How Assad might strike back

It looks increasingly likely that the United States, in conjunction with key allies, has decided to launch a limited military strike in the coming days to punish Syria for its apparent use of chemical weapons on August 21.

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But US President Barack Obama has also made it clear that he seeks to fulfill that goal without destroying the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, killing more innocent people, or sparking further regional escalation of the war. While the United States has considerable military assets at its disposal, including ships in the region carrying scores of Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (the likely stand-off weapon of choice), it is a challenge to calibrate the response just right. Too little force could have little effect, while too much could backfire.

The United States is not alone in this delicate balancing act. Assad, too, must carefully weigh his options as he ponders how he can respond to an anticipated US strike without unleashing the wrath of the US military and, as a result, jeopardising his own survival. 

Predicting Assad’s response requires, in part, an understanding of the reason for his use of chemical weapons in the first place. Was it a step taken out of frustration or desperation? If the regime believes it needs to maintain a chemical weapons option it might be more inclined to respond. Conversely, was it a misstep, possibly reflecting divisions within the regime or poor command and control? In that case, retaliation might be less likely.

Assad’s response will depend, perhaps to an even greater degree, on the nature of US action and how he perceives US strategy and intentions. Is a strike seen as merely symbolic? Substantive but limited? Or is it part of a new effort to overthrow the regime? A panicky regime that feels its survival is at risk is more likely to miscalculate or escalate. So too, conversely, is an overconfident one that believes an attack is little more than a slap on the wrist indicating weak US and international resolve.

In an attempt at reducing the risk of escalation, Obama has publicly telegraphed his intentions to Assad, making it clear that the US goal is not to topple the regime. A similar message has likely been passed on to Syria’s key allies, Russia and Iran.

As careful as both sides might be to calibrate action and response, developments can always spin out of control. Assad knows the “law of unintended consequences” well from earlier in his presidency: in 2005 Hezbollah’s suspected assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri ultimately resulted in Syrian troops being forced to leave that country. In 2007 Syrian efforts to develop a covert nuclear capacity ended when Israel bombed the suspected reactor site. In 2011 efforts to crush largely peaceful protests sparked the current bloody civil war. This month’s use of chemical weapons is another action for which the consequences — an impending US military attack — were almost certainly not those that Syrian officials intended.

Moreover, in the fog and friction of war intelligence is imperfect and bombs and missiles don’t always end up in the right place. Given the deaths of hundreds of civilians when the United States bombed the Amiriyah shelter in Baghdad in 1991 as well as the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, American targeteers had better be very sure they know what not to hit in Damascus this time around. If a US attack results in high Syrian civilian casualties or costs the lives of key regime figures, Assad might find himself under greater pressure to respond.

When and if the US launches its attacks (likely targeting command and control centers, airfields, and strategic weapons and delivery systems), Assad might well do very little beyond issuing rhetorical condemnations. However, he will still have several possible retaliatory options that the United States and its allies will need to consider:

While very unlikely, if the Syrian leader believed that the end was near he could attack neighboring countries with a barrage of surface-to-surface missiles tipped with chemical warheads. Syria has a large, dispersed, and somewhat hardened strategic chemical weapons arsenal that might well survive a first hit by the US military. If Syria’s target were Israel, this would invite swift and decisive Israeli retaliation, but the damage would already have been done. While Israel’s missile defenses are more robust than any in the world, no such system is perfect. Jordan and Turkey are at risk, too. The former has hosted up to a thousand US troops since June, including Patriot missile systems, fighter aircraft, and related support, command, control and communications personnel and systems. Turkey currently has Patriot missile batteries deployed from fellow NATO members Germany and the Netherlands. All of these Patriot systems are the PAC-3 variant able to intercept ballistic missiles, and their presence underscores the understandable nervousness of US regional allies.Assad could attack US allies with conventional means. Such a strategy would have limited effects and would be almost self-defeating, however, because most US allies are (especially with US assistance) capable of protecting themselves from Syria’s war-ravaged forces.Aware of his limited conventional capabilities, Assad might try to drag his allies into a war with Israel. While Hezbollah already has thousands of men in Syria fighting alongside government forces, attacking Israel directly would risk another 2006-style war in Lebanon. Furthermore, Hezbollah’s zeal and eagerness to fight Israel notwithstanding, the organisation is in a politically sensitive position in Lebanon at the moment, a condition that would likely further deter it from opening two large-scale military fronts simultaneously. Given its long-term investment in Hezbollah, Iran would be equally unlikely to see its Lebanese ally dragged into a damaging fight with Israel at this juncture.Some Iranian lawmakers have suggested that Iran would retaliate against Israel directly if Syria is attacked, but neither Iran’s supreme leader nor the country’s president has issued similar statements. This doesn’t categorically guarantee that Iran will remain on the sidelines — in theory Iran could decide to attack US assets in the Gulf — but this is extremely unlikely given the huge risks and consequences of such an action.Assad could resort to covertly supporting terrorist attacks against neighboring states, or against US targets in the Middle East or elsewhere. This is the least costly and most likely retaliatory option for Assad. However, it is not clear that Syria has much current capacity to organise such attacks, and might instead find it necessary to rely on Iranian or Hezbollah assistance. The 2012 bombing of a tourist bus in Burgas, Bulgaria — an act for which Hezbollah was ultimately blamed, and which led to European Union measures against the group — shows that even carefully-planned operations can go wrong or backfire.Assad could escalate domestically and pound rebel-controlled areas even harder to show that he is not intimidated. He would be smart not to use chemical weapons again, but even conventional escalation that results in heavy civilian casualties — a more prominent use of surface-to-surface missiles, for example — carries the risk of spurring a US reaction. It is also doubtful how much ability the Syrian army has to step up the pace of its war-fighting.

