb.
“The more they start mixing it up with us the more the odds go up,” of a unilateral American strike on Iranian facilities, Pollack said.
Jacobson agrees Iran is likely to take the long view. Hezbollah, he said, has its hands full already in Lebanon and Syria, and letting loose Iranian proxies against American targets risks making those proxies more of a target for the United States.
“I think the technical term is schwacked,” he said.
Syria has pledged to defend itself, but Assad and his backers may be more likely to try to use the attack to garner sympathy than to mount widespread military retaliation beyond Syrian borders, defense and diplomatic analysts said.
“President Assad might dismissively belittle any strike or turn it to his advantage in a local and regional PR offensive, that embarrasses his Arab adversaries,” said Daniel Levy, director of the Mideast program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf did not directly respond when asked whether the administration is concerned about stirring up militancy. Harf said, “As we determine and decide and debate what steps will be taken in response to this attack, clearly there are a variety of factors that go into that determination: possible unintended consequences, possible effects in the region.”
© 2013 Star Tribune