The Middle East Channel

How Assad might strike back

It looks increasingly likely that the United States, in conjunction with key allies, has decided to launch a limited military strike in the coming days to punish Syria for its apparent use of chemical weapons on August 21. But U.S. President Barack Obama has also made it clear that he seeks to fulfill that goal without destroying the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, killing more innocent people, or sparking further regional escalation of the war. While the United States has considerable military assets at its disposal, including ships in the region carrying scores of Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (the likely stand-off weapon of choice), it is a challenge to calibrate the response just right. Too little force could have little effect, while too much could backfire.

The United States is not alone in this delicate balancing act. Assad, too, must carefully weigh his options as he ponders how he can respond to an anticipated U.S. strike without unleashing the wrath of the U.S. military and, as a result, jeopardizing his own survival. 

Predicting Assad's response requires, in part, an understanding of the reason for his use of chemical weapons in the first place. Was it a step taken out of frustration or desperation? If the regime believes it needs to maintain a chemical weapons option it might be more inclined to respond. Conversely, was it a misstep, possibly reflecting divisions within the regime or poor command and control? In that case, retaliation might be less likely.

Assad's response will depend, perhaps to an even greater degree, on the nature of U.S. action and how he perceives U.S. strategy and intentions. Is a strike seen as merely symbolic? Substantive but limited? Or is it part of a new effort to overthrow the regime? A panicky regime that feels its survival is at risk is more likely to miscalculate or escalate. So too, conversely, is an overconfident one that believes an attack is little more than a slap on the wrist indicating weak U.S. and international resolve.

In an attempt at reducing the risk of escalation, Obama has publicly telegraphed his intentions to Assad, making it clear that the U.S. goal is not to topple the regime. A similar message has likely been passed on to Syria's key allies, Russia and Iran.

As careful as both sides might be to calibrate action and response, developments can always spin out of control. Assad knows the "law of unintended consequences" well from earlier in his presidency: in 2005 Hezbollah's suspected assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri ultimately resulted in Syrian troops being forced to leave that country. In 2007 Syrian efforts to develop a covert nuclear capacity ended when Israel bombed the suspected reactor site. In 2011 efforts to crush largely peaceful protests sparked the current bloody civil war. This month's use of chemical weapons is another action for which the consequences -- an impending U.S. military attack -- were almost certainly not those that Syrian officials intended.

Moreover, in the fog and friction of war intelligence is imperfect and bombs and missiles don't always end up in the right place. Given the deaths of hundreds of civilians when the United States bombed the Amiriyah shelter in Baghdad in 1991 as well as the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, American targeteers had better be very sure they know what not to hit in Damascus this time around. If a U.S. attack results in high Syrian civilian casualties or costs the lives of key regime figures, Assad might find himself under greater pressure to respond.

When and if the U.S. launches its attacks (likely targeting command and control centers, airfields, and strategic weapons and delivery systems), Assad might well do very little beyond issuing rhetorical condemnations. However, he will still have several possible retaliatory options that the United States and its allies will need to consider:

