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Symbolic US strike on Syria exposes America’s weakness

A Tomahawk missile in flight [File photo, Reuters]

The US strike on Syria’s al-Shayrat airbase has dramatically, if not momentarily, restored a sense of overbearing American hegemony in the Near East. By deploying superior intelligence collection and military assets the United States was able to conduct a precision strike on a symbolic target and send multiple messages both to the Syrian regime and more importantly to the international coalition committed to the regime’s survival.

If anything, the US strike on Syria underlines the ephemeral and even illusory nature of America’s withdrawal from the region and brings into sharp relief Washington’s unparalleled ability to shape events in the region with minimal effort and cost.

That said, in reality, the US has few options to alter the balance of power in Syria’s multiple conflicts. For a start, Washington still doesn’t have clear objectives in Syria, let alone a coherent strategy to realise those objectives. More importantly, in terms of the main conflict in Syria, the US has to contend with a formidable coalition composed of Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and the Russian Federation.

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Whilst this coalition cannot confront the United States militarily, nevertheless, all of its three components bring unique skills and capabilities to the conflict, thereby drastically reducing Washington’s manoeuvrability. Moreover, all three elements of the coalition have a proven ability to hit back in unconventional ways as part of a protracted asymmetric conflict.

Symbolic strike

By all credible accounts, the US strike on the al-Shayrat air base was primarily designed to send a strong message to the Syrian regime – and its backers Iran and Russia – than signalling a significant shift in American policy.

For a start, the US notified the Russians in advance of the strike which involved attacking al-Shayrat (close to Homs) with 59 tomahawk missiles. Second, conflicting accounts of the damage notwithstanding, the air base was quickly back in operation with Syrian jets reportedly flying missions against targets in Homs and Idlib provinces.       

The official US justification for the strike – namely to uphold the chemical weapons convention – is credible enough, if not slightly inconsistent in view of America’s decision not to punish Syria after the August 2013 sarin gas attack on Ghouta.

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Furthermore, in a wider historical context, the US has ignored the use of chemical weapons when such usage is consistent with its regional and wider international goals. The most dramatic example of this American and wider Western double standard is the long-running Iran-Iraq War when the Western allies turned a blind eye to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian combatants and Kurdish civilians.

The key question at this juncture is the potential response of Iran and Russia in the event of further US strikes. With unconfirmed reports warning of a military response by the two powers should their “red lines” be breached in future, the stakes in the Syrian conflict have never been higher.

Powerful coalition

Throughout the Syrian conflict the main stumbling block to the formation of a clear US strategy, both in terms of regime removal and post-conflict political planning, has been the unwavering and clear-eyed commitment of Syria’s regional and international backers.

Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah intervened early in the conflict, not just to fortify the Syrian regime, but more importantly to secure a permanent foothold in Syria’s Western region, notably the Qalamun Mountains and the Quneitra province bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The latter is hugely significant in so far as it is likely to become a war zone in the next Hezbollah-Israeli War.

Hezbollah’s intervention has been so successful that some Western news outlets have identified the Lebanese Shia organisation as the clear winner of the Syrian conflict.

Russia’s dramatic entry into the war in late September 2015 added a new layer of support for the Syrian regime and effectively formed an international coalition dedicated to the preservation of the Syrian state. The key point about this coalition is that it was formed more by accident than deliberate design.

First and foremost, the nature of Russia’s relationship with Syria is fundamentally different to Iran’s and Hezbollah’s relationship with Syria. Russia has strong political, diplomatic and defence ties with Damascus going back to at least the early 1970s. The key point about this relationship is that it is conventional and thus entirely in keeping with normative concepts in international relations.

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By contrast, both Iran and its Lebanese allies are ideologically and emotionally committed to the status quo in Damascus, not because of any inherent affinity to the Syrian regime, but fundamentally because an Alawite-dominated order in Syria facilitates their strategic objective of confrontation with Israel.

In operational, tactical and strategic spheres this unlikely coalition has worked surprisingly well, not least because an implicit division of labour informs their activities. The Russians have brought credible air power and diplomatic muscle on account of their permanent seat at the highest table of international diplomacy. The Iranians bring tactical military planning (through the Qods force of the Revolutionary Guards) in addition to intelligence gathering and information warfare capabilities. Hezbollah’s contribution meanwhile is expressed forcefully through expertise in guerrilla and urban warfare, a well-honed capability which the Syrian rebels and jihadis cannot match.

Absent a full-scale invasion of Syria the United Stated cannot rupture let alone defeat this formidable coalition. Moreover, absent a clear strategy, further military strikes by the US on Syrian military assets will only inflame the situation on the ground and will inevitably draw a response from all three pro-Syrian coalition partners.

In the event of additional strikes, Iran, Russia and Hezbollah not only have the option of intensifying their activities inside Syrian conflict zones but they also have the option to strike back at the US and its allies unconventionally.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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