What are the concequences of military intervention in Syria?

Following a chemical attack in Syria, US President Barack Obama has released a statement stating that allegations of chemical warfare represent a “big event of grave concern” for the United States – something echoed by Prime Minister David Cameron. But when military intervention is being considered on both sides of the Atlantic and threats of a “serious response” are being issued, what are the potential repercussions in doing so?

In March 2003, following a devastating salvo of Baghdad by US forces, a coalition core consisting of 148,000 from the US, 45,000 from the UK, 2,000 from Australia, 70,000 from Kurdistan and 194 from Poland crossed the border into Iraqi territory. Ten years on and 134,000 civilian deaths down, we are left to ponder, was it all worth it?

Essentially, in order to answer this question with any degree of certainty, we need to revert back to the initial reasons for the invasion in the first place – WMDs, an inherent threat to global (particularly Western) security.  We can now see such weapons were never present: the States knew it, the UK knew it yet we still went in  and prematurely at that; so the argument for alterior motives is a strong one. Now, from a US perspective, the financial rewards, despite the $1.7 trillion outlay (equating to $5000 per second) to date and the $7 trillion in interest payments until 2053, (as the war was funded with borrowed money) the US has positioned itself very well. Geographically, Iraq sits in the most oil-rich region of the world and in buying itself 10 years, the states has gifted the West a window of opportunity to set up shop in previously untapped lands. Prior to 2003, Iraq despite having the 5th largest oil reserves in the world, was unreachable, yet since then the likes of Exxonmobil, Shell and BP as well as interestingly Halliburton – the company Dick Cheney ran before becoming Bush’s running mate in 2000 – among various others have all set up shop in the country. Since 2003, Iraqi oil production is up some 40% and oil revenue is up a staggering 1600% from $5 billion in 2003 to $85 billion in 2011; despite the debt, the US has achieved a lot. They have breached a previously unreachable region and they now have a stronger influence than they did previously when it comes to OPEC (an entity that many in the world of finance and beyond deem to be untouchable and as close to an ‘Illuminati’ as is possible due to the power they wield).

With disengagement underway in both Iraq and Afghanistan, coalition nations have left themselves in a somewhat precarious position. In March 2005, 7 years ago and 5 years after the initial invasion of Iraq, CRB – commissioned by Channel 4 – conducted a poll asking Iraqi citizens what they would like to see happen to multinational forces within a year – a staggering 84% proposed they leave within a year with 78% of this group wanting them gone in 6 months or less. The initial attitude towards coalition forces was supposedly one of salvation – many remember the images of the toppling of the Hussein statue in Firdos square and the jubilation seen on the faces of the nationals present. What many do not know is that the crowds were not vast, they were in fact closer to the 100 figure as opposed to the many more speculated by western media outlets. Two years later, a protest against coalition occupation was staged at the same square; estimates suggest up to 100,000 may have attended. In Iraq, coalition forces invaded masked as liberators occupied as tyrants and are now leaving as barons; things may be somewhat different in Syria.

Syria, firstly does not gleam as brightly as Iraq did; oil reserves currently sit at around 2500 MMbbl in comparison to Iraq’s 147,000 MMbbl and the UK’s 2800 MMbbl, meaning intervention for monetary gain is simply not on the table. This therefore means that in comparison to Iraq, any military action taken will have to be with the view to liberate and any outlay will be pure with little or no financial re-imbursement, something we can be sure the Obama administration are very aware of given the fact that US debt currently sits at $16,915,499,580 at the time of writing. So as much as Obama may want to intervene, the national support may not be there to back him; having waged major wars in foreign fields for over 10 years now, the US consensus is something along the lines of  “bring our boys home”.

From a diplomatic perspective, it goes without saying that Obama and Cameron are running a very fine line. With Syria backed by Iran and Russia – two of the world’s most powerful and some would argue extremist countries- even the most humanitarian of us would forgive the coalition for treading carefully, the fallout could be unprecedented. Of course, it is within the States’ best interests to protect Israel as the weight it has in the Middle East is healthy, yet in extreme cases counter-intervention by either Iran, a country with nuclear capacity or Russia a global superpower would be even more of a threat to Western interest. Despite Russia’s unmistakable presence it is undoubtedly the former of the two that will be providing the coalition with the most worry, a war between nations is one thing but nuclear threat steps everything up a level. Of course, it is highly unlikely that any conflict would result in that and to say anything different would be pure sensationalisation but to discount it as a possibility would be naive at the very least.

Another key discussion point is the rebels themselves. In Iraq, the regime was quickly overthrown and fighting a state-controlled army soon turned to the unenviable task of warring with well organised, mountain based militias with a much better understanding of the local geography than the coalition forces. With many of these militias holding Jihadist based ideologies – Al-Qaeda being the most infamous, they were fighting an army of individuals willing to give their lives for their cause. In contrast, despite the acceptance that they may at some point die in the line of duty, it is debatable whether many coalition soldiers would have actively suicided for it. In Syria, it will be these militias, consisting of many individuals experienced in combat from training in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, that the coalition would be siding with. A diplomatic nightmare, many would argue that lethal support on an official level (some have theorised as to the possibility that the West has already provided weapons) would be counter-productive, suggesting that arming Jihadists would come around to bite the West back – an argument that has logic. On top of this, a lack of real NATO intervention further back will have insensed many who feel that when Syria issued a cry for help the very force entrusted to keep the peace had simply turned its back. Baring in mind that NATO is a European controlled entity, this many prove a point of conflict for those who decide to liberate.

Something that can’t be overlooked is bloodshed, it is unavoidable. With 134,000 dead in Iraq and at the very least 20,000 dead in Afghanistan, it would be unfathomable to suggest anything otherwise, yet with Syrian civilian casualty estimates standing at between 106,000 and 120,000 (not including the reported 1,300 killed as a result of gassing) it brings some comfort that perhaps military intervention could help to curb the slaughter however only time will tell on this issue.

The protection of innocent civilians is paramount; the crux of any discussion must revolve around the cost of intervention in contrast to the cost of standing by. Any repercussions must be considered prior to any action from the West. The worrying thing is that the US, Britain, Germany, France and Turkey among others are all standing by ready to intervene; as usual the States are not willing to wait, using their default bully-boy “we’re going, and we’re not waiting for anyone else” stance. From a formal standpoint, any military intervention without approval from the UN Security Council would be deemed a breach of international law, the problem being that Russia is a veto-wielding member of the council and they have denounced any wrongdoing from Syria since the start of the conflict. So we sit and wait, with UN inspectors having come under sniper fire en-route to their inspection, it would be unlikely that coalition forces will dwell. Consequences are unavoidable, the longer we wait, the more Syrian blood is shed yet if we act too quickly without proper sanctions in place, then the resultant events could prove to be more memorable going forward than anyone would have wanted. At a time when the West is slowly gaining some ground in the Middle East, it will not come as a surprise to anybody that regardless of the outcome of this situation, it will only incite flag-burning of some form or another and further stoke the flame that burns in the east. The west once again is caught in a catch-22 scenario and this time it could prove tricky.

Further reading for those interested can be found here: