The decision the United States is about to make on Syria — how and where to punish President Bashar Assad for using poison gas on his own people — will touch just about every important piece on the geopolitical board.
China, Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, al Qaeda. Even North Korea, half a world away and always eager to make trouble, tried to export gas masks to Syria — believed to be for government forces — before they were seized in Turkey along with arms and ammunition, a Japanese newspaper reported Tuesday.
And of course Russia, whose relationship with the United States has not exactly been warm lately.
Here’s a glance at the potential global ripple effect if, as expected, the American military sends cruise missiles into Syria in coming days.
China and Russia both hold veto power in the United Nations Security Council and would block American efforts to work through the U.N. to punish Assad. That’s one reason everyone expects the United States to act mostly on its own.
For China, the issue is sovereignty: The Chinese don’t like countries getting into each other’s business because they don’t want anyone in theirs, said Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
China picked at a particularly sore wound on Tuesday — reminding the United States, through a commentary in the government-run Xinhua news service, that it invaded Iraq 10 years ago on the pretext of banned weapons that were never found.
“The recent flurry of consultations between Washington and its allies indicates that they have put the arrow on the bowstring and would shoot even without a U.N. mandate,” Xinhua said. “That would be irresponsible and dangerous.”
Here the language was a little more pointed. A Russian deputy prime minister said Tuesday that Western countries were behaving in the Islamic world like a “monkey with a grenade,” according to the al Arabiya news channel.
It doesn’t take a long memory to recall that relations between Washington and Moscow are chilly, most recently because of Russia’s decision to grant National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden a year’s asylum.
Remember the famously awkward press conference earlier this year between a slouching President Vladimir Putin and a stiff President Barack Obama? The topic that day was how to come together to stop the bloodshed in Syria.
The Russians care about clout — being a major player on the world stage, Pollack said. And the U.S. insistence early in the Syrian crisis that Russia was vital to the process only elevated their stature, he said.
“Before the Syria crisis, Russia had no say in the Middle East,” Pollack said. “They had nothing going. The Obama administration kept saying we can’t do anything in Syria without the Russians. Which I don’t think was ever true. That made Russia important.”
THE ARAB LEAGUE
The Arab League, an association of 22 countries, said Tuesday that the Syrian regime is responsible for the gas attack last week, and demanded that “all the perpetrators of this heinous crime be presented for international trials.”
The league suggested that the U.N. Security Council members should get over their differences and find a solution — unlikely to say the least. Still, the league’s support offers some diplomatic cover for the West to hammer Assad.
The backdrop here is centuries old. The Arab League is dominated by countries with Sunni Muslim leaders. (Iraq is more mixed, and pointedly withheld support for parts of what the league said Tuesday.) Assad is backed by Shiites.
And when the Sunni countries worry about divisions with the Shiites, what they’re mostly worried about is one country.
Assad, two years into a civil war with the rebels, depends heavily on Iran and on the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah.
The Syria-Iran alliance presents a big problem for the United States: Too heavy a strike against Assad could embolden Iran to come to the rescue and take action against U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. Or unleash Hezbollah against Western targets.
“That’s the reason why our military professionals have been so reluctant to get involved,” Jeremy Bash, who was chief of staff to former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, said on the MSNBC program “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”
That’s why the Obama administration believes that, even if it doesn’t end the Syrian civil war, “We can punish, deter and degrade, and that is an important military objective.”
On the other hand, if the United States launches a purely symbolic attack against Assad, hitting non-critical targets as a warning rather than those that might actually disable the regime, opposition fighters could be demoralized.
That would leave them more likely to turn to extremist Islamist groups, and specifically al Qaeda, for support. Assad has upbraided the West for supporting al Qaeda militants on the loosely organized rebel side.
Israel doesn’t want to see chemical warfare spread any further than it already has. If unconventional warfare becomes commonplace in Syria, it’s more likely to spread to international terrorist groups.
“They don’t want to see large-scale CW,” Pollack said, using the abbreviation for chemical weapons. “It’s going to end badly for Israel.”
Israel, which has its hands full trying to beat back Iran’s nuclear ambition, is depending on the Americans not just to deal with Assad but to send a message to Tehran, he said.
Otherwise, “You are going to get spillover, refugees, terrorism. A greater risk that one side is going to drag the Israelis in,” Pollack said. “The longer the war goes on, the worse it’s going to be for Israel.”