  • While very unlikely, if the Syrian leader believed that the end was near he could attack neighboring countries with a barrage of surface-to-surface missiles tipped with chemical warheads. Syria has a large, dispersed, and somewhat hardened strategic chemical weapons arsenal that might well survive a first hit by the U.S. military. If Syria's target were Israel, this would invite swift and decisive Israeli retaliation, but the damage would already have been done. While Israel's missile defenses are more robust than any in the world, no such system is perfect. Jordan and Turkey are at risk, too. The former has hosted up to a thousand U.S. troops since June, including Patriot missile systems, fighter aircraft, and related support, command, control and communications personnel and systems. Turkey currently has Patriot missile batteries deployed from fellow NATO members Germany and the Netherlands. All of these Patriot systems are the PAC-3 variant able to intercept ballistic missiles, and their presence underscores the understandable nervousness of U.S. regional allies.
  • Assad could attack U.S. allies with conventional means. Such a strategy would have limited effects and would be almost self-defeating, however, because most U.S. allies are (especially with U.S. assistance) capable of protecting themselves from Syria's war-ravaged forces.
  • Aware of his limited conventional capabilities, Assad might try to drag his allies into a war with Israel. While Hezbollah already has thousands of men in Syria fighting alongside government forces, attacking Israel directly would risk another 2006-style war in Lebanon. Furthermore, Hezbollah's zeal and eagerness to fight Israel notwithstanding, the organization is in a politically sensitive position in Lebanon at the moment, a condition that would likely further deter it from opening two large-scale military fronts simultaneously. Given its long-term investment in Hezbollah, Iran would be equally unlikely to see its Lebanese ally dragged into a damaging fight with Israel at this juncture.
  • Some Iranian lawmakers have suggested that Iran would retaliate against Israel directly if Syria is attacked, but neither Iran's supreme leader nor the country's president has issued similar statements. This doesn't categorically guarantee that Iran will remain on the sidelines -- in theory Iran could decide to attack U.S. assets in the Gulf -- but this is extremely unlikely given the huge risks and consequences of such an action.
  • Assad could resort to covertly supporting terrorist attacks against neighboring states, or against U.S. targets in the Middle East or elsewhere. This is the least costly and most likely retaliatory option for Assad. However, it is not clear that Syria has much current capacity to organize such attacks, and might instead find it necessary to rely on Iranian or Hezbollah assistance. The 2012 bombing of a tourist bus in Burgas, Bulgaria -- an act for which Hezbollah was ultimately blamed, and which led to European Union measures against the group -- shows that even carefully-planned operations can go wrong or backfire.
  • Assad could escalate domestically and pound rebel-controlled areas even harder to show that he is not intimidated. He would be smart not to use chemical weapons again, but even conventional escalation that results in heavy civilian casualties -- a more prominent use of surface-to-surface missiles, for example -- carries the risk of spurring a U.S. reaction. It is also doubtful how much ability the Syrian army has to step up the pace of its war-fighting.

All signs from Washington so far indicate that the U.S. strike will be limited. And Obama's declared Syria policy has not changed; it still seeks a political settlement between the government and the (still divided) opposition. The hope is that with the recent massive shipment of ammunition and light weapons from the Turkish border to the Syrian rebels and with the likely U.S. strike, the Syrian opposition will receive the help it needs to go to the negotiating table in Geneva with its morale boosted and its bargaining position strengthened (again, assuming it unifies and gets its act together). However, don't be surprised if the rebels, angered by the chemical attack and emboldened by a U.S. strike, harden their positions. Also, don't expect restraint from hard-line jihadist elements affiliated with al Qaeda either. They too will see an incentive to push even harder to topple Assad.

Bilal Y. Saab is the executive director and head of research of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) North America. Rex Brynen is a professor of Middle East politics and security at McGill University.

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The Middle East Channel

The Qatar problem

On the face of it, Qatar has been one of the United States's most valuable allies in the Middle East over the last decade. Qatar hosts a large U.S. Air Force base in the Persian Gulf and has often provided political and financial support for U.S. initiatives in the Middle East. Indeed, Washington has often encouraged Qatari activism to legitimize U.S. diplomacy, including its political support at the Arab League of a potential U.S. strike against Syria.

But Qatar's role in the United States's Middle East policy is far more problematic than is commonly recognized. The tiny yet ambitious Gulf emirate has sought to use its immense hydrocarbon wealth to finance and arm civil wars in Libya and Syria, to support Hamas in Gaza, and to mediate disputes in Sudan and Lebanon. Its interest sometimes align with the United States's -- but too often, they do not. The launch of Al-Jazeera America, the news network its government owns, should redirect attention to Doha's goals and means. 

Qatari activism over the last few years has been a mixed blessing for the United States. Indeed, it has often actively and purposefully undermined U.S. efforts on key problems. In Egypt, for example, Qatar's lavish and unconditional funding of the Morsi government enabled it to avoid taking the difficult steps that the International Monetary Fund (and the United States) believed were necessary to get the Egyptian economy back on track and to compromise with domestic opponents. In Gaza, Qatar helped undermine U.S. efforts to isolate and delegitimize Hamas by its strong and public embrace of its leadership including through high-level visits to Gaza.

