The long-delayed western intervention in Syria may well be the most complicated Middle Eastern venture to date.
Unlike prior actions in Iraq or Libya, strong international interests, predominately from Russia and China, are arrayed against humanitarian action, and the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad has shown no reluctance to employ weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, British news sources have reported that Assad’s forces have even fired on U.N. observers. An emboldened Iran could also become a major player.
A number of factors are in play. American credibility is at an all-time low following the Obama Administration’s failure to respond to the murder of its ambassador in Benghazi. The diminished size of the U.S. military, and the White House’s premature withdrawal from Iraq and the announced departure from Afghanistan portray an administration that is allergic to confrontation.
Assad may have a more significant arsenal at this disposal than prior regional adversaries. Israel’s Mossad has reported that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were evacuated to Syria before the second Gulf War deposed the dictator.
Most worrisome, however, are China and Russia’s steadfast opposition to western action. Both have used their influence at the United Nations. Unusually strong language, including the phrase “catastrophic,” have been employed by Moscow to describe what they believe would be the result of western attempts to intervene on behalf of the Syrian opposition to halt Assad’s internationally banned use of poison gas against his own populace.
Russia’s opposition is clearly motivated by its direct military self-interest. Moscow has a key naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus. The facility service Russian naval vessels in the Mediterranean, an area that has once again become an active area of contention between Moscow and the West.
President Putin has been strongly dedicated to restoring and enhancing his nation’s oceanic prowess, returning to bases employed by the Soviet Union before it collapsed, and committing vast resources to modernizing and expanding its naval force. The Kremlin announced an unprecedented $700 billion program for that purpose.
China, which has established close military ties to Russia, has had the most dramatic naval armament program of all. In addition to establishing key elements of blue-water navy such as an aircraft carrier, it has developed sophisticated ship-killing missiles that have no equal anyplace in the world.
The Chinese economy requires vast supplies of oil, and coming to the assistance of the Syrian regime may give it influence to secure supplies.
It is not an exaggeration to state that the possibility of a wider conflict arising out of this situation is a very real danger.