Could a US/NATO "punitive" attack against Syria unleash a wider regional war or even—as more elaborate narratives claim—the next world war?
Though many analysts think not, the term "law of unintended consequences" has been employed with increasing frequency in recent days and even the most informed experts on the issue—regardless of political affiliation—are saying that in a situation as complex and volatile as the one in Syria, nothing—especially the possibility of sparking wider violence—should be ruled out.
In this context, the state-run Interfax news agency reports on Thursday that the Russian Navy is sending both a missile cruiser and an anti-submarine battleship into the eastern Mediterranean Sea, where US warships are already stationed.
According to Reuters:
Any strengthening of the navy's presence could fuel tension, especially as the United States has said it is repositioning naval forces in the Mediterranean following an alleged chemical weapons attack which is blames on Syrian government forces.
"The well-known situation now in the eastern Mediterranean required us to make some adjustments to the naval force," the source said in a reference to the events in Syria.
It was not clear when the vessels would arrive but Interfax said the Moskva missile cruiser was currently in the North Atlantic and would set sail in the next few days.
And also from Reuters, a report about possible direct or asymmetric responses by Syria's Assad government or its regional backers could spell a variety of new violence in the Middle East and beyond:
U.S. military commanders are preparing contingency plans for a potential counter-strike by Syria's military, defense officials said. The officials expressed confidence that the United States and U.S. regional allies such as Israel could deter or neutralize an immediate response from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
A European defense official said the purpose of building up large forces near Syria - mostly in the form of naval assets - was to deter Assad.
"The important thing is to have enough force to control the escalatory response," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
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Even so, "there is no military action without risk, and a punitive strike on Syrian regime forces would carry some. Weapons could hit unintended targets, perhaps killing civilians," Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank wrote this week. "The regime could strike back in unexpected ways against U.S. and allied interests, or it could resort to further (chemical weapons) attacks inside Syria."
Syria and its close regional ally, Iran, both are widely believed to have ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel and other U.S. allies nearby, such as Turkey and Jordan.
Hezbollah, the Shi'ite militia backed by Tehran and fighting on Assad's side in Syria, has tens of thousands of short-range rockets in southern Lebanon, near Israel's border.
Many analysts predict that Syria and its allies will avoid a direct conflict with the United States and opt instead for an "asymmetric response" aimed at Western vulnerabilities - terror or cyber attacks, for example.
And all these possibilities come as even pro-US military analysts, including active commanders, say that the "limited" strike being proffered would have potentially limited impact against changing the power dynamics in Syria.
And when The Independent's Patrick Cockburn explores whether airstrikes will "spread the Syrian conflict to other countries in the region?" he responds by saying that such an attack by Western powers would only worsen a situation that has been steadily worsening:
Lebanon is already shuddering under the impact of the Syrian crisis with big bombs against a Shia district in south Beirut and two Sunni mosques in Tripoli. As many as a million Syrians have fled to Syria. Lebanon is not breaking apart yet but the air strikes will raise tensions further. But, despite occasional threats, it is scarcely in the interests of Iran or Hezbollah to stoke the Syrian conflict, which endangers both of them, by action against Israel or Western interests.
Jordan is as usual trying to balance contending forces, with a spokesman saying: “Jordan will not be a launching pad for any action against Syria.” But there are well-sourced reports that Jordan is indeed a base for CIA training of Syrian rebels with support from Saudi Arabia.
Israel is in an ambivalent position: on the one hand it would be glad to get rid of President Assad and see the destruction of Syria which has been at heart of state opposition to Israel for 40 years. On the other hand, the forces most likely to replace Assad could be more anarchic and more dangerous. What also if the civil war ended with a weakened Assad still in power but even more dependent on Iran and Hezbollah?
President Obama faces a problem in his effort to decide on military action vigorous enough to show US military strength but not so strong that it radically changes the balance of power on the ground in Syria. He wants a broad-ranging coalition but some members of this such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey want to go much further than him in a campaign to overthrow the government in Damascus.
And whatever happens the balance of forces will be disturbed, affecting not only the struggle within Syria but regional confrontation between Sunni and Shia and between Saudi Arabia and Iran.