Multiple reports have indicated that a US-led Western coalition will strike Syrian military targets “as early as Thursday.” The Obama administration is discussing multiple considerations and contingencies in regard to how it should approach the response to the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Syria. To discuss these considerations and their implications for Syria, the war, and the region at large, the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security’s Middle East Peace and Security Initiative hosted a members’ conference call with Council Vice President and Director of the Scowcroft Center Barry Pavel, as well as Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East Fellow Faysal Itani. The event was moderated by Council Executive Vice President Damon Wilson.
Pavel discussed the military options, goals, targets, and the coalition-building happening among Western states as they prepare a response against Syria. He started by saying that the “operation will be focused on a single mission objective, and that will be deterring further use of chemical weapons.” Other options, such as “taking away Assad’s use of airpower, limit further humanitarian suffering…establishing a no-fly zone, and…increasing the quantity and quality of weapons being provided to vetted rebel groups” should also be considered and are within the realm of possibility. The considered operation “is likely to begin soon,” according to Pavel, and is “likely to be this weekend.” Further, it is “likely to be short in duration…a few days,” perhaps. Finally, it will be a “US-led coalition of selected NATO, and Gulf, and other allies.”
Itani discussed how regional actors would react to the Western-led response. If the United States commits to a limited and targeted campaign, then the Syrian regime will “smell hesitation and reluctance and recognize there is no real US commitment to the war. In that case [Syrian forces] will just choose to wait it out.” Even after the Western response, “the war will continue on its current trajectory.” Regional Arab allies will not “derive much comfort from a limited campaign,” as the “Gulf states have been particularly desperate for a strong US stand” against Syria and its allies. The “bottom line,” according to Itani, is that “this sort of hesitant, half-hearted operation may actually be worse than no action at all because it will expose a weak US commitment.”