The Syrian Chemical Attack: Things Fall Apart, the Centre Cannot Hold

21 August 2013, 1548 EDT

The news out of the Damascus suburbs this morning is highly disturbing and, if the reports are confirmed that this was a chemical attack, no doubt will mark a turning point in the conflict.  Dan is somewhat skeptical that it will change the intervention calculus. I disagree.

For the better part of the past two years, the Obama administration has pursued to a strategy of conflict management and containment.  It doesn’t look like that policy has worked.  Today’s events appear to have been a major chemical attack with a large loss of civilian life.  The raw and devastating images will alter the political landscape in Washington, throughout Europe, and throughout the region.   This looks to be Syria’s Srebrenica.

If you recall, Srebrenica did not fundamentally change the traditional, realist strategic logic on the ground during the Bosnian conflict — yet all of the internal notes on White House deliberations (as reported in Ivo Daalder’s Getting to Dayton or Derek Chollet’s history of Dayton) reveal how conceptions of interests and ideals became intertwined with the scale of the atrocity.   Domestically, there was some Congressional pressure to do more in Bosnia, but very little pressure from public opinion. Srebrenica was a game changer.  I think this is what we are likely to see happen now in Syria — and I think it changes the equation regardless of whether or not there is definitive proof as to who perpetrated the attack.  The mere fact of such a large scale loss of life in a chemical attack — along with changing dynamics throughout the region — will produce significant pressure on, and within, the administration to commit resources — airstrikes on key Syrian military installations and probably no-fly, no missile zone over Syria — something, anything, to move the conflict to some kind of end-game.

I just spent the last two weeks in Istanbul and southern Turkey talking to Syrian opposition groups, refugees, Turkish officials, and journalists.  I heard two major narratives from the ground.  First, the regional fallout from the conflict (and Egypt) is escalating and folks are really getting nervous.   There are now more than 2 million Syrian refugees who have crossed into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. This is an enormous financial burden that is fueling frustration in all three countries.  But, it is also having very real and profound security effects:  there have been more bombings in Beirut this week as well as increased fighting, Iraq has seen a dramatic spike in violence, and there is a real fear that the combined pressure of more than a million Iraqi, Palestinian, and Syrian refugees in Jordan will break the state.   Meanwhile, the Kurds from Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey are meeting later this week in northern Iraq — which just opened the borders to a massive flow of Syrian Kurds.

The second narrative I heard was that unless something dramatically changes the current strategic landscape, this has all the trappings of a very long war and things will only get worse in the months to come.  The opposition is committed to the fight.  Assad controls many key urban areas, but he doesn’t control large areas of the country and there is a sense of frustration among Assad’s supporters that he hasn’t been able to clear and hold areas.  There is increasing pressure on him to escalate.  More than 100,000 people already have been killed — a number that almost certainly suffers from some sizable undercounting bias. And, I heard a lot of whispers that the estimate of internally displaced persons may be  upwards of 8 to 10  million — more than twice the current official estimate — and real fears of a much larger humanitarian crisis looming.

What does all of this mean?  The current policy objective has been focused on conflict containment.  The current policy instruments have failed to achieve that.  I think there is concern in Washington and throughout much of the region that American policy has been too passive — that without some kind of major policy shift, this is going to get a lot worse for American interests in the region. And, if the reports of a major chemical attack are true, we are almost certain to see a new policy that will almost certainly include some element of U.S. military force to try to change that. That’s my general reading of how American foreign policy develops.