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How far can foreign intervention in Syria go?

Text by Sylvain ATTAL

Latest update : 2013-08-28

A growing coalition of nations is preparing to go on the attack against Syria following its alleged use of nerve gas against rebel targets near Damascus. How far will the coalition push and what are the risks?

Foreign military intervention against the Syrian regime is now virtually assured. Although Western leaders have not said point blank that they are going to attack, the tone of the rhetoric leaves little doubt.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said anyone using chemical weapons against “defenceless people must be held accountable”, while French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Monday that, “the only option I haven’t considered is doing nothing”.

Leaders cannot easily back down from such comments – comments that are designed to prepare a war-weary public for their countries’ involvement in yet another Middle Eastern conflict.

This more decisive tone is a considerable u-turn after the lacklustre language of previous months.

To date, those countries opposed to Bashar al-Assad’s regime have been reluctant to interfere with the country’s internal politics, and are above all fearful of handing the strategic advantage to the Islamists, whose influence in the rebellion has been growing steadily.

They have also been keen to avoid upsetting China and Russia, who have blocked all attempts at serious intervention in the UN.

Most of the international community had become resigned, for good or ill, to let events in Syria take their course.

It seemed nothing could be done. In any case, was there a more enviable and viable alternative to Bashar al-Assad?

Crossing the ‘Red Line’

All that stood in the way was US President Barak Obama’s famous “Red Line” over the use of chemical weapons, in all likelihood used by the Damascus regime twice against rebels.

By allegedly using nerve gas, was the Syrian government trying to call the international community’s bluff? Did they think other countries lacked the will to intervene when provoked?

The regime was undoubtedly emboldened by recent events in Egypt. Egypt’s liberals allied with the military ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi and labeled the Muslim Brotherhood “dangerous terrorists”, putting wind into Assad’s sails and his argument that he was fighting to protect Syria from and an Islamist takeover.

Whether or not this was enough to persuade Syria’s strongman that he could cross the “Red Line” with impunity, it has proved to be a reckless move.

As Franco-Syrian journalist Hala Kodmani put it, the international community has been tragically unable to act decisively in the face of 100,000 mostly civilian deaths.

But the more than 1,000 deaths from Syria’s nerve gas attacks have changed everything.

Obama’s credibility at stake

Suddenly, all concerns about Islamist rebels, or the fear of provoking Moscow and Beijing, have gone out of the window.

What is now at stake is the credibility of the world’s most powerful leader. Obama, having stated that he must act, needs to be seen to play his part in history. If he retreats or continues to prevaricate, his only legacy will be one of empty rhetoric.

But if he chooses action – and especially if that action is successful – he will have made his mark as a great president, in the way that John Fitzgerald Kennedy cemented his reputation with his resolute response to the Cuban missile crisis.

Something is going to happen - but what?

The options

Because the United States and its allies have ruled out sending ground troops into Syria, there are two main options.

Firstly, a limited strike on a symbolic target using one or more Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from one of the US destroyers currently deployed in the eastern Mediterranean. He might even use his drones to make a targeted attack. This would not be a case of decapitating Assad, but it would be a gesture that could embolden the opposition and weaken the regime from the margins.

It is a risky option. Rather than making Assad and his cronies reconsider their murderous strategy, it could push the regime to act like a wounded animal and intensify its cruelty. In particular, a limited strike would do nothing to reduce the regime’s stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is right on this point: strikes on government targets will do nothing to end the country’s civil war and would only risk intensifying the conflict.

And then there is the second option, and the only realistic and sensible one: an extended bombing campaign accompanied by the establishment of a no-fly zone and an extensive programme to arm the rebels. This option has been a long time coming. The delay to act has only served to strengthen the cause of the Islamists among the rebel movement.

Even if it opted for the first option, the coalition is likely to dragged into a long-term conflict, the outcome of which can only be the total annihilation of the Syrian regime.

The risks

None of this is without risk. It is particularly difficult to defend military action when it does not have the full approval of the UN Security Council.

But military action outside the auspices of the UN has already been achieved by NATO in Bosnia and Kosovo, and even by Russia in Georgia.

Where there is a will, there is always a way, even if this will to act, until now, has been shamefully lacking.

Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor at the Paris Sciences-Po University and an expert on the Arab world, has put his usual academic reserve to one side and has been hammering this message home in recent days.

He is well placed to know that the facts and that the time for action has come, even if success will be far more of a challenge now than it would have been a year ago.

Date created : 2013-08-28


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