For the Obama administration, “the costs of inaction have started to outweigh the costs of action”, says a leading analyst, warning that Syria’s civil war is “metastasizing” into a wider regional conflict.
“It is spreading to other states in the region”, says Michelle Dunne, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
A US military intervention to prevent the regime’s chemical weapons stocks falling into the hands of Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists is unrealistic, she believes.
“That would have to be done either by the Syrian rebels who are there on the ground, perhaps after the overthrow of the al-Assad regime, or by some fairly large-scale foreign intervention”, says Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. “So I think that the administration, the U.S. administration is now seeing that the costs of inaction have started to outweigh the costs of action.”
“The key would be to get the Syrians trained to use the weapons to defect to Nusra”, says Bruce Riedel, a terrorism expert with the Brookings Institution.
The conflict has “not only spread into Syria’s neighbors, like Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey — but has also become a battlefield wherein Israel and Iran are challenging each other”, writes Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics where he directs the Middle East Centre. “There is also a fierce geostrategic rivalry unfolding in Syria between Sunni-dominant Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, a rivalry invested and fuelled with sectarianism.”
The decision whether to provide lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition is unlikely to be linked to the recent Israeli airstrikes, says Steven Simon, a former senior official on Mr. Obama’s National Security Council.
“The U.S. and Israel have overlapping but not identical interests at stake in the conflict”, he tells The New York Times.
“On chemical weapons, assuming that the regime did use them, the U.S. is looking for options to deter further use that don’t undercut — or, in the best case — don’t foreclose a political resolution”, said Simon, who heads the Washington office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It’s not clear that arming the opposition meets either objective.”
The Israeli air strikes complicate President Obama’s efforts “to coordinate the response to the Syrian conflict among several players, including Europeans, Turkey and Arab states from Jordan to Saudi Arabia, the Times’ Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt write.
“The Israelis’ being assertive, while Obama is not, doesn’t play in his favor”, said Andrew J. Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy. “You need to have the Arabs onside.”
Mr. Tabler said Ms. Del Ponte’s charge that the rebels might have used chemical weapons raised questions about the unity of the United Nations in dealing with Syria.
“It struck me as political”, he said. “They’re trying to blur the situation to stave off some kind of intervention.”
The administration is preoccupied with “the alarming prospect that radical Islamists could acquire Syrian chemical weapons and try to use them beyond Syria’s borders, perhaps even within the United States.” writes Time magazine’s Michael Crowley:
Syria is believed to have tons of chemical weapons, including the nerve agents sarin and VX, as well as cyanide and mustard gas, which are stored at as many as 20 different sites around the country. The good news is that those sites are some of the most secure in the country.
“You’ve seen the regime consolidating forces around these facilities”, says Elizabeth O’Bagy, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
“I think we should be worried”, says Jeffrey White, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former military intelligence officer. “As the war progresses and the rebels gain territory, assuming they do, inevitably they’re going to close in on some of the regime’s chemical facilities.”
‘No negotiated settlement’
More than two years after the conflict began, “there does not seem to be a military solution”, says the LSE’s Gerges. “It is a long war of attrition with no end in sight. Neither internal camp seems to have the means to deliver a decisive blow.”
“Only a political solution will put an end to the shedding of Syrian blood and prevent the unthinkable: a region-wide conflict that would have catastrophic consequences”, he contends.
That will never happen, says a prominent regional analyst.
“There’s not going to be a negotiated settlement”, argues Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
The conflict is the “mother of all proxy wars…. the biggest proxy war over the last century in the entire world”, he believes:
You’ve got every single major player in the region – Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, Jordan. All of the players in the Middle East are involved in this directly or indirectly. You’ve got the two greats – biggest powers, the Russians and the Americans and then the Chinese in a more quiet way. And you have these lingering Cold War – regional Cold War issues of Saudis versus monarchists, conservative monarchists versus nationalist republics…..You’ve got Iranians versus Arabs, Shiites versus Sunnis. Now, you’ve got Kurd versus everybody else.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen where there will be stabilization, where they’ll eventually agree on how to resolve this through a negotiated transition to a new government”, he tells NPR:
Proxy wars end usually by one side beating up the other, as happened in Vietnam and other places. So I think this is an existential battle. The Iranians and Hezbollah has a lot to lose if Syria falls. They’re going to put everything they can into this. The Saudis and others on the other side, the Turks, they’re all doing what they can. The Israelis are now getting involved. So this is a bunch of gladiators now, and some of them are going to win, and some of them are going to die.
His sentiments are partly echoed by Tabler, author of “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.”
“Where you have the Syrian regime trying to shoot the Syrian opposition into submission, over 76,000 killed, I believe, or thereabout…. When you start launching SCUD missiles on your largest city, Aleppo, it’s hard to know how politically you come back from that”, he says.