Despite a possible diplomatic solution, the U.S. may be dragged into a conflict with Syria, said a Middle East analyst, who does not trust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to give up his chemical weapons or Russia to serve as an honest broker.
Diplomats from the U.S., Russia and elsewhere are working on getting Assad to voluntarily surrender his chemical weapons after an attack last month reportedly killed more than 1,000 people, pushing the U.S. to the very edge of launching missile strikes to punish the Assad regime.
But the Obama administration’s strategy of using diplomacy and the threat of military action to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again can only go so far, said Jeff Martini, an analyst with the RAND Corporation.
“I see us being pulled into this conflict,” Martini said Tuesday at the Air Force Association Air & Space Conference in National Harbor, Md. “If this regime loses ground – and the opposition, while not well equipped or organized, is large – if the regime loses ground, it’s going to be tempted to escalate vertically, as it has done, and use things like chemical weapons and I think that would pull the U.S. in.”
One complicating factor is the presence of al-Qaida in the opposition. Secretary of State John Kerry has estimated that between 15 and 25 percent of the rebel groups are al-Qaida affiliated, but other reporting estimates that half of the rebels are with al-Qaida, Martini said.
“There’s a lot of ambiguity here and I think that should urge caution, frankly, because we don’t know that much about the Syrian opposition,” he said.
There is also the risk that even a limited U.S. intervention could escalate because one goal of an operation would be to “degrade” Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities.
“If you target CW [chemical weapons]capabilities in a way to degrade it, you might actually put him [Assad] in a ‘use them or lose them’ situation,” he said.