War over Syria: Imperatives, Ramifications and Implications
Despite the plain talk by President Barack Obama, there is still no clarity on ‘when,’ ‘how’ and ‘with what’ the ‘coalition of the willing,’ led by the USA would act against Syria and more importantly, with what aim(s). President Obama also minced no words when he stated that he would ‘act’ and that too ‘decisively,’ despite the polarised opinion and regardless of the absence of the jingoistic English who surprised the world by voting against walking the talk. By declaring his intent in no uncertain terms, Obama also brushed aside the challenge thrown by President Putin that the onus lay with the US to prove that Assad was the perpetuator of the chemical attack(s). From his statement, it appeared that Obama was convinced and that (in American thinking) Putin’s demand merited no response. By daring to act, albeit with Congressional approval, Obama has displayed both resoluteness and sagacity. He realises that beyond the courtesy, Congress has no option but to back his commitment since he linked America’s intervention with the nation’s credibility to act as a super power – in the bargain, he gained both time and respect.
The USA has been waging a relentless war in a wide swath of territory stretching from North Africa to Afghanistan for over two decades. Besides Kosovo she has little to call as success…
Having stated the obvious, it would be prudent to decode the statement made by President Obama how US strategic interests were under threat in Syria. This would also lead to making an assessment of ‘how limited would the limited actions’ promised by Obama would be, especially in keeping with the ‘stated’ and ‘unstated’ conflict termination aim(s). These issues gain importance, since there are chances that the aim(s) may prove unachievable, or America may fail to build the perception that the aims have been met. The question that follows is if not – then what? This makes it important to assess the wider ramifications of this conflict, especially the role that Russia would/could play now that Putin had flown to the defence of Assad. Given the circumstances, is the world now seeing the return of Russia on the global strategic landscape? Within this lies another question: what should Presidents Assad, Putin and Xi Jinping make of Obama’s ‘announcement,’ and from the indecisiveness (by going to the congress) shown by Washington? In addition, implications of the statement made in Washington ‘that the road to Tehran runs through Damascus’ also needs to be assessed for decoding future American intensions.
By deferring the decision to act and making it contingent to Congressional approval under an open ended time window, Obama has stirred a hornet’s nest and while the air is expected to be abuzz with speculations and assessments, a preliminary analysis of the questions that have been flagged are attempted from the perspective of a wary bystander.
US Strategic Interests
The USA has been waging a relentless war in a wide swath of territory stretching from North Africa to Afghanistan for over two decades. Besides Kosovo she has little to call as success, though it is to her credit that she has been able to end the Cold War in her favour and be acknowledged as the primus inter pares, both globally and regionally.
…successful operations against Syria may lead to the possibility of avoiding a costlier campaign against Iran.
The compulsions of regional energy geo-politics, essentially the ongoing Shia-Sunni conflict over the proposed gas pipelines to Europe and how these have led to a conflict situation in Syria were highlighted in the analysis posted earlier on this site. The summations made herein therefore need to be seen in the light of the points made earlier, though it would suffice to reiterate that the compulsions of energy geo-politics by themselves provide the motive for USA and her allies to escalate the conflict in Syria in order to eliminate Syria and Iran from the equation. Apart from the staggering economic gains – both direct and indirect, this would also reduce Europe’s dependency of energy supplies on Russia which would be a major strategic advantage. Apart from these factors, other issues of what USA could hope to achieve by conducting military operations in Syria are enumerated below.
- Stamp her domination over the region and in the words of President Obama; buttress the apprehensions of her allies that America stands with them, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and Israel. Actions taken in their support are also expected to have a salutary effect on America’s (nervous) allies located in the Asia-Pacific region who appear to be alarmed by the rise of China.
- Mounting pressure on Iran to desist from pursuing her nuclear weapon programme. From the American perspective, successful operations against Syria may lead to the possibility of avoiding a costlier campaign against Iran. Mounting operations against Syria may prove cost effective in the long run.
- Exert pressure on Russia and on China to limit their strategic penetration in the region challenging American primacy.
War weary Americans would naturally prefer a swift operation in which their aims should be met…
Scope of Allied Operations
Though President Obama has categorically stated that American intervention would be limited and would not involve American ‘boots on the ground,’ these are open to questions. The first is obvious: would the operation be limited to precision engagements from standoff distances? If so, how would tactical advantages arising from these strikes be capitalised upon in military terms? Does this not only imply faith in the capabilities of the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) to not only run over Assad’s forces after the campaign of ‘shock and awe,’ it would also imply faith in the organisation of the FSA to call for and direct fire and combat air power, just like regular military forces? Does this also imply Obama’s (over) confidence that Assad and his loyalists would roll over and let the FSA forces take over? Unfortunately, there seems to be no clarity on these questions.
The second question that limited operations imply is in the context of the time taken. War weary Americans would naturally prefer a swift operation in which their aims should be met, since Obama made it clear that the operation would not be open-ended. However, in the light of the conflict already dragging on for over two years, despite active (including US) support from numerous quarters and in terms of equipment and logistics, this does not seem likely. Hence the question comes up: if so, then what?
