While most news agencies report that an attack by the US and its allies on Syria is imminent, new developments have cast doubt upon those predictions. The British Parliament rejected a proposal for military action in Syria by a 285 to 272 margin. The vote was nonbinding, but David Cameron stated that he will not proceed without the Parliament’s approval and that the government “will act accordingly.”
Given the outcome of the US/UK-led invasion on Iraq in 2003, the UK’s decision is sensible. Prior to the 2003 invasion, the British and American governments asserted that Saddam Hussein possessed a large cache of chemical and biological weapons. Those claims proved false, severely damaging the two governments’ credibility. This time, the British appear to be more cautious. If UN experts’ findings conflict with the UK’s claims that the chemical attacks were the work of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, there would be no grounds for an invasion that many observers believe could result in dangerous and unpredictable consequences. The likely UK exit will impose pressure on President Obama, since he now has to go it alone.
Following a briefing for lawmakers featuring top administration officials on the evening of Thursday, August 29, members of Congress maintained that President Obama still has to gain political support for military strikes against Syria. This is a hurdle that the US administration has to overcome in the coming days.
However, Pentagon officials assert that the US is prepared to act unilaterally and that it has already “passed the point of no return.” They maintain that strikes are likely “within days.”
The US administration seeks to attack Syria for two reasons. First, according to some reports, Jeffrey Feltman, UN Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs, also a former US Assistant Secretary of State and Ambassador to Lebanon, conveyed a message to Tehran during his recent meeting with high-ranking Iranian officials including Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister.
According to the reports, “Feltman warned that a successful Geneva II should be preceded by the restoration of a balance of power, and that Iran should understand the importance of this for the greater goal of bringing peace back to Syria.”
Sources in Tehran said that the Iranians perceived that Feltman was calling on them to remain calm if there were strikes on Syria.
The postponement of Geneva 2, the international peace conference for Syria that was scheduled for Wednesday, August 28, in The Hague, corroborates with these reports. In other words, the US government believes that the balance of power in Syria must change before there can be any earnest discussions regarding the fate of Syria.
The other reason that the US seeks to attack Syria is that last year, President Obama proclaimed the use of chemical weapons a “red line” for Syria. Great powers, especially the United States, draw red lines as preventive measures to the formation of destructive wars. Now, with the occurrence of chemical attacks, if the United States does not show any reaction it would call into question the credibility of such “red line” proclamations, rendering them empty and baseless.
Unless clear, compelling and indisputable evidence is reported by the UN inspectors indicating that the Syrian government was not behind the recent chemical attacks, Obama is left with no alternative to military action against the Syrian government.
Meanwhile, Obama has so far drawn two “red lines” for Iran: first against closing the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf, and second against Iran’s effort to acquire nuclear weapons. If the United States, as a super power, adopts a passive stance against recent developments in Syria, Iran could reasonably question the sincerity and fortitude behind the red lines drawn around it by the US. Such a perception of weakness behind these red lines would have negative consequences on the international level. Any perceived lack of consequence for Syria’s crossing of the chemical attack red line may portray the US more as a paper tiger than a superpower.
Iran’s likely reaction to possible attacks by the US and its allies will depend on their intensity. Iranian officials, such as the commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, warned the United States government that they risked engagement in a costly and protracted struggle if they intervened in Syria. To take an absolutely pacifist stance will put Iran in the same position as the United States if they did the same. In other words, when it comes Iran’s moment of truth, standing by as a spectator while the US thrashes Syria’s military infrastructure, might manifest the appearance of fearing to confront the US, specifically by the IRGC.
Therefore, if the US attacks Syria, Iran’s government might inconspicuously engage in the confrontation. Their reactions will be primarily focused on missile attacks against US assets.
If the US operations against Syria are limited, Iran probably will not see any reason to escalate the confrontation. However, if the attacks are comprehensive and aim to destroy Assad’s military infrastructure in order to change the balance of power in favor of the opposition, then, as Commander Jafari has warned, Iran and Syria may expand the war theater, drawing Israel in.
There is another threat in this conflict to consider. Even if Iran and Syria’s last resort of engaging Israel does not come to pass, jihadi groups may conduct false flag operations. For example, launching rockets on Israeli cities would ultimately force Israel to take military action against the Syrians.
In any case, regardless of how a US-led military operation shapes up, the outcome of such a manifestation would be the renewal of Iran’s radical foreign policy and the weakening of Rouhani’s newly established, moderate government.
A US attack on Syria would render direct talks between Iran and the US impossible for the foreseeable future. Rhetoric and accusations from both sides would emerge, and the conflict over Iran’s nuclear issue would deepen. As tensions spiral, the US will implement more punitive sanctions on Iran. This will marginalize Rouhani and his foreign policy team led by his moderate and pragmatic foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, whose emergence has created high hopes of ending Iran’s aggressive foreign policies.
In an environment filled with hostility and mistrust between Iran and the US, both sides would likely benefit from a more moderate government in Iran. In practice, however, in the event of a US led engagement with Syria, hardliners would most probably resume control of Iran’s foreign policy. This could be a road to a destructive confrontation between the US and Iran.