September 6, 2012

Syria: Drawing Red Lines…Collectively?

The conflict in Syria is approaching a stage where it may become much more than a challenge to the values of Western societies. It could pose a clear and present danger, to use the language of Tom Clancy. Persistent fighting along the line from Aleppo in the north to Deraa in the south, shrinking control of the countryside by al-Assad’s forces, and growing external support for both sides of the conflict underline the radical nature of the Syrian civil war.

The conflict in Syria is approaching a stage where it may become much more than a challenge to the values of Western societies. It could pose a clear and present danger, to use the language of Tom Clancy. Persistent fighting along the line from Aleppo in the north to Deraa in the south, shrinking control of the countryside by al-Assad’s forces, and growing external support for both sides of the conflict underline the radical nature of the Syrian civil war.

It was evident for some time that the WMD stockpiles (VX, sarin and mustard gases plus several biological agents) of the al-Assad regime would become a very important variable in the calculus of the war. On the one hand, the use of WMD against the population may serve as a tool of ultimate terror or the last act of vengeance by al-Assad. On the other hand, both rebels and al-Assad know perfectly well that the plausible threat of WMD proliferation or their deployment in the civil war is likely to trigger a resolute military response from the Western powers. At the beginning of September 2012, one can only wonder about the security and safety of Syrian WMD facilities in Aleppo, Homs, Hamaa, Damascus, Latakia, Palmyra, and elsewhere.

Some conclusions about deteriorating situation can be drawn from the warnings issued by US President Obama (21.08.2012), by British Prime Minister Cameron (23.08.2012) and by French Foreign Minister Fabius (3.09.2012) regarding the use of WMD in the civil war or their relocation to the front. Syria has previously declared (23.07.2012) that its weapons of mass destruction would be used only against external aggressors. By coincidence, it happened to be the first official admission of the existence of a WMD arsenal by the Syrian authorities.

What military options are there to back up the stern warnings by the US, UK and French heads of state? As it turns out, the situation is rather complicated. According to the former Chief of Staff of Armee de l’Air General Jean Fleury (Le Monde, 23.08.2012), the French Air Force – if it acted alone – would be hard-pressed to deal with its Syrian counterpart and air defences. Armee de l’Air would be outnumbered 2:1 in terms of aircraft. While French air power has higher quality, the size and the level of training of the Syrian Air Force would necessitate a NATO air operation. General Jean Rannou, former Commander of Armee de l’Air, has assessed the Alliance’s military operation in Syria as feasible, but ‘heavy’ (EUObserver 10.08.2011). In Rannou’s words, there should not be insurmountable military problems for NATO, but there is no certainty that military intervention would improve the overall situation. Moreover, the air operations would have to pave the way for the insertion of ground troops as the attempts to destroy chemical and biological weapons from the air are likely to have undesired consequences for the local population.

The US Central Command has estimated that nearly 75,000 troops would be required on the ground to secure the Syrian chemical weapons (Rand Blog, 26.07.2012), whereas the latest news suggests 50,000-60,000 troops and some support units (Reuters, 16.08.2012). These forces would focus only on WMD security and would be unavailable for other tasks. The size of a peace enforcement contingent required after the end of the civil war has been estimated at more than 300,000 personnel (Peacefare.net, 22.07.2012).

Thus we seem to face a problem of enormous dimensions, a problem which reduces the statements by President Obama, by Prime Minister Cameron and by Foreign Minister Fabius merely to attempts to draw a red line for themselves and Syrian leaders. However, it is not quite clear what will follow if the line is crossed. The scale of the problem beggars belief, the available military options require engagement of NATO, and the post-conflict peace enforcement task could be beyond anybody’s capability.

Survivors of the Bosnian civil war have described the Syrian war as ‘hell’, exceeding everything that Bosnia witnessed 20 years ago (Associated Press, 30.08.2012). All we can do is to prepare for a long haul as it usually takes a lot of time for hell to freeze over.

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