Chief Corespondent for In Homeland Security
When Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the chemical weapons attack in Syria yesterday, he didn’t mince words and by the end of the speech it appeared that the U.S. had decided on a military strike against the Assad regime. News today indicates that the U.S. has been moving assets to the region in preparation for a limited strike using air and sea power, though the targets of this are still debated. Judging by the assets in place, the U.S. is planning on a strike of limited duration most likely targeting the regimes command and control functions. Any strike designed to hinder the use of chemical weapons in the future would require a much larger strike package than what is readily visible. This could take place in the near future, but thus far it isn’t discernible. That’s the military aspect in a nutshell, but the political aspirations of the attack, and the likely response by the Assad regime – and his allies – isn’t being discussed as widely as one would expect. There has been some much needed debate over U.S. strategic interests in Syria, but little beyond that contentious debate.
The response by Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah, along with numerous other militant groups, is far too important to ignore. In fact, it would be best to focus primarily on Iran as that is the outside force that is pulling many of the strings in support of the Assad regime. Though Russia is involved, it doesn’t have as much to lose as Iran. For its part, Iran may be keen to keep any fight, even covert or engagements via proxies, outside of Iranian borders. This isn’t to say that Iran simply views Syria as another battlefield to undermine Sunni and U.S. interests in the heart of the Middle East, rather Syria is vital to Iranian interests. That being said, it’s still better to deal with the U.S. outside of Iranian borders. For the moment, a strike on Syria for the recent chemical weapons attack is not a strike against the Iranian nuclear program. It could happen in the future, but right now Tehran is playing the hand it was dealt. This approach also comes with a significant downside – Iran may become entangled in a Syrian-Sunni insurgency in pursuit of its goals. Iran has sent IRGC units and advisors to Syria in support of Assad, but their level of engagement has been limited as they have preferred to have Hezbollah and other Shia groups shoulder much of the fighting. A degradation in force may push Iran to increase its commitment militarily. This hasn’t happened yet, but the militia’s have taken significant losses and a U.S. led strike may complicate that picture further.
Since the U.S. strike hasn’t yet happened there are obviously a lot of questions that won’t have concrete answers until after we see what Washington has planned. Even when the attack takes place there will be a lot to monitor and follow-up on. With that in mind we will have to watch U.S. military developments and Syrian preparations for this strike. Syrian rebels will likewise have to change their calculus, not only because of overt foreign conventional military involvement, but also because Assad may lash out where he can since he has absolutely nothing to lose. For Assad, exile isnt an option as he could be extradited to The Hague and though he has chosen to stay and fight, losing that battle isn’t an option either. Using chemical weapons against his foes and incurring the wrath of the U.S. is small price to pay for advancement of his cause. Naturally, there are a lot of moving parts in this war and we’ll continue to monitor developments closely.