By Gregory Viscusi and Donna Abu-Nasr
As U.S. President Donald Trump and France’s Emmanuel Macron consider a possible military strike on Syria, the world has been left guessing about when an attack could come and how big it might be.
Deliberations by the U.S. and its allies are still unfolding several days after a suspected chemical attack by the Syrian government against a rebel-held area killed more than 50 civilians and prompted calls for a forceful global response.
Any military move against Syrian government forces carries numerous risks. For example, after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman indicated in Paris that Saudi Arabia could join a punitive raid on Syria over the use of chemical weapons, the Saudis blamed Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen for firing missiles at Riyadh.
Trump, Macron and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May will have to sort through a range of issues before deciding to act. Those include settling on a target list and crafting an attack to avoid provoking a standoff with Russia — a key ally of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Here’s a breakdown of what’s in play:
Things could go wrong
In February, Israel suffered the rare embarrassment of losing an F-16 jet during an operation against targets in Syria. While the U.S., France and Britain have the latest-technology cruise missiles, the presence of Russia’s S-400 air defense system in Syria argues for caution.
Managing a U.S.-Russia standoff
Russia, which backs Assad, has softened its initial threats to retaliate against U.S. ships and bases in event of an attack. The Kremlin says a hotline between U.S. and Russian military officials is in use and Russian media say it’s expected the Americans will provide coordinates of planned targets. The U.S. took care to avoid Russian targets during an air strike in April 2017.
What to hit?
Macron insisted Tuesday that any attack would target the Syrian regime’s chemical capabilities, not Russian and Iranian forces. Yet that advance warning may have allowed Syria to move much of its valuable hardware to Russian air bases. The dilemma: “Do you go in big and risk collateral damage? Do you do something symbolic and meaningless just to show you did something?” said Philippe Moreau Defarges, an adviser at the French Institute for International Affairs.
Syria’s chess map
While denouncing Assad, Trump, Macron and others have made it clear that their main goal is making sure Islamic State never recovers from its battlefield reverses. “If you weaken Assad, the other side is militias and you turn this into a militia situation,” said Kamran Bokhari, senior fellow with the Center for Global Policy in Washington.
The U.S. president, whose military would almost certainly provide most of the intelligence and weaponry, has called for withdrawing U.S. forces globally but also for hitting enemies hard. “The issue is not so much risks, as much as it is the calibration that the United States is seeking,” said Bokhari.
Macron needs allies
The French president has consistently said he’d act, alone if necessary, if Assad crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons again. Assad has done it several times, though never on such a scale as last week. After lauding global cooperation in a United Nations speech last year, Macron now finds himself planning a military attack without a UN mandate — hence his need for allies.
Britain’s messy politics
Parliament refused U.K. participation in a planned punitive raid on Syria in 2013, one of the reasons then-U.S. President Barack Obama called off the raid and left the French high and dry. While U.K. Prime Minister May isn’t required to seek parliamentary approval, it’s accepted that lawmakers will have a say before committing military forces. She heads a minority government, and would require support from some Labour MPs. On Thursday, May’s cabinet agreed on the need to respond.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is less conflicted: she’s ruled out joining any military action against Syria.
— With assistance by Henry Meyer, Robert Hutton, and Alex Morales