Back in November 2012 in analysing the similarities between Western actions on Libya and Syria I wrote:
If the Libyan steps are followed, the next step should be UN recognition of NCSROF as legitimate. This is less likely to occur while Russia and China are still opposed to military action against Syria, and may be the main problem Western countries are facing in trying to intervene (they are currently still clinging to some veneer of legitimacy in adhering to international laws). To break this impasse keep watch for another state “massacre,” either real or created, with the goal to put political pressure on Russia and China to drop Assad.
Although it took longer than I expected, the West had its “massacre” moment on 21 August 2013, with rebel factions alleging the Syrian army used chemical weapons, killing 355 and injuring thousands. Almost instantly Western leaders were repeating the rebels’ claims, blaming Assad and the Syrian government and calling for military action (and with Netanyahu trying to link the attack to Iran and Hezbollah). The Syrian government rejected the allegations, and stated that the rebels themselves were behind the attack. Russia backed up this statement, with Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich warning it may be “a provocation planned in advance,” perhaps designed to take advantage of the proximity of UN investigators (which incidentally were actually requested by the Syrian government to investigate previous chemical weapon use).
The Dogs of War
Whatever the facts are, the West has not let slip the opportunity to threaten military action. Western leaders are pushing for some sort of missile or bombing campaign, which will likely be proposed to the United Nations Security Council and which Russia will likely veto. Any Russia veto will increase the perception among Western audiences that Russia is defending Assad for its own interests, and will tarnish its reputation as a defender of a chemical weapons attack.
After the Security Council veto, Western leaders will face a choice: back down, claiming their hands are tied by international law (which would probably be a first) or form another ‘Coalition of the Willing’ style group to undertake military action outside of UN approval. This has already been hinted at by France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius.
If this is the case, military action will probably be cruise missile strikes launched from ships in the eastern Mediterranean. This action would offer the least risk for Western forces. Military action will be designed to even the playing field between Syrian and rebel forces, reversing the recent gains the Syrian government has been making.
Limited missile strikes are the most likely outcome. These will be outside of UN approval, but will be enough to send the message that Obama backed up the threat behind his chemical weapon red line. Though the Syrian forces will suffer losses, the strikes will not have a large effect on the ground and will only delay the government’s success.
A more sustained missile campaign will probably indicate the West is gearing up for more military intervention, probably airstrikes with the goal of implementing a no-fly zone. These actions are more risky, however, with Syria’s aged but operational anti-aircraft system likely to cause Western casualties. The Syrian forces are likely to respond throughout the region, possibly affecting Western allies such as Israel, Jordan, Turkey or Saudi Arabia and starting a larger conflict.
Limited missile strikes would be unlikely to elicit military responses from Syria’s allies Iran and Hezbollah. It is also unlikely Russia will take any military action, preferring to castigate the aggressors for ignoring international law.