Bloodied photos of Bashar al-Assad. (Photo by Sunil Patel)
The war in Syria may be coming to a head. Over the past 24 hours, as the number of refugees fleeing the world’s nastiest conflict reached two million, the US Navy’s supersized nuclear aircraft carrier USS Nimitz was headed north through the Red Sea. Despite a recent vote ruling out British involvement in the crisis, the US and French militaries look likely to get stuck in next week. Both are waiting for the green light from their political bosses in Washington and Paris.
As you should be well aware of by now, this latest stage in Syria’s living nightmare started two weeks ago, when a barrage of alleged chemical weapons hit Ghouta, a rebel-held area east of the Syrian capital Damascus. Hundreds were killed in the assaults, which – at least according to the US and French governments – almost certainly involved banned chemical weapons (likely to be sarin). Since the use of chemical weapons constitutes a solid breach of international law, their use is also a convenient excuse for the West to get the jets out and send them east once again.
Over the past week or so, the Pentagon has ordered US Navy destroyers USS Ramage, USS Barry, USS Gravely and USS Mahan of the Europe-based sixth fleet to move within easy striking distance of Syria. The French anti-air frigate Chevalier Paul wasn’t far behind, and the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier is on standby. Each is loaded with Tomahawk cruise missiles, ideally designed for destroying targets on the ground.
The Nimitz is just the latest arrival in the region, and may be a sign of Obama’s increasing seriousness about disabling Assad’s war machine. He’s waiting for approval from Congress, partly because of Cameron’s defeat over the same question in London last week. Obama will probably get the "permission" to intervene that eluded his ruddy-faced pal, and it’ll probably come after the weekend. He’s just gained support from important Republicans in Congress, which is very unusual – normally, sheer political vindictiveness stops US parties from agreeing on anything important.
So right now, a short distance off the Syrian coast, Western forces are champing at the bit. The French and US aircraft carriers have hundreds of fighter jets and other aircraft ready to roll if more firepower is needed (that will be probably be decided after the initial attack). Perhaps surprisingly, the Syrians have some pretty dangerous gear, not least the P-800 Yakhont supersonic anti-ship missile and a range of Russian surface-to-air missile launchers. But even if they bring out their best equipment, it's not going to hold up against the US and French navies' defensive countermeasures.
A P-800 Yakhont supersonic anti-ship missile in action.
While some have speculated that the westerners’ missiles would be trained directly at Assad’s chemical stockpiles, experts disagree. According to Karl Dewey, Proliferation Editor at IHS Jane’s, the only means of actually destroying chemical stockpiles would be something called Agent Defeat munitions – a napalm-like weapon designed to burn hot enough to totally destroy chemical weapons.
The problem, says Karl, is that there’s no guarantee they’d work properly: "Agent Defeat weapons have never been used except in controlled tests, so there’s a risk that the weapons bunkers might not be completely destroyed. If that happened, chemical agents could leak into the atmosphere and spread the agents around. Even if this was low-level, it could cause huge problems for people nearby.”
Continuing, he said, "Another danger is that the weapons could kill the guards surrounding the weapons or force them to flee, leaving a facility open to looting of the very agents they’d be trying to get rid of."
The most likely option, then, is that American and French ships will fire on Syrian “command and control” infrastructure – buildings, tents, airfields and other spots used by the Syrian government to organise the war on its own people. Military airbases would be the best targets, since Assad can’t hide them away. Jeremy Binnie, Jane’s Defence Weekly’s Middle East editor, told me that the coalition attack would probably take the form of a "short, punitive strike", designed to show Assad that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable.
Targets could even include the Syrian Ministry of Defence building in Damascus, say some, but Jeremy isn’t worried about western states getting dragged in too deep: “The Brits and Americans are in a position to carry out this type of attack,” he said, “safely and with minimal risk. It’ll send a message without an open-ended engagement."
A bombed building in Syria. (Photo by Rick Findler)
He dismissed the suggestion that Tomahawks might be used to target jihadi forces as an added bonus – a rumour that's been circulating on various extremist message boards in recent days. "Those targets aren’t that substantive," Jeremy explained, "and Tomahawks are expensive. To kill guerrillas with them, you need really good and recent intelligence, which they probably don’t have." There is some suggestion that a Tomahawk strike on Syria’s fairly solid anti-air kit would be followed by airstrikes.
Russia isn’t happy. Moscow has been Syria’s largest, most important and (mostly) unapologetic ally since the war began two years ago, supplying most of Assad’s weapons and political support. Putin has called accusations that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons "absolute nonsense". A Russian spy ship has joined the party in the eastern Med, giving the whole affair a distinctly Cold War flavour. Others make even scarier historical parallels; when I spoke to Tory MP David Davis last week, he said that “the situation in the Middle East has connotations of 1913 to 14 about it", adding, “If we get into an escalation with us attacking Assad and the Russians and Chinese and Iranians supplying weapons, we could end up with a Vietnam situation."
Most recently, Putin has said that he'll support intervention if it's proved "beyond any reasonable doubt" that Assad was responsible. Since that will likely never be proved (UN inspectors aren't allowed to say who they think was behind the attack), he's just treading water. So for now, all sides are watching and waiting. British spies and Special Forces who were reportedly scoping missile sites a few days ago might still offer help behind the scenes. The French government has claimed Britain’s no-vote won’t affect its decision, and the US will – as always – do what it wants. The mood in Damascus is tense, and Assad warned yesterday that intervention risks sparking a regional war in the “powder keg” Middle East. Although, he would say that.
About 110,000 people have died in Syria since war broke out. The UN says the war is the "humanitarian crisis of the century" and that Syria’s neighbours are "buckling under the strain" of managing refugees. About a third of Syrians have been displaced either inside or outside of the country, bread prices have tripled since intervention came on the cards and the conflict has fuelled violence from Iraq to Lebanon.
There are no positive outcomes, but intervention and the “degrading” of Assad’s forces may help turn the tide for those who have been abused and humiliated for decades of dictatorship. Or, potentially, drag the region into an even longer war. Whether French and American missiles light up the Mediterranean sky next week remains to be seen, but there’s no sign of a quick end to the worst war of recent years.
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