I’ve been following the situation in Syria distantly. There’s something inherently depressing about the whole situation; of all the Arab Spring-style revolts, this one picked the toughest regime with the most experience in crushing internal dissent in the region (for more info, I suggest reading up on the Hama massacre, in which the Syrian army crushed a Muslim Brotherhood revolt in 1982). The rebels, themselves no saints, have locked horns with a far more capable regime than existed in, say, Egypt.
Following allegations of a chemical attack by Syrian regime units against rebel and civilian positions, calls for international intervention have grown louder and Barack Obama is compelled to act (this brilliant piece of satire from the Onion is worth considering, mostly because of how true it rings: http://www.theonion.com/articles/so-whats-it-going-to-be,33662/)
Options for the West are limited due to the implicit power of veto afforded to the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council (it’s not spelled out as a right of veto, but this is the effect it achieves; the UN Charter requires the consenting option of all five permanent members for a Resolution to pass). Russia exports substantial volumes of arms to Syria and won’t be thrilled about the prospect of a staunch ally being toppled. You have to credit Russia with consistency – given an opportunity behave like grandstanding assholes, they will take it.
China is likely to block any resolution too, though for the Chinese this is naked self-interest. China doesn’t like the concept of outsiders meddling in the domestic affairs of another state, because if it supports scrutiny of any such behavior it invites scrutiny on itself over Taiwan and Tibet.
NATO is an option, therefore, as is uni-, bi- or multilateral action without UNSC sanction. I’m assuming here that a military response is the only response, since diplomacy has failed to gain any traction and not responding is no option either. The US, primarily, has already said the use of NBC (nuclear, chemical, biological) weapons is crossing a line of tolerance and it is compelled to act.
In 1998, two US embassies (Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya) were hit by devastating bomb blasts. The response, a far cry from post-September 11 bellicosity, was a flaccid and ineffectual missile strike on the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, itself suspected of links to al-Qaeda and NBC weapon production. These claims have been heavily disputed since. If you want to understand more about the Sudan during this time, I would recommend you read CNN journalist Peter Bergen’s “Holy War Inc”. He explains the investment made by Osama bin Laden in the Sudan during this time in concise detail.
I bring this up because though slinging missiles at far ranging targets is an easy and comfortable option for Western leaders (no boots on the ground = no casualties; and no casualties = no sustained negative public opinion) it’s also at risk of being utterly ineffectual against the regime. That the US Navy has moved four Arleigh Burke class destroyers (plus one imagines a few Virginia-class SSNs) into the Mediterranean suggests the missile strike option is probably the one that will kick off the campaign. The Arleigh Burke ships carry a compliment of missiles including the Tomahawk, which I suspect will be the armament of choice in this conflict.
Aside from the risk that such a campaign will fail to harm or cower the Assad regime is the risk that a missile strike on a chemical weapons stockpile releases agents into the atmosphere and has a downstream effect on civilians and infrastructure. Such an outcome is obviously highly undesirable on humanitarian and tactical grounds.
Conceivably, too, Israel could be punished for any attack on Syria through clients such as Hizbollah (or directly, by SCUD from Damascus). The Israelis are no doubt capable of defending themselves (and responding with disproportionate levels of force) but my concern here is that the second Israel gets involved, matters escalate heavily.
Six hundred words in and I’m totally at a loss to see a viable option for the West. To stand down is to give Assad the signal that the world will not care too much if he uses NBC weapons on his own people. Nobody wants troops on the ground and an air strike program is limited until a safe corridor could be established. But, a missile strike carries with it significant risks (of failure and of ancillary damage).
I guess I am glad this problem is the domain of other people..?