All signs from Washington so far indicate that the US strike will be limited. And Obama’s declared Syria policy has not changed; it still seeks a political settlement between the government and the (still divided) opposition. The hope is that with the recent massive shipment of ammunition and light weapons from the Turkish border to the Syrian rebels and with the likely US strike, the Syrian opposition will receive the help it needs to go to the negotiating table in Geneva with its morale boosted and its bargaining position strengthened (again, assuming it unifies and gets its act together). However, don’t be surprised if the rebels, angered by the chemical attack and emboldened by a US strike, harden their positions. Also, don’t expect restraint from hard-line jihadist elements affiliated with al Qaeda either. They too will see an incentive to push even harder to topple Assad.

Bilal Y. Saab is the executive director and head of research of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) North America. Rex Brynen is a professor of Middle East politics and security at McGill University.

 © 2013, Foreign Policy

Abbott blames Gillard for cattle quota cut

The federal opposition says the Labor government is to blame for Indonesia’s plan to cut Australian live cattle imports almost by half.

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The Indonesian agriculture ministry has confirmed plans to cut the cattle import quota from more than 520,000 head to only 280,000 next year.

Australia’s cattle industry was surprised by the size of the cut, but the move was foreshadowed in July when it was revealed Indonesia was more advanced than previously thought in its drive to become self-sufficient in beef production by 2014.

The scaling back of live cattle imports is based on the latest census of domestic cattle available for slaughter in Indonesia. It shows Indonesia has increased its stocks to about 14.4 million – well in excess of the 14.2 million Jakarta believes is needed for Indonesia to become self-sufficient.

But Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says Labor is to blame for the reduction and called it “very, very bad news indeed for the cattle producers of the Northern Territory”.

The Liberal leader, visiting Darwin on Friday, said Jakarta’s decision was linked to Australia’s suspension in June of live animal exports to Indonesia.

The temporary ban came after video evidence on ABC television showing the mistreatment of animals in Indonesian abattoirs.

Exports only resumed after an agreement was reached on new standards for the treatment of animals bound for slaughter.

Mr Abbott told reporters Prime Minister Julia Gillard had bungled Australia’s response by sending “incompetent” Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig to Indonesia earlier this year. “He plainly made a bad situation worse,” he said.

“If this was a functional government, as opposed to a dysfunctional government, Julia Gillard would have been prepared to send (foreign affairs minister) Kevin Rudd.

“So, the cattle producers of the territory are in this jam, in large measure, because Julia Gillard wasn’t prepared to let Kevin Rudd do his job.”

Nationals leader Warren Truss was even more blunt, saying, “The Indonesian government has retaliated by accelerating moves towards self-sufficiency.

But Australian producers may not be in as big a jam as they think. Joni Liano, executive director of the Indonesian Meat Producers and Feedlot Association, told AAP the number of live cattle that would be needed for slaughter next year was still close to 500,000 head. He said Jakarta’s census figures were optimistic.

“The quota request for cattle imports has been submitted, and in 2012 there should be 480,000 to be imported from Australia.”

The Cattle Council of Australia says the large import quota cut outlined by the Indonesian government on Friday would, if realised, have a significant impact on northern beef producers.

“It’s quite a large reduction and more than we expected,” vice-president Andrew Ogilvie told ABC TV.

Animals Australia, which was instrumental in exposing cruelty at Indonesian slaughterhouses, says Friday’s announcement isn’t a reprieve for livestock.

More and more animals were being sent to other markets such as the Middle East, Egypt and Turkey “where, like Indonesia, animals are permitted to be brutally slaughtered while fully conscious,” executive director Glenys Oogjes said in a statement.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh says the reduction in Indonesian imports is a devastating blow for producers but she can see one positive aspect.

“It does spur us on to … continue the work we’re doing to look at an abattoir at Cloncurry to give these producers the option of domestic production,” she told reporters in Brisbane.

An abattoir could get top quality Queensland beef from north Queensland to the domestic market in a more commercially viable way and diversify options for producers, she said.