Reasons for US intervention in Syria

Why is US Preparing to Bomb Syria?

US has plenty of reasons to want to get rid of the Syrian regime, but it has been reluctant to get directly involved in the country's civil war. Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images

The main reason for US intervention in Syria was the apparent use of chemical weapons outside the Syrian capital Damascus on August 21 2013 (see BBC video). The US has blamed the Syrian government forces for the deaths of hundreds of civilians in the attack, an accusation vehemently denied by Syria.

But cynics will say that the civil war in Syria had already killed more than 100 000 people since 2011, with most Western governments sitting on the fence.

So why intervene now?

US Credibility on the Line

Washington made it clear repeatedly it had no intention of getting involved in another war in the Middle East, even as the Syrian opposition accused the US of indifference to the country’s destruction. The risks were simply too great.

At the same time, Barack Obama drew the line on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian army. The "red line", he called it, promising some sort of punitive action if the regime of Bashar al-Assad crossed it.

Several alleged incidents involving chemical weapons took place in 2013, but the graphic images of the destruction caused by the August 21 attack shocked the world. Even without water-proof evidence of Syrian army’s involvement, doing nothing in the face of open defiance from a Russian-backed Arab dictatorship would make Obama look weak and indecisive.

Yes, the use of chemical weapons is banned by international conventions (to which Syria is not a signatory).

But it was the prospect of appearing irrelevant that spurred Obama into action, after two years of seeing US influence in the Middle East slowly erode with the changes brought about by the Arab Spring.

Why is Syria Important?

The US has of course other reasons to play a role in the Syrian crisis. Syria is one of the pivotal countries in the Middle East.

It borders Turkey and Israel, has a close relationship with Iran and Russia, plays an influential role in Lebanon, and has a history of rivalry with Iraq.

Syria is a key link in the alliance between Iran and the Lebanese Shiite movement of Hezbollah Lebanon. Syria has been at odds with the US policies in the region practically since its independence in 1946, and has fought several wars with Israel, America’s top regional ally.

In other words, the US had plenty of reasons to want to intervene in Syria regardless of who was behind the August 21 attack. The question was always how to do it on the cheap, and without making the situation on the ground even worse.

Weakening Assad, But No Invasion

Weakening the Syrian regime has been a long-standing goal of successive US administrations down the years, with multiple layers of sanctions in place against the regime in Damascus. But what exactly Obama wants to achieve militarily is less clear.

A push for regime change would probably require an invasion using ground troops, an unthinkable option given the war-weary US public. Plus, many policymakers in Washington have warned that a victory for Islamist elements among the Syrian rebels would be equally dangerous for US interests.

Still, it is also unlikely that a limited bombing campaign lasting a few days would really impair Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons again. The US would most likely have to target a wide range of Syrian military facilities to significantly degrade Assad’s fighting capacity, sending a clear message that more damage can be inflicted at a later stage.

However, wars don’t always go as planned, and Obama could get drawn into a longer commitment to a conflict he had been trying hard to avoid.

Containing Iran, Reassuring Allies

Lots of what the US does in the Middle East has something to do with its antagonistic relationship with Iran. The Shiite Islamist regime in Tehran happens to be Syria’s chief regional backer, and Assad’s victory in the fight against the opposition would be a major triumph for Iran and its allies in Iraq and Lebanon.

This in turn is unpalatable not only for Israel, but also for the Gulf Arab monarchies headed by Saudi Arabia. Assad’s Arab foes would not forgive the US for handing Iran another victory (after invading Iraq, only to enable an Iran-friendly government come to power).

It’s therefore clear that despite being lukewarm about Syria’s fragmented opposition and scared of hardline Islamist rebels, the US was probably bound to intervene at some stage in this conflict. We shall see how costly this involvement will turn out to be.