The timing and nature of an intervention by the US, UK and France into Syria will remain unclear until the operation is in motion. The operation may well include cruise missile strikes. Such strikes are ideally suited to military targets but are less effective, even downright dangerous, against the major reason for an intervention, which is chemical weapons. Initial targeting of Syrian air defence radars and computer processing centres is more likely. Sufficient Western naval forces (surface ships and most probably submarines) that can launch cruise missiles are known to be in striking distance of Syria today.
"We are prepared. We are ready to go" if given such an order from President Barack Obama, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC on Tuesday.
It appears Australia is being asked to support a US effort in some way. Australia's only tangible and timely assistance may be diplomatic – by way of Australia temporarily chairing the UN Security Council from Sunday, September 1, 2013. Australian military involvement, which in practice can only be minor, may not be popular here.
The US appears to be now sufficiently convinced that the Syrian Government has used chemical weapons against civilians on a mass scale. This chemical weapons use has crossed the metaphorical "red line" that President Obama has constructed as a justification to trigger US intervention. But this is only after the UK, France and perhaps Israel have attempted for more than a year to persuade the US to become directly involved in Syria.
The prospect of Syrian suicide bombings against UN or Western military units gives policymakers and military planners nightmares. Nightmares partly stem from the West's past experience in Iraq and current pain in Afghanistan. More immediately in Syria's region American policymakers still recall how 241 American servicemen were killed by one truck bomb in neighbouring Lebanon in 1983. No-one thanked the US for getting involved in Lebanon's decades long civil war and Syria contains many of the same warring groups and issues as the Lebanese conflict.
As soon as the US is visually involved in Syria (with vivid shots of missile explosions) the international press will make US involvement the main story. Wise voices will rapidly blame the US for becoming involved. Still, how to protect Syrians civilians from chemical weapons attacks needs to be faced by some means.
Western decisions to act are based on humanitarian and political pressure, but also intelligence information concerning the Syrian Government's acts and intentions. US decisions would rely heavily on signals intelligence (sigint) provided principally by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and also by the sigint agencies of such countries as Israel.
The current role of Israel's sigint organisation in helping the US decide to act against Syrian Government targets has been reported on the US website IntelNews:
"…while the US administration of President Barack Obama is collating the evidence of the Syrian government's complicity in the attacks, reports from Israel have identified even the Syrian Army unit that allegedly fired the chemical rounds. Late last week, Israel's Channel 2 claimed that the attack was launched by the 155th Brigade of the Syrian Army's 4th Armored Division, which is known to be commanded by Maher al-Assad, brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. German media reports suggest that the source of the claim was Unit 8200, the electronic interception division of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)."
The issue of striking Syrian chemical weapons production facilities or chemical weapons ammunition stocks involves a difficult set of targeting decisions, including estimates of likely civilian casualties. Hitting production facilities with Western cruise missiles may rupture chemical production containers or mix binary chemical weapons, possibly causing many civilian deaths.
Hitting chemicals weapons ammunition stocks (which may be chemical filled artillery shells, bombs and missile warheads) runs the risk of dispersing these weapons over wide areas, perhaps rupturing them or at least making each weapon highly unstable, hence difficult to subsequently make "safe".
However the Western intervention develops the US is a reluctant participant. Obama doesn't want Syria to become America's next Middle East mess. About the only certainty is that the intellectual commentariat will automatically blame the US for Syria's Civil War once the US becomes involved. Australia might also need to weigh up the risks and costs of eventual military involvement. Yet Syrian civilians did not ask to become targets of the Syrian Government. What to do?
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