It is not strange that the most important point in the Russian foreign minister’s speech, in which he attacked Western statements on the possibility of military intervention in Syria without a UN mandate, is that Moscow will not be involved in fighting. Sergey Lavrov’s statement that came in response to questions about his country’s stance in the event of an attack on Syria is a clear message that shows the limits of Russia’s support to Assad and that Moscow will not be involved in a military conflict to protect his government.
The use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, and the attendant footage of children’s corpses, has put all sides in an embarrassing situation. On the one hand, it embarrassed Assad’s allies who blamed the opposition for the horrific crime. On the other, pro-opposition forces—reluctant to be involved in the ongoing conflict—could not be silent lest they lose credibility, especially that their long-standing reluctance helped escalate the crisis, which has taken on a bloody dimension which cannot be accepted anymore.
Currently, there is almost a war atmosphere. This is evidenced by the statements, movements, rapid regional and international meetings—whether political or military ones—and affirmations from several Western capitals on the possibility of taking action within the framework of a broad international alliance or NATO. In the event of a war, the almost three-year-old Syrian crisis will take a new turn whose calculations are still under review. Such atmosphere is accompanied by hectic diplomatic steps particularly between Moscow and Western capitals. This is reminiscent of the atmosphere prior to Iraq war in 2003, signaling the mounting tension and the gravity of international stances.
But the circumstances of the Syrian crisis are different from Iraq. In light of the situation on the ground, clearly the military options are not many. The majority of Western analysts argue that limited missile, plane or surgical strikes are likely to happen, targeting chemical weapons plants or the regime’s military infrastructure. Such steps will serve as a punishment or a warning to the regime against using chemical weapons again as well as remind it that it cannot continue its massacres without consequence.
Analysts base their argument on the international community’s desire to avoid descending into an expensive, long-term involvement in Syria. The US president Barack Obama has made it clear when he spoke about the need to calculate the cost, as well as the absence of ground forces that will make it possible to launch a direct ground operation.
This is to a great extent similar to what the former US president Bill Clinton did when he launched missile strikes on Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan during the days of Taliban after elements of the group were discovered to be behind the attack on the USS Cole in the Yemen port of Aden in the 1990s. The strikes confused but did not wipe Al-Qaeda out in Afghanistan. Even the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan or the missile attacks on Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan failed to do so.
In terms of the Syrian crisis, if a decision to pull the trigger is made, it will not resolve the situation on the ground. However, such a step may have consequences, perhaps most prominently opening the door for the fidgety elements within the regime to defect. If the military step managed to weaken the government’s military capabilities, it will open the door for more gains for the opposition to achieve on the ground, perhaps leading to a political solution to transfer power.
Finally, the real steps remain the ones taken on the ground, especially by the opposition, which needs to show unity and serious political vision of Syria, as well as dispel Western fears of the radical elements that emerged recently.