A U.S.-led military strike against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria could begin soon in response to the Assad regime’s large-scale use of chemical weapons on its own people last week. The reported elements of this proportionate response are designed to respond to the Assad regime’s chemical-weapons violation and to avoid enmeshing the United States more deeply in Syria’s multisided conflict.
In response to the first reports of small-scale chemical-weapons use in Syria last April, the Center for American Progress advocated a multifaceted approach to guide a U.S. response. This response included three major components:
- Demand an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on the Assad regime’s likely chemical-weapons use to help validate the facts.
- Engage NATO and regional partners in planning the U.S. response, which would aim to destroy “appropriate military targets, including delivery systems, logistics, and applicable command and control.”
- Request that NATO and other allies begin planning for a major multinational refugee relief mission in Jordan.
These components should be undertaken prior to military action, which always carries both risk and uncertainty. As such, the United States and its partners should perform a risk assessment of possible reactions to a strike against the Assad regime and prepare for these possible contingencies. This risk assessment will neither be perfect nor predictive, given the uncertainties that are involved. Nonetheless, it is worth conducting some speculative analysis and contingency planning about some possible threats that the United States and its partners might face, however likely or not, in the wake of strikes.
Possible threats in the wake of strikes
Threats from terrorist networks with a regional reach
The Assad regime and its primary regional allies, Iran and Hezbollah, have historically and recently engaged or attempted to engage in terrorism against the United States and its partners. If Iran, Hezbollah, or the Assad regime decides to retaliate for U.S.-led strikes with terrorism, it would do so against U.S. military and diplomatic facilities in the region or regional partners such as Israel, Turkey, or Jordan.
It is also worth noting that elements of the armed opposition in Syria have links to terrorist networks. The armed opposition to President Assad’s government would support any measures that weaken the regime, but the anti-U.S. terrorist elements of that opposition are unlikely to alter their ideological perspectives and views on the United States as a result of a strike. This highlights a dilemma the United States has faced in Syria for the past two years—that the opposition to the Assad regime may be just as inimical to U.S. interests in the long run.
Worsening conflict in Syria
A U.S.-led strike could lead to a worsening conflict in Syria, as the Assad regime feels more desperate and isolated; this depends on the contours of the strike and the perceptions of the Assad regime’s response. As a result, the Assad regime could unleash even more brutal conventional tactics—up to and including a systematic campaign of sectarian violence—if the regime’s ability to use chemical weapons is effectively neutralized.
Additional chemical-weapons attacks
In the wake of a U.S.-led strike, the Assad regime could still possess the means to deliver chemical weapons. It is therefore possible that the regime could employ chemical weapons even more brazenly on a larger scale than they have thus far; U.S. officials believe the heavily contested city of Aleppo is one such target for further regime chemical-weapons use. Such use would likely impel a further U.S.-led response.
Another scenario, albeit unlikely at this point, is that the regime could also use chemical weapons against its neighbors such as Israel, Turkey, Jordan, or any other state within range that is perceived to be complicit in the strike. Israeli civilians are already collecting gas masks and protective kits in anticipation of such a move. Such an escalation by the Assad regime would likely precipitate demands for further military action against the regime, up to and including regime change by military means.
Cross-border rockets and missiles
Both the Assad regime and Hezbollah possess large rocket and missile arsenals that they could fire on U.S. partners and allies in the region. The Israeli military believes Hezbollah possesses some 60,000 such weapons, while the Nuclear Threat Initiative alleges that Syria has “several hundred” Scud missiles. Again, Israel, Turkey, and Jordan are possible targets for any Syrian missile retaliation.
In response to escalating tensions, Israel has called up some reserve military units and deployed more anti-missile defenses. Just last week, Israel conducted strikes against a militant group in Lebanon in response to rockets launched across Israel’s northern border.
Increased numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons
If limited strikes end up exacerbating Syria’s complicated internal conflict, they could accelerate the numbers of refugees flowing into neighboring countries and lead to more Syrians being internally displaced. Right now, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, estimates that there are more than 700,000 refugees in Lebanon, 450,000 in Turkey, 515,000 in Jordan, and 150,000 in Iraq, including a large influx into northern Iraq this past week of 40,000 refugees. On top of that, 2.5 million Syrians are internally displaced.
Increased tensions and instability in the Persian Gulf
Iran could attempt to retaliate for a U.S. strike against the Assad regime by targeting U.S. military and diplomatic facilities in the Persian Gulf area through means other than terrorism. These means could include ballistic-missile attacks, commando raids, small-boat attacks on U.S. warships, and attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz, among others.
This course of action is not very likely, as it is difficult to determine what Iran might gain by precipitating a military conflict with the United States and the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council over limited strikes against its ally in Damascus. Furthermore, Iran’s leaders have signaled their disapproval of the use of chemical weapons, without assigning blame to the Syrian regime. Miscalculation and rash decision making are always possible, however, and such actions by Tehran should not be ruled out completely.
Together, these risks show the need for a multifaceted approach to guide the U.S. response. They are not reasons for paralysis but rather reasons for robust preparation as the United States and its partners seek to hold the Assad regime accountable for its actions.
Rudy deLeon is the Senior Vice President of National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center. Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center.