US-led attack on Syria reduced to ‘coalition a deux’
Barack Obama may get broad political support to punish Bashar al-Assad, but only France looks likely to join in military action.
Britain’s withdrawal from a campaign to punish Bashar al-Assad for allegedly using banned chemical weapons leaves US planners contemplating a lonely operation, with so far only the French looking likely to join in.
Barring surprises, this “coalition a deux” looks set to be dwarfed by a far larger coalition of the unwilling and nervous. The vote in the UK parliament robs Washington of its most loyal and capable military partner, though Barack Obama is still likely to get substantial political support despite the paralysing divisions on the UN security council.
Nato is sharply divided, with individual members including Canada, Germany and Italy making clear they will not take part in any US-led attack on Syria without full UN authorisation.
Turkey is important to watch. It is a neighbour of Syria, it has the largest army in the Atlantic alliance and is a bitter enemy of the Assad regime.
“Turkey could provide critical support if a military operation escalates beyond a limited strike,” according to Stratfor, a strategic consultancy. “But Turkey is also the Nato member most vulnerable to retaliatory strikes, and although the government issued strong statements calling for action, the already constrained government in Ankara could be calculating that it is not worth the risk to join a dwindling coalition at this point, particularly for a limited strike scenario.”
Another key group comprises Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — all are Assad’s foes, and Riyadh and Dohaare important backers of the Syrian opposition. Qatar and the UAE both sent forces to back the Nato-led intervention in Libya in 2011, but they are far less keen to do the same in Syria.
Qatar is now following a less activist foreign policy to defuse anger over its support for Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere. All the conservative Gulf states fear Iran, even though Tehran’s bark is usually worse than its bite. Their support for US air strikes will probably be political rather than military, most analysts argue.
On past form, the Saudis are likely to agree to any US request to operate Awacs surveillance aircraft from bases in the kingdom, but that is likely to happen discreetly. On Friday the Saudis reportedly raised their military alert level from two to five. Jordan, Turkey and Israel have all taken similar steps in recent days.
Jordan, another anxious neighbour of Syria, has made clear that it will not be involved in any military action, but it is an important base for the anti-Assad opposition. Arab sources predict a new rebel offensive in the Deraa area near the Jordanian border to take advantage of any US attacks.
Egypt has shifted position on Syria since the army overthrew Mohamed Morsi. Nabil Fahmy, the foreign minister in the military-backed interim government, made clear this week that Cairo opposed US action at a time of heightened sensitivities about any kind of western involvement in the region.
Britain’s domestic political drama may also have consequences beyond Syria. “The setback for David Cameron in the House of Commons may come at a political and military cost for the UK in the Gulf states,” according to Emile Hokayem of the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
“Under his government, the UK has worked to re-establish its presence in the Gulf even if it stirred uncomfortable questions in London about human rights in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.
“This ‘East of Suez’ strategy has political, strategic and commercial dimensions. Several Gulf states have welcomed this, but the credibility of the UK as a strategic actor willing to project force may now suffer. France is the other important European actor in the region, with a base in Abu Dhabi and several defence relationships. Many see the two as competitors. A French involvement in Syria may raise its profile further.”