A Regional Conflagration?


Unless the reader has been living under a cave, by now she must be aware that President Obama has decided on kinetic action in Syria. The Financial Times reported that there will be a 48-hour cruise missile attack on selected Syrian military targets at the end of this week.” The action in Kosovo is being seen as a model. The following three questions come to mind. Will this lead to a regional conflagration? Will it succeed in pushing Assad to sue for peace? Is Kosovo the right analogy for what’s about to happen?

One can reframe the threat of a regional war (which the US certainly does not want) to a question of whether Iran et al. (Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah) can deter the United States. This is simply because no other players in the region are interested in enlarging the front. Let us look at the appropriate asymmetric escalation game.

The outcome regional war is defined as the event where US forces engage with Iran et al. across the Middle East. Hezbollah strikes Israel, Syria redoubles its effort to crush the uprising, Iran targets US interests across the region, threatens the oil monarchies across the Persian Gulf, and tries to close the Strait of Hormuz. One obviously expects US forces to prevail against all non-asymmetric forces of Iran et al., destroy its military assets and nuclear facilities, maybe stopping short of invasion. 

The outcome naval operation is if US forces engage directly with Iranian forces only in the Persian Gulf. That is, a naval operation similar to the ’86-87 ‘reflagging operation.’ Major action would be restricted to the Levant, that is, to the Syro-Lebanese front. This would happen if the US responded to an Iranian effort to close the Strait of Hormuz with a purely naval operation. A Levant conflict would be one restricted entirely to the Syro-Lebanese front. This would happen if the US responded to missile strikes by Hezbollah in Israel by attacking Hezbollah but not Iran. A limited Gulf conflict would be if in addition to action in the Levant, the United States attacked Iranian nuclear facilities and a limited number of assets along the coastline, although letting Iran survive as a regional military power. Finally, Iran deterred would occur if Iran is bluffing about escalating, and US deterred would obtain if the White House backs off from surgical strikes now. 

Prospects for regional war             

Now, the US is soft on the second level: it prefers naval operation to regional war. But so is Iran: it prefers a limited Gulf conflict to regional war. The question comes down to whether Iran and the US are tactically hard. That is, whether Iran prefers Levant conflict to Iran deterred, and whether the US prefers a Levant conflict to US deterred. 

I think it is fair to say that in the baseline scenario one can assume that the US is tactically hard. Whether Iran is hard is a trickier problem because Iran et al. is not a unitary actor. Meaning: Hezbollah itself would be deterred from striking Israel and may simply refuse to follow orders from Tehran or Damascus. On the other hand, Iran itself would prefer that Hezbollah deliver a proportionate response to the surgical strikes. 

Now we are at a point where we can offer a prognosis about the prospects for a regional conflagration. In the asymmetric escalation game above, there are only two equilibria: Iran deterred and Levant conflict. Which is a fancy way of saying: If Hezbollah is stupid enough to attack Israel in response to US’ surgical strikes against Assad, it will face serious reprisals – and this time from the boss himself – and therefore the conflict may spread next door to Lebanon. But that process is already well underway so this isn’t exactly going to become any more of a regional conflagration than it already is. To put it bluntly, the Islamic republic is not in a position to close the Strait, nor threaten its neighbours without risking a major – perhaps terminal – war with the United States.

Which brings us to the second question: will a hundred Tomahawk cruise missile strikes persuade Assad to sue for peace? Unfortunately, this seems unlikely. The opposition needs more time to cohere. The White House’s failure to provide weapons and support to the rebels for the past two years has more or less undermined the moderates. Most of the dominant warlords in the rebellion are salafi extremists in the payroll of the oil monarchies. There is simply no one to replace Assad that the US, or for that matter the nonexistent ‘international community,’ can accept at this point. Furthermore, a much more comprehensive air campaign may be needed to bring Assad around to negotiating a political accommodation. Assad is not going to relinquish his hold on power that easily. 

Lastly, is Kosovo the right analogy? Yes, and that is scary. Then as now, US intervention was prompted by a major atrocity in a long-running conflict. In fact, Milosevic escalated attacks on his enemies in the aftermath of the initial air strikes. The humanitarian situation became considerably worse. It took a sustained air campaign to bring the butcher to sue for peace. If you are trying to sell the coming missile strikes, this may not be the best analogy. However, it does bring us to the only possibility for a practical-minded progressive to oppose the police operation. Namely, that it would worsen the humanitarian situation by providing an incentive for Assad to create ‘facts on the ground’ just like Milosevic. The fact that this is also a confessional conflict does not bode well for the end game.

These things are hard to predict but it seems certainly possible to deter Assad from escalating by threatening more punishment. More importantly perhaps, if the Assad regime has ‘space capacity’ to suppress the uprising then why hasn’t it used it so far? Hasn’t Assad been fighting for his very survival?

The White House’ calculus is at this point over-determined by credibility issues. Obama had more or less vocally committed himself to action in the event of large-scale use of chemical weapons. However, the administration does not have much leverage going forward because the US cannot topple Assad at this point since no one wants to keep the peace between the surviving armed groups. Assad knows this and he will act accordingly. This is very far from over. 

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