- By Dov ZakheimDov Zakheim is Senior Advisor, Center for Strategic and International Studies and former Under Secretary of Defense.
The British Parliament’s decision to override Prime Minister David Cameron’s desire to join the United States in attacking Syria marks the first time in about 150 years that Parliament has vetoed its country’s leader. Its virtually unprecedented action underscores the many doubts that hover over the U.S. administration’s plan to punish Bashar al-Assad’s regime for crossing President Barack Obama’s "red line" on the use of chemical weapons.
These doubts fall into four categories, none of which the administration has addressed. These are: the efficacy of an attack, the likely responses to such an attack, the prospect of America once again being sucked into a prolonged conflict, and the budgetary consequences of anything more than a single missile strike on Syrian facilities.
It should be noted at the outset that Britain is not alone in backing away from the White House’s lurch to war. The Arab League has rightly warned that an attack on Syria would further stoke anti-American feelings that continue to run high in the Middle East. Jordan, America’s closest Arab ally, has announced that it will not permit American operations from is soil. The Russians and Chinese are ensuring that there will be no support in the United Nations for a strike on Syria. And of course, the continental Europeans, minus France, want no part of what is beginning to look like Obama’s obsession.
Would an attack succeed? A missile attack would likely have no more effect than did the missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998. An attack on Syrian airfields would face not only sophisticated Syrian air defenses, but also the prospect that these might be manned by Russians. Such an attack could well unleash Iranian and Hezbollah attacks against American targets worldwide. It could prompt Russia to redouble its support for Assad. And it could spur the Chinese to offer aid to Assad as well.
Should a strike result in American casualties, America might not be able to back away from getting more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war. Should Assad fall, the government most likely to succeed him would be led by the al-Nusra extremists, the best organized of the rebel groups and one that is closely linked to al Qaeda. An al-Nusra-led Syria, determined to restore the Caliphate, would pose a mortal threat first to Jordan, where King Abdullah II faces serious internal challenges, and then to Israel, which al-Nusra, like all Islamists, seeks to destroy.
Equally ominous for the stability of the Middle East is that an American-supported regime change in Syria would prompt the mullahs in Tehran to ramp up their quest for nuclear weapons. Having watched America successfully force regime change in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, but not in North Korea, the ayatollahs could be expected to conclude that only nuclear weapons will stop Washington from overthrowing their regime as well. Of course, any overt Iranian push for nuclear weapons would finally prompt an Israeli strike, thereby dragging America into yet another Middle Eastern maelstrom.
How the administration proposes to pay for an American strike, much less follow-on strikes, against Syria in an era of budget constraints remains an open question. Any campaign against Assad beyond a token missile attack will cost far more than the $1.5 billion price tag for the 2011 Libya campaign. How will the Defense Department’s budget foot the bill in the face of the sequester that continues to haunt Washington? Will more weapons programs be cut, more forces discharged?
Surely the president can find a way to wriggle out of the "red lined" corner into which he has boxed himself. He has no shortage of spin doctors to assist him. And given the international community’s reluctance to support a military strike, no one would complain if he were to rationalize away an attack in favor of a new diplomatic initiative that seeks to bring Syria’s horrible civil war to a civilized end.