Russia’s Compulsions and Role
Russia is the strategic partner and main supplier of armament to Syria. Apart from the credibility of her support, there is also the question of the strategically located Russian Naval Base of Tartus which is at stake. If Russia retains pretentions of remaining a credible counter-balancing power to USA, she cannot afford to forgo control of this invaluable base as she would lose the only warm water port she has in the Mediterranean Sea. The larger question therefore lies in the role Russia sees for herself ‘despite’ and/or ‘after’ the collapse of Assad’s Syria. Can Putin avert this war and maintain status quo? Under the existing circumstances, that would be a major success for Russia, and herald the return of Russia on the world stage of geo-strategic politics.
Disrupted energy supplies would entail higher costs for her (China) imports and this would be the immediate and most visible effect.
President Putin appears to be the only person who could present a face saving formula and avert the war clouds from building up any further. He is in a unique position to persuade Assad to give up chemical weapons. Such a move would have the required effect and remove the immediate, if not the underlying reason(s) for a shooting war.
Russia also has her monopoly over gas supplies to Europe at stake. This advantage not only gives her strategic influence over European nations, but also over her former republics. Can Russia allow the US sponsored/funded energy pipelines from the Central Asian Republics and the Gulf mitigate the strategic advantage she currently enjoys?
During the build up of war clouds over Syria in 2012, Russia along with Chinese assistance managed to stalemate the situation by her military build up. Would she do so again and this time around? Would the Chinese again act as they did a year back?
Probable Chinese Game plan
Though China has come a long way in strategic terms, she is still not in a position to make a physical difference in military terms in distant Syria: her limitations in terms of power projection became obvious during the Libyan crisis. In addition, a new and untested leadership has taken over since the Syrian crisis of 2012. Moreover, the situation in the Asia-Pacific region remains volatile and at this stage China cannot afford distractions, reinforced by the realism that she is in no position to make any difference in physical terms. Having said that, she is expected to extend support to Russia in diplomatic terms as she would want to cultivate a deeper relationship with her, both for counter-balancing USA, as well as to ensure the steady supply of energy resources. Notwithstanding, she too would be impacted by the actions taken against Syria, albeit indirectly. Disrupted energy supplies would entail higher costs for her imports and this would be the immediate and most visible effect.
…it would be fair to state that future events that would impact Iran would to a large extent be decided by the way things pan out in Syria.
China has grandiose plans to develop a Silk Road to North Africa and Europe through the region and if this is to fall under greater American influence, future prospects of this ambitious project gets impacted. In addition, China receives twenty percent of her energy requirements from Iran and it is expected that one of the many American aims for intervening in Syria would be to generate a multi-dimensional threat to Iran. This therefore impinges on the huge investments China plans in Iran’s energy sector.
Implications for Iran
Iran has the biggest stakes in ensuring a friendly Syria under President Assad as well as in seeing Russia stand up to USA. In fact, it would be fair to state that future events that would impact Iran would to a large extent be decided by the way things pan out in Syria. If Assad’s regime falls and a candidate of choice (Sunni Muslim, expectedly from the Muslim Brotherhood) is anointed in Damascus, this would not only spell the demise of the lucrative Iranian gas pipeline to Europe through Iraq and Syria, but would also open up a new front for Iran. Thus, in view of their close and inter-related linkages, it would be fair to state that the future of Iran is directly linked with that of Syria, especially under the prevailing strategic construct.
Israel, Lebanon and Turkey
Israel perpetually remains under a military threat, and the present situation has placed her directly in the line of fire yet again. Not only would she expect retaliation from Syria and Iran but also from the Hezbollah operating in Lebanon. At the same time, if pushed against to the wall, Hezbollah fighters who currently fight alongside President Assad’s forces against the FSA could target Israel, especially if Iran decides to enlarge the scope of the conflict. There is also the future of Israel’s gas exports from her newly found offshore reserves that would come under jeopardy. At the same time, Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbour, increasingly coming under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, would now side with the allies openly and this would enlarge the scope of the conflict as what was done discretely till now would come out in the open once she enters the war openly as an US ally.
In view of the imponderables, prudence demands that since Obama has provided a breather, the world needs to step back and avoid the war that no one really wants.
To summarise, there are more questions than there are answers. Each actor, howsoever connected has something at stake in the conflict which has the potential to spiral beyond Syria. Naturally, prices of oil would be the first to spike and importing nations would be the first casualties. On the other hand, oil exporting nations would make a killing while there are others who would be able recoup their expenses – directly or indirectly. Nevertheless, the world at large would definitely be poorer by the conflict.
It is important to reiterate that if the conflict does not run the course as envisaged by Pentagon, then what? In view of the imponderables, prudence demands that since Obama has provided a breather, the world needs to step back and avoid the war that no one really wants. Statesmanship is the call of the hour and President Putin is historically placed to make the difference between war and peace. At the same time, there is a requirement for other leaders to reassess their objectives in the light of the uncertainties before shots are fired on the Syrian battlefield – mankind has more to lose than it could possibly gain.