Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Syria unlikely to lash out immediately if attacked, experts say

WASHINGTON — U.S. military analysts say any Western strike against the Syrian government is unlikely to draw an immediate counterattack by President Bashar Assad's forces. That, however, does not make the response of the Syrian government — or its allies Iran, Hezbollah and Russia — any easier to predict.

Assad possesses few, if any, real defenses against long-range precision missiles launched from U.S. ships far away. Russia and Iran, which have navies capable of engaging those U.S. ships, are not expected to do so, the Washington Post reported, citing defense and diplomatic experts.

Still, the consequences of a U.S. strike could be complex: The Assad regime could intensify its assault on outgunned rebels; Iran or Hezbollah could launch attacks on Israeli or Western targets; or al-Qaida or other jihadist fighters could exploit a moment of government weakness to gain new ground.

Separately, rebels might be tempted to exaggerate any more limited use of chemical agents by the Syrian government in the future, or even to stage further attacks and blame the regime, just as Syria and Russia have accused them of doing in the Aug. 21 attack that sparked international outrage.

Russia may broaden its weapons supply to Assad and pull back from plans to work alongside the United States to settle the Syrian conflict peacefully. Iran may use the attack as pretext to refuse any negotiation over its disputed nuclear program.

Several analysts said the most likely outcome is that there would be little discernible reaction, at least at first.

"What does the day after look like? We're likely to see something from a very limited response within the region to maybe nothing at all," said security analyst Mark Jacobson of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

In every case, the nations with the most reason to retaliate also have bigger problems or longer-term aims that argue against getting into a tit-for-tat with the United States, analysts and diplomats said.

"All of the main actors have stronger incentives not to respond with violence than to do so," said Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East analyst at the Brookings Institution.

"The Iranians have their hands full," in Syria and at home, Pollack said. "They are not looking for a fight — not with us, not with the Israelis, not with the other Arabs."

Syria has pledged to defend itself, but Assad and his backers may be more likely to try to use any attack to garner sympathy than to mount widespread military retaliation beyond Syrian borders, defense and diplomatic analysts said.

"President Assad might dismissively belittle any strike or turn it to his advantage in a local and regional PR offensive that embarrasses his Arab adversaries," said Daniel Levy, director of the Mideast program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London.

Russian reaction is expected to be largely rhetorical. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week denounced any potential Western attack as misguided and shortsighted, but added that Russia will not "go to war with anybody," as a result.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf did not directly respond when asked whether the administration is concerned about stirring up militancy.

"As we determine and decide and debate what steps will be taken in response to this attack, clearly there are a variety of factors that go into that determination — possible unintended consequences, possible effects in the region," Harf said Wednesday.

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