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Can the U.S. Avoid ‘Slippery Slope’ to Deeper Engagement in Syria?

May 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Israel's latest airstrikes on Syrian military targets is another example of how Syria's civil war may be broadening beyond its borders. Jeffrey Brown talks to Michele Dunne of the Atlantic Council and Steve Clemons, foreign affairs editor at large at The Atlantic magazine, about how and when the U.S. might approach involvement.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And for more, we’re joined by Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Center for the Middle East. She previously served in the State Department and the National Security Council staff. And Steve Clemons, who writes on foreign affairs as editor-at-large at The Atlantic magazine.

Michele Dunne, let me start with you.

What is behind Israel’s strikes into Syria? What are they after?

MICHELE DUNNE, Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East: The Israeli strikes intended to eliminate missiles that were shipped from Iran to Hezbollah to be put into Lebanon, because these missiles would have brought about a qualitative change in Hezbollah’s capability.

Particularly, they have much more precise targeting ability than the missiles that Hezbollah currently has in Lebanon, and they also can carry a bigger payload, so do greater damage inside Israel if they were used.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you see it as a fairly narrow or limited project or effort?

MICHELE DUNNE: Yes.

And this is the second time that Israel has done this. Israel carried out an airstrike previously against some other missiles that were on their way to Hezbollah. This, of course, though, was a larger attack. It was inside Damascus and the Damascus area. It caused significant casualties, more than 40 Syrian soldiers killed.

And I also think there’s a broader message that Israel is sending. It has a specific objective, but I think also to send the message to Iran that Israel is serious about enforcing its red lines.

JEFFREY BROWN: Steve Clemons, what do you see going on here, specifically this weekend with Israel?

STEVEN CLEMONS, The Atlantic: Well, I think Michele Dunne characterized it absolutely correctly.

Israel has shown substantial restraint through this period of civil strife and conflict inside Syria, and saw that it — there may be substantial missiles being transferred to Hezbollah. And they took action to stop it.

What’s interesting to me and I think disconcerting is, we’re beginning to see the blurring of state lines and the potential for a broadening of the war. Even though Israel may not want that — and I think that Israel has tried to be surgical and to remain calm — broadly, we have to begin asking, what does Assad want and what is he threatening?

And I think, to some degree, whether it’s Turkey, Lebanon, other players, broadening the conflict outside, beyond Syria’s borders, is a card that he may be beginning to play. And I think that’s something we should be concerned about in Washington.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, where do you see that? Where do you see that blurring of the lines?

STEVEN CLEMONS: Well, we see it in the cross-border military conflict with — in some areas of Turkey. We have seen it as — you have begun to watch the Saudi, the Qataris, and the Emirates begin to worry about what may be coming after the regime.

They are also calling and advising and trying to interact with people inside the Syrian state government, the bureaucracy, not to leave, if there is a collapse of Assad, because they’re worried about the internal dimensions of a, you know, somewhat Salafist, extreme Islamist takeover inside the country.

So, you have got a lot of players in the neighborhood who are beginning to become much more involved and engaged. And one of the things Assad has been promising in much of his rhetoric is to beware that this could become much more complicated. You have got three million Kurds inside Syria who find common cause with Kurds not only in Iran and Kurdistan, but also in Turkey.

And so there’s a lot of dimensions to this conflict that don’t stay neatly within the borders of Syria at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask …

STEVEN CLEMONS: And I think Israel’s attack, while sensible and important for Israel, is a manifestation of a potential broadening of the conflict regionally.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask you, Michele Dunne, is Israel, do you think, calculating that it can do this and not bring on retaliation or some further spillover effort? Do you think that is possible, or is that what we may see now?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, first of all, I agree with Steve that this conflict is metastasizing.

And it is spreading to other states in the region. I don’t think that Israel wants that to happen. I do think they were taking what they thought was an opportunity. They had obviously had through some methods spotted these missiles and thought this is their opportunity to get rid of these missiles before they get into Lebanon.

And they are — they do seem to be calculating. We saw press leaks that they were calculating that both the Syrian government and Hezbollah are too heavily occupied to really focus on retaliating against Israel and that Iran also probably doesn’t want to take on Israel at this point.

JEFFREY BROWN: By the way, do we know whether they are consulting with the U.S.? Does the U.S. know ahead of time when Israel does something like this? Do we know?

MICHELE DUNNE: I don’t know exactly whether — whether they did or not. I would be surprised if there had not been some advanced notification to the United States.

I don’t know how much time. And probably the Israelis would have already decided that they were going to do this, not so much asking the U.S. permission, as informing the U.S. that they were going to do it. But that’s just a guess.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Steve Clemons, in what ways might all this affect the U.S. position here? We saw in our setup piece, for example, Sen. McCain saying, well, look, this — and others have said this, that this shows at least that the Syrian air defense can be breached fairly easily.

STEVEN CLEMONS: Well, I think there are two sides of another line.

There are some like Sen. McCain and former Sen. Lieberman, Lindsey Graham and others, that are calling for a much more robust involvement of the U.S. with no-fly zones and a kind of engagement somewhat similar and more robust as we saw in Libya.

There are others who are worried that either the shipment of heavy arms, deeper engagement in this conflict, that you don’t have the same tipping-point opportunities that the U.S. had in Libya to completely change the on-the-ground realities, and thus there’s a worry that this could be a slippery slope to a much deeper kind of engagement with heavy costs to the United States.

And in — my sense that what Barack Obama would like to see and is not getting as an option is a way to have a small footprint intervention that changed this. And so I think that the interesting thing is to watch the caution with which Israel has been behaving, the surgical way in which it took out these weapons. I imagine that’s exactly the same kind of thing that the United States would like to do with securing the chemical weapons in one way or another, and not turning this into an effort against the broader Assad regime and making the U.S. as a principal player inside Syria’s civil war.

So I think what’s interesting about McCain and others is that they’d like to see these initiatives around chemical weapons lead to a broader occasion to topple Assad. And I think that the White House is positioning itself, if it does take action, to be only as narrowly focused on the chemical weapons and not really to become more deeply engaged in trying to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

Of course, the question, Michele Dunne, is, is that possible? Can the U.S. stay that focused on the chemical weapons? And a lot of talk now about the president having put himself in something of a box with his red line language.

MICHELE DUNNE: No, Jeff, I don’t think that’s possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: You don’t?

MICHELE DUNNE: No, because from what I understand, to actually secure the chemical weapons on the ground is something that would take more than 10,000 troops, and it’s not something that can be done remotely.

Now, what the United States could do remotely — you have heard Sen. McCain speak of cruise missiles and so forth — is perhaps ground the Syrian air force, so make it more difficult for chemical weapons to be delivered by aircraft. But that doesn’t secure the chemical weapons themselves.

That would have to be done either by the Syrian rebels who are there on the ground, perhaps after the overthrow of the al-Assad regime, or by some fairly large-scale foreign intervention. So I think that the administration, the U.S. administration is now seeing that the costs of inaction have started to outweigh the costs of action.

And I think they’re looking at a variety of options, including arming the rebels, including doing something to ground the air force. There is already a forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command in Jordan being positioned to take action of one kind or another.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

All right, Michele Dunne and Steve Clemons, thank you both very much.

MICHELE DUNNE: Thanks, Jeff.

STEVEN CLEMONS: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: Online, you can find more analysis of Israel’s motivations and a timeline of major developments in Syria.