Today, the British Parliament has been debating the U.K.’s potential participation in a U.S.-led military strike against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria over its large-scale use of chemical weapons against its own people last week. As the United States and partners like France and the U.K. inch ever closer to proportionate response to the Assad regime’s most barbaric atrocity thus far, they should conduct a thorough risk assessment of possible reactions to a strike and prepare for those contingencies, however remote or unlikely.
This risk assessment will neither be perfect nor predictive, given the uncertainties that are involved. Nor should it be reason for paralysis in the face of the Assad regime’s despicable use of chemical weapons. Rather, it should be a guide for robust preparation as the United States and its partners seek to hold the Assad regime accountable for its actions.
These risks include:
Threats from terrorist networks: The Assad regime and its regional allies, Iran and Hezbollah, could retaliate with terrorist attacks against U.S. military and diplomatic facilities in the region or regional partners such as Israel, Jordan, and Turkey.
Worsening conflict in Syria: A U.S.-led strike could leave the Assad regime feeling more isolated and desperate, increasing the chances of even more extreme actions that make Syria’s internal conflict worse.
Additional chemical weapons attacks: In the wake of a U.S.-led strike, the Assad regime could still possess the means to deliver chemical weapons. It is therefore possible that the regime could employ chemical weapons even more brazenly on a larger scale than they have thus far or even against regional neighbors like Israel, Turkey, and Jordan.
Cross-border rockets and missiles: Both the Assad regime and Hezbollah possess large numbers of rockets and missiles that could be fired at regional U.S. partners.
Increased numbers of refugees and displaced persons: If limited strikes end up exacerbating Syria’s complicated internal conflict, they could accelerate the numbers of refugees flowing into neighboring countries and lead to more Syrians being internally displaced.
Increased tension and instability in the Persian Gulf: Iran could attempt to retaliate for a U.S. strike against the Assad regime by targeting U.S. military and diplomatic facilities in the Persian Gulf area through means other than terrorism. The means could include ballistic-missile attacks, commando raids, small-boat attacks on U.S. warships, and attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz, among others.
Together, these risks show the need for a multifaceted approach to guide the U.S. response, as the Center for American progress advocated when reports first surfaced in April about the Assad regime’s limited use of chemical weapons. This response included three major components:
1. Demand an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on the Assad regime’s likely chemical-weapons use to help validate the facts.
2. Engage NATO and regional partners in planning the U.S. response, which would aim to destroy “appropriate military targets, including delivery systems, logistics, and applicable command and control.”
3. Request that NATO and other allies begin planning for a major multinational refugee relief mission in Jordan.
These components should be undertaken prior to military action, which always carries both risk and uncertainty. Nonetheless, these risks and uncertainties should not be an excuse for paralysis. The Assad regime has grotesquely violated international norms by using chemical weapons on its own people, and a cost must be imposed upon it.