Russia Direct interviewed a number of Russian and American experts to find out how a military intervention in Syria would impact stability in the Middle East as well as U.S.-Russian relations.

A girl, with cheeks painted in the colors of Syria's flag, shouts slogans while taking part in a protest against the alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus. Photo: Reuters

With its new allegations and accusations that Syria’s authorities have used chemical weapons, the West appears to be more decisive in launching military intervention in Syria, especially amidst the growing escalation of violence in the country. 

Although experts haven’t yet performed a thorough investigation, the U.S. has no doubts that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons. According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the reports about Syria using chemical weapons are “undeniable,” “compelling” “grounded in facts, informed by conscience and guided by common sense.” 

What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world,” he said at a recent press conference in Washington, referring to Internet images and videos that described the consequences of an alleged chemical attack and showed human suffering, whole families dead in their beds without a drop of blood or a visible wound, bodies contorting in spasms.

“These all strongly indicate that everything these images are already screaming at us is real, that chemical weapons were used in Syria,” he added.

While describing this chemical attack as “the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians,” Kerry noted “the cynical attempt to cover it up” is inexcusable.

Shortly after this incident, the Syrian opposition refused to participate in the international “Geneva-2” conference intended to bring together at the negotiations table both the supporters of Assad and his opponents. This move only fueled tensions and resulted in the postponement of the planned Russian-American meeting at Geneva-2. The situation seems to be out of control.  

Meanwhile, Russia expressed its deep concerns about the standoff and warned against reckless decisions like military intervention. Far from resolving the impasse and preventing civil war, the military interference will only aggravate the situation in the region and bring more chaos and havoc, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“If somebody believes that it is worthwhile to bomb the Syrian military infrastructure to help the regime’s opponents win and this will end everything, this is an illusion,” he said at a special press conference yesterday. “A civil war will be going on.”

He also added that the Syrian government is not interested in the use of chemical weapons from a political perspective.

“When UN experts worked there [in Syria], the military situation was favorable to the authorities and the Russian-American negotiations at the Geneva-2 conference had to take place,” he clarifies. “On the contrary, the other side [the Syrian opposition] was not uninterested in provoking attacks on the regime from abroad and organizing such provocation.” 

While Kerry calls for “accountability” of the Syrian government and decisive actions from the West, his Russian counterpart Lavrov proposes waiting until the U.N. finishes its probe into the chemical attacks. 

At the same time, some Russian experts echo Lavrov’s concerns.

“From my point of view, the probability of the use of chemical weapon by the regime in Syria is close to zero,” said Vasily Kuznetsov, a research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences.“Arguments why Assad wouldn’t dare to use them now are known. Yet, radical anti-government groups are likely to use chemical weapons: Technically, it’s not impossible at all.”  

The reports about chemical attacks might be the purposeful dissemination of false information that external players can use as a pretext to start military intervention, according to him. In this context, Saudi Arabia plays an important role because its mass media started to spread information about the chemical attacks, he said.

“In fact, we are talking about an attempt of the Persian Gulf countries to impose their agenda on their Western partners,” Kuznetsov explains to Russia Direct.

Meanwhile, Russia Direct interviewed other Russian and American experts to figure out if military intervention (with all its possible negative consequences) is a potential scenario and how such a scenario could affect U.S.-Russian relations. If military intervention takes place, will it lead to a larger conflict in the Middle East involving multiple state and non-state actors?  

Members of 'Free Men of Syria' (Ahrar Suriya) brigade, operating under the Free Syrian Army. Photo: Reuters

Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., senior associate at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, D.C. where he writes and edits the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report

Comments by U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seem to indicate that a decisive group that holds sway within the Obama Administration is convinced that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons and has decided that the U.S. must intervene militarily in some way in order to preserve American prestige given the president’s previously drawn ‘red lines.’

Perhaps U.S. authorities also have come to the conclusion that the growing Islamist threat in the Middle East and American inability to intervene on the ground means the inevitable coming to power of the Islamists and/or jihadists.  This would threaten Israel’s existence, if it does not lead to a Sunni-Shiite war first, either of which would involve costs for the U.S., including the loss of relatively cheap oil and possible U.S. and global economic collapse.

Given the failure to come up with Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program elements and recent revelations about U.S. spying initiatives at home and abroad, U.S. credibility is at an all-time low and is unlikely to sustain any real support [within the UN Security Council] for U.S./NATO action in Syria.  Nevertheless, the U.S. and/or NATO may undertake military intervention without any outside support.

