News / Middle East

US Attack on Syria May Have Consequences

A man and boys inspect a site hit by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, Duma, Damascus, Sept. 4, 2013.
A man and boys inspect a site hit by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, Duma, Damascus, Sept. 4, 2013.
President Barack Obama and his advisers are talking about strictly limited U.S. military strikes to deal with Syria’s suspected use of chemical weapons against anti-government rebels. Regional experts, however, warn that even limited U.S. military strikes could have longer-term consequences.
 
Obama says that if and when he decides to attack Syria, the military operation will be designed to punish President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for the suspected use of chemical weapons just outside Damascus on August 21, and to deter it from carrying out any more such attacks.  

Christopher Hill, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and former special envoy to Kosovo (1996-99), says he is in favor of limited military strikes.

“The U.S. has to respond - not just the U.S., the entire international community has to respond to the use of weapons that, after all, were banned almost a hundred years ago, were not even used by the Nazis in World War II because of what they did in World War I,” Hill said. “Britain in particular had many, many of its soldiers, thousands of its soldiers in World War I, blinded and killed by these weapons.”

Hill says it is very important that the international community sends a strong signal that anyone who uses these weapons will face repercussions.

“But the problem is we don’t have an overall way forward on Syria,” Hill continued. “People are out there fighting in Syria, either on Assad’s forces or against Assad, because they have no idea what the future of the country is going to hold, and therefore they feel that in order to safeguard their future, they need to fight.”

Anthony Zinni, the retired Marine general who headed “Operation Desert Fox” - a series of strikes against Iraq in December 1998, agrees.

“If you don’t have a strategy, you don’t know what comes next,” Zinni said, arguing that any U.S. military action should be carried out only in the context of a longer-term plan.

Many regional experts make the same point: what would happen after the “limited” U.S. strikes against Syria the administration is considering?

Zinni, for example, warns that U.S. military action will inevitably strengthen rebel factions aligned with al-Qaida that are fighting against the Assad regime forces.

“Any strikes on Assad weaken him,” Zinni said. “When you weaken him, you strengthen the opposition. Those extremists are also part of the opposition.”

Among the scenarios being considered after a U.S. strike would be the Shi'ite militant group, Hezbollah, attacking Western or Israeli targets. Some analysts are also warning that Syrian forces could use even more chemical weapons against rebels and civilians.

As for the reaction of the Arab world to a U.S. military strike on Syria, Zinni says it probably will be mixed.

“The Sunnis might like this - the Shia will not,” Zinni said. “And so you’re going to see a reaction, a negative reaction if you are in Beirut with Hezbollah, or you are an Alawite or even a Christian, because the Alawites and the Christians have worked together in Syria.

“In Saudi Arabia, Jordan and elsewhere predominantly Sunni - you might see a different reaction,” he said. “So I don’t think you can make a general statement regarding what the view or opinion or reaction would be.”

But Zinni says one thing is for sure.

“Once Assad goes, when and if, this could even be a greater mess than it is now,” Zinni continued. “I mean the civil war isn’t over, because it will have an ‘Act Two’ to it.”

And “Act Two,” he explains, is when the Syrian opposition groups fight each other to gain power.

Andre de Nesnera

Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

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