Forces loyal to Syrian President Assad370.
(photo credit: Reuters)
WASHINGTON – The past 72 hours have been marked by a dramatic escalation in
rhetoric from the White House on Syria, strongly implying that an attack on the
assets of its nominal president, Bashar Assad, is imminent.
crisis meetings in the Oval Office, stern warnings of warship movements in the
Mediterranean from the Pentagon, and strategically leaked US intelligence
findings on mass chemical weapons use in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on
Wednesday all made for a clear and consistent drumbeat toward action, despite
President Barack Obama’s hesitancy to intervene throughout two years of the
The clearest sign yet was the Obama administration’s quick
dismissal of Syria’s decision to grant UN inspectors access to the site of
Wednesday’s attack. A senior US official said
that shelling of the site
on Thursday, and the time that had passed since, made the investigation “too
late to be credible.”
That statement implied the US was planning to move
forward with allies Britain and France with alternative measures. British press
outlets reported that a half-hour phone call between Prime Minister David
Cameron and the US president on Saturday focused on military, not diplomatic,
Those options are extensive, but the US is likely to strike in a
limited, determined and surgical manner. The president’s target list includes
Assad government command and control centers, airstrips and control towers, arms
and artillery caches, fuel sources and mobile military units such as tank
Striking airstrips would hinder Assad’s ability to import
resources for his war effort from Iran. But they would have a limited effect:
airstrips are easily repaved, and the president is unlikely to see this
operation as a protracted effort.
Instead, the US is more likely to
strike significant permanent facilities central to the operations of Assad’s
army, perhaps including targets the administration can cite as directly linked
to Assad’s chemical weapons program.
The US and its allies, if they
choose to participate, will almost certainly use standoff strike capabilities:
missiles from afar, fired from ships in the Mediterranean, as opposed to strikes
from fighter jets that would have to enter foreign air space.
Navy craft have been positioned within range of potential targets in Syria
equipped with over 100 Tomahawk missiles, which cost $1.4 million
The US will be unable to cite self-defense as a legal argument for
But they might cite an international norm called the
“responsibility to protect,” or R2P.
International law bans the use of
chemical weapons on any battlefield under any circumstances. And R2P – a norm
agreed upon by global powers at the United Nations 2005 World Summit – compels
the international community to respond if a country fails to protect its
citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against
Russia agreed to the principles of R2P at the summit, and cited
R2P during its campaign in Georgia in 2008.
The US would not be the first
country to conduct direct strikes in Syria since the country’s civil war began
over two years ago. Israel has conducted several air strikes against Syrian
targets that its government has deemed direct threats to Israel’s national
security, including heavy weapons shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon from Iran.