This could prompt escalatory actions on the part of Syria or Iran. The reports of Assad’s alleged chemical attack is likely to increase the flow of Sunni revolutionaries to Syria, in particular, the flow of jihadists.  This is likely to consolidate the Syrian front’s status as the main front in the global jihad and destabilize Iraq, Lebanon and, perhaps Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.

The global jihadists’ intense anti-Shiism is likely to escalate the slow-burning intra-Islamic Sunni-Shiite civil war and could lead to a region-wide Sunni-Shia war, which Russia’s Shiite allies are unlikely to prevail in. This is beginning to spread to Lebanon and even to the north in Russia’s North Caucasus, where anti-Shiite sentiment is growing among Russia’s Sunni-dominated Muslims.

It is also leading to a sharp reduction in the number of Caucasus Emirate (CE) attacks in the North Caucasus this year, as hundreds of fighters have gone to Syria to fight there.  The general destabilization and the risk of the loss of control over Syria’s chemical weapons risks their falling into the hands of the CE mujahedin and others outside Syria who might try to attack Sochi or elsewhere in Russia or the world before or after the Winter Olympic Games in February.

And this attack would inevitably be blamed on U.S. policies of supporting Assad’s overthrow and exporting democracy at all costs, including chaos and civil war in Syria. It will lead to another downturn in U.S. relations. Indeed, any U.S./NATO intervention will only heighten Moscow’s fears about the West’s adventurist interventionism, especially if there is not incontrovertible proof presented that Assad’s forces undertook the attack.

Tatyana Karasova, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Oriental Studies Institute Department for the Study of Israel and Jewish Communities. She is a former senior diplomat at the Russian Foreign Ministry, author of monographs, textbooks and about fifty scholarly articles

The question about a possible intervention in Syria remains open so far. On one hand, it’s clear for the West that opposition militants are hardly likely to overthrow the Assad regime with their own forces and the only opportunity to do it is via military intervention, from their point of view.

Under the pretext of the chemical attack by the Syrian authorities (even though it hasn’t been proved) the naval forces of the West are mobilizing to attack Syria. On the other hand, this intervention will bring about bigger expenses and casualties [than it was during the crackdown of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya].

Another deterrent is the tough position of Russia and, probably, China. The domestic policy factor is fairly important as well for the Obama Administration: about 60 percent of Americans are strongly against the planned operation in Syria and only 9 percent approves it, according to recent public opinion polls.

Probably, the U.S. and its allies will try to take under control the chemical weapons and provide a no-fly zone over the Syrian territory.  Yet, all these scenarios mean the direct involvement in the conflict and the beginning of an air operation against Syria. Military actions might start at any time given the fact that President Barack Obama rejected Assad’s proposal of UN investigation of the previous chemical attack. Everything is prepared for intervention, yet the U.S. will undertake measures if its international allies give their consent.

Currently, the UK has supported military intervention and both Turkey and France don’t rule out such a scenario. Israel is hardly likely to participate in this campaign. It doesn’t have real opportunities to influence the Syrian crisis and any outside military operation will bring more harm to Israel than benefits.

Russia won’t be engaged in war with somebody only because of Syria, even though the West will attack the Syrian territory. Obviously, military intervention will fuel tensions in U.S.-Russia relations.  

Vasily Kuznetsov, associate professor at Moscow State University’s Faculty of World Politics, research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences

Full-fledged ground intervention is relatively unlikely, yet the repeat of the Libyan scenario (or rather, the Balkan one) is quite possible as well: Air attacks will objectively support the opposition. At the same time, we have been witnessing the indecision of the West and its high reluctance to actively meddle in Syria’s affairs. This leaves a hope that the pragmatic approach will prevail in the West. 

Whether military intervention takes place or not, we shouldn’t expect that something good will happen in the Middle East. If the intervention doesn’t happen, the Syrian civil war will go on for a long time.

This will result in instability in neighbor countries, first and foremost, in fragile states like Lebanon and Iraq, as well as in weakened Egypt and Tunisia (the spread of terrorism, weapons, military troops and so on)

and even in Saudi Arabia in the case of a power change. If air attacks take place, regional players will be involved in the military conflict in Syria. Yet, the probability of a direct war between them (for example, between Saudi Arabia and Iran) seems to be low.

Regarding the relations between Russia and the West, the Syrian conflict plays an instrumental role. Moscow uses its differences with the West to resolve its domestic problems. So, Moscow will save its tough anti-Western rhetoric. After all, the West has used until today Syria to demonize the Russian regime even in those situations when Russia was right and realistic. The anti-Russian rhetoric will be alive there. Meanwhile, both sides could use the Syrian conflict in a positive way, such as a way a field for joint peacemaking operations.