Michael Williams
Distinguished Visiting Fellow

The crisis in Syria and the wider Levant has deepened in the past week in two critical aspects, the most obvious and glaring being the apparent use of chemical weapons in Damascus.

After earlier military advances in recent months, the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad had set itself the strategic target of clearing the outer Damascus suburbs of rebel groups and supporters of the Free Syrian Army. And in an unexpected example of the Baathist regime's ruthlessness, poison gas was apparently used on a considerable scale on Wednesday last week killing several hundred people. The circumstances of the attack are under investigation by UN weapons inspectors but the use of such gases if confirmed would be the first since the Iraqi attack on Halabja in 1988.

Inevitably a wave of revulsion has swept the world forcing the Obama administration to move away from its attempts hitherto to keep a distance from the Syrian conflict. On Monday, US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the reported attack in the strongest possible terms calling it 'undeniable' and indicated that the US would take military measures against the Syrian government as punishment. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has strongly supported such a move and has recalled Parliament so they can vote on the UK's response to the crisis. France's President Francois Hollande has associated himself with these moves. There are growing expectations that such a strike will occur before the weekend.

The crisis over the use of poison gas has coincided with a growing involvement of Lebanon in the Syrian civil war. Having earlier struck only a note of solidarity with the Syrian regime, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah has for six months now openly admitted that it has deployed considerable numbers of its fighters in Syria supporting the Assad regime. These fighters are believed to have played a critical role in the retaking from the opposition of the city of Homs. On August 15 a car bomb rocked a Shiite quarter of Beirut killing at least 27 people. Eight days later as many as 50 people were killed in the largely Sunni city of Tripoli in north Lebanon after bombs were placed in mosques on the holy day. Undoubtedly the sectarian attacks in Lebanon have been fuelled by the brutality of the equally sectarian Syrian civil war.

In looking at an increasingly probable, perhaps inevitable, US led strike on Syria it is useful to recall similar military actions in Kosovo in 1999 and, more recently, in Libya in 2011. In both cases neither Serbia nor Libya had friends whose support they could rely on. This is not the case with Syria. 

Unlike Serbia or Libya, Syria is firmly embedded in an alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, almost certainly the most heavily armed non-state actor in the world. While it is improbable that Iran would engage in overt military action in retaliation for the expected US led raids, it is highly probable that Hezbollah would deepen its assistance to the Syrian regime whose downfall it could not tolerate. It could do so in several ways by threatening and even attacking UNIFIL, the ten thousand strong peacekeeping missions in southern Lebanon, which has a high number of troops from NATO countries in its ranks including France, likely to join any military action against Syria, as well as Italy and Spain. It might even seek to break the cessation of hostilities with Israel which has lasted since the 2006 war.

Improbable as these scenarios might seem Hezbollah will conclude that even a limited US led strike must be met with firm retaliation to prevent any further deterioration of the Assad regime whose possible downfall the group’s militia see as an existential threat. 

In this regard both Syria and Hezbollah are likely to draw some comfort from the fact that an allied air strike will not meet with support in much of the world, especially as there is no chance of a Security Council mandate given the opposition of Russia and China. But other key countries like Brazil, South Africa and India are all likely to be opposed to US air strikes without firm legal grounding. Thus, as with the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003, questions of the legality of military action are likely to dog the West for years.

Indeed intervention could intensify the civil war in Syria. It would make decisive military victory or the formulation of a compromise a more remote possibility and supply both sides with increased energy to continue the fighting. Moreover, as intervention amplifies the feeling that the existence of the present regime is a threat, it creates conditions for a widening of the scope of the regime's attacks on the civilians who are opposed to it. 

Iraq and Afghanistan over the past few years highlight the perils of failing to establish a durable political regime after external intervention. In Libya too, the collapse of Muammar Gadhafi's regime with the help of NATO attacks was followed by a failure to establish a stable alternative political leadership with domestic legitimacy, and has since led to a struggle between militias that is exacting a high price. Syria with its complex mosaic of religions and sects presents a more daunting scenario.