Despite hard-line US approach, one expert predicts no military intervention before 2013

By John Davison | 12 July 2012

Security specialists believe that a US-led direct military intervention in Syria remains unlikely. Their comments come amid growing pressure from America for action against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and his government.

Increasingly hard-line statements from senior figures in the US administration – including Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, and Susan Rice, ambassador to the UN – make it appear as though America is preparing for military action in Syria.

One American diplomat told Exaro that the US Department of Defense has drawn up secret plans to bring about ‘regime change’ in Syria.

“The idea of military action is really problematical”
– Shashank Joshi, research fellow, RUSI

General Martin Dempsey, America’s most senior military officer as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is on record as saying: “Of course, there is always a military option.”

US military planning started at least in March, when the US president, Barack Obama, asked Dempsey for a contingency plan on military options. However, security experts point out that top military officers continue to deny that specific plans for invasion or regime change have been prepared or ordered by the White House.

Lord Hannay, UK ambassador to the United Nations between 1990 and 1995 and now chairman of the UN all-party parliamentary group, told Exaro: “The chances are exceedingly low,” not least because this is a presidential election year in America.

In addition, two former UK ambassadors to countries in the Middle East warned the West against direct military intervention in Syria.

CIA officers are reportedly on the ground in southern Turkey, helping to co-ordinate weapons supplies to rebel groups. But even this strategy raises concerns that sophisticated weapons systems do not end up with al-Qaeda or other extremist groups.

One possible trigger for US-led military deployment might be if the American administration thought that such groups were able to access Syria’s alleged stockpile of chemical and biological weapons. One assessment sees the need to respond to such a scenario in “a matter of hours”.

The Dempsey contingency options include humanitarian airlifts, aerial surveillance of the Syrian military and the possible establishment of a no-fly zone. But the general has told a Pentagon press briefing that any action against Syria “would be hypothetical in the extreme.” He said that detailed planning was not possible without a specified “outcome”.

Specialists at RUSI, the Royal United Services Institute, which is the think-tank that focusses on defence and security issues, stress that any such plans are “non-kinetic” – not currently being implemented.

Shashank Joshi, research fellow at RUSI, says that bellicose statements from politicians such as Clinton and William Hague, her UK counterpart as foreign secretary, are “brinkmanship, and not particularly dangerous brinkmanship”.

He said that the time to take them seriously would be when they issue ultimatums. But this would need closer involvement of the Arab League, new UN resolutions, and a whole range of “strong diplomatic moves” which, Joshi emphasises, we have yet to see.

“The idea of military action is really problematical,” he said. ”People are very, very uncomfortable about it, and will only go into it if they can say, ‘We had no other choice.

According to Michael Stephens, a researcher for RUSI in Qatar, the “real game-changers” were the massacres at Houla and Mazraat al-Qubair in late May and early June.

But he said that there was “no interest in the US about going in.” Hence the shift towards supplying arms. Western countries cannot just stand back, he said, because the Syrian rebels will then turn to anyone for help, including possibly al-Qaeda.

Some diplomats have been pushing for a partial transition of power achieved by removing the president while leaving most of the apparatus of state intact.

But Stephens said that the rebels would insist on a complete dismantling of the existing state, which would risk a repeat of post-war Iraq. “I have not met anyone that has an answer to that one,” he said.

Meanwhile, he said that US-led direct intervention to hasten regime change “is not on the cards”, adding: “I do not see any kind of military involvement before 2013.”

Many specialists see Russia as having a crucial role in determining the future of Syria.

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