Strikes on Syria risk retaliation, escalation in a war US wants to avoid

Last week, United States President Donald Trump promised to withdraw from Syria. This week, he opened a new front against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad that risks drawing the US into a broader conflict there.
By attacking Al Assad yesterday, the Trump administration sought to warn the Syrian leader against continuing to use illegal chemical warfare agents, following the gassing of civilians near Damascus last week. The administration calculated that the need to send a signal to Al Assad over chemical weapons outweighed the possibility of provoking a response from his allies, Russia or Iran, on the battlefield in Syria, elsewhere in the Middle East or even in cyberspace.
The risk, analysts say, is that the US would then end up in a cycle of escalation that entangles the American military more deeply in the Syrian conflict than the administration intended.
“Given the linkage between Russia, Iran and Al Assad, an attack that we would consider limited and precise might be misconstrued by one or more of those three parties and justify from their perspective a retaliatory strike,” said retired US Army Lt General James Dubik, a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. “Then what do we do?” Possible scenarios for a retaliation include attacks by Iranian-backed militias against US forces in the Middle East, stepped-up incidents against US forces and their allies within Syria or “asymmetric responses” such as cyberattacks entirely outside the theatre itself. It remains unclear whether the strike will prevent Al Assad’s forces from turning to chemical weapons in the future as the leader seeks to extend his reach across the country while consolidating gains in the civil war. Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria and fellow at the Middle East Institute and Yale University, said military action would deter Al Assad’s forces from using chemical weapons only if the US conducts follow-up strikes when new atrocities occur. “I don’t think, in order to make the deterrent stick, that this can be the last attack,” Ford said. The former US diplomat, who said Al Assad’s forces were using chemical weapons in part because they lack manpower, predicted the Syrian leader “will test us – and we will have to do this again”. Trump promised that the strikes wouldn’t necessarily be a one-off. “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” the US president said in an address at the White House late on Friday night. Some who support the strikes say that even if they fail to prevent Al Assad from using chemical weapons in the future, they will send the message that the international community is watching and intends to enforce the ban on chemical weapons that countries instituted after the First World War.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said the strikes, which the United Kingdom and France participated in, would “send a clear signal to anyone else who believes they can use chemical weapons with impunity”. Referring to the recent nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy living in Salisbury, England, she said: “We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised – within Syria, on the streets of the UK or anywhere else in our world.” But the military intervention also comes as Washington has all but given up on seeking the removal of Al Assad more than seven years into Syria’s civil war. Trump wants the Pentagon to withdraw US troops after the Kurdish-led militia Washington is backing in Syria finishes off the remnants of the Daesh terror group.
The departure of US troops, military strategists say, will likely pave the way for Al Assad’s consolidation of control in the country, backed by Russia, Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. The result is what US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis described in congressional testimony on Thursday as “contrary impulses”. On the one hand, Trump wants the US to have nothing to do with Syria. On the other, he wants to dictate norms of behaviour on Syria’s battlefield that upset him when violated.
For some political scientists, that logic represents a slippery slope, where the US is compelled into military action on humanitarian grounds only depending on the type of killing that is occurring.

Source : Gulf News