In Libya, U.S. efforts to support the formation of a moderate and inclusive Libyan transitional government capable of effectively governing Libya were constantly thwarted and undermined by an independent Qatari policy. While the United States and its other partners tried to promote the opposition Transitional National Council (TNC) on the world stage, Qatar repeatedly and unhelpfully pushed for a more prominent role for alternative opposition groups that were dependent on Qatar. Qatar also funneled weapons and ammunition to Islamist militias outside of the TNC structure, strengthening the voices of groups opposed to the U.S. vision for post-Qaddafi Libya and undermining the TNC's ability and legitimacy to establish control. According to a senior Israeli official, "Qatar's reckless conduct in Libya was disastrous. They supported dangerous Islamist actors." As was often predicted at the time, these practices contributed to Libya's inability to form an effective central authority and to rein in those militias.

It has been no better in Syria. Qatar emerged after 2011 as arguably the most important external supporter of the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime. Qatar has spent, according to news reports, over $3 billion on aid to the opposition. Qatar has been among the opposition's primary suppliers of arms and ammunition and may have the most influence of any external actor with the fractious Syrian opposition. Many allies pose difficulties for the United States in the Syria context, but Qatar has proven the greatest obstacle to forging allied unity on Syria policy. As in Libya, the Qataris have used their influence to frustrate the efforts of the United States and others to foster unity within the Syrian opposition that is the prerequisite for a negotiated solution to the war. According to press reports, Qatar's actions -- its tendency to support multiple Islamist factions, its willingness to engage with Jihadist actors, and its refusal to channel aid solely through the Syrian Military Council (SMC) -- have exacerbated the divisions within the opposition and contributed to the opposition's refusal to negotiate. As Middle East analyst Mishaal Al Gergawi puts it in Al-Monitor, "[t]he parties Qatar supports ... have carried a sectarian and non-cooperative message, at times implied and at others stated outright." 

All of this is a problem for U.S. policy on Syria. While U.S. policy on Syria has many defects, no U.S. policy could hope to restore stability unless the United States forged consensus with the countries commonly considered its allies in Syria. If U.S. airstrikes or lethal assistance were to hasten the fall of the Assad regime, opposition unity would be essential for stability in post-Assad Syria. The recent decision by the Obama administration to arm the Syrian opposition is intended in part to foster opposition unity and empower moderates. But without the cooperation of key U.S. allies, U.S. lethal assistance will only exacerbate opposition divides as sponsors compete to fund their favorite proxies. Allied unity is necessary to ensure a coherent opposition and a unified opposition, in turn, is necessary to achieve the negotiated solution the United States seeks.

So what are the Qataris trying to do? According to Mehran Kamrava of Georgetown University, Qatar seeks the prestige that comes from playing a role on all of the big issues of the day. But, judging from its pattern of activity of the past few years, Qatari activism is also clearly part of a larger Qatari strategy that has been playing out across the Muslim world. As Brian Katulis explains, Qatar sees the Arab Awakening as an opportunity to spread Qatari influence through the establishment of Islamist governments that look to Qatar (and not to Saudi Arabia or the United States) for support and guidance. It is this dual interest in promoting influence and ideology that informs Qatari foreign policy from Libya to Palestine.

In many places, this strategy has meant fostering a government made up of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) related groups that are beholden to their benefactors in Doha. Qatar's decision to patronize MB movements, as opposed to alternative factions, is driven by two factors. 

First, Qatar thinks that it can exercise greater control over the MB than other political movements. When the emir took power in the mid-1990s, the MB was a client without a Sunni Arab patron. This enabled Qatar to position itself as a unique and indispensable ally of the MB, with all of the leverage that entailed. In contrast, Salafi movements, for instance, have long enjoyed the patronage of Saudi Arabia. Should Qatar choose to back Salafi groups, it would find itself in a competition for influence with its regional rival, undermining Qatar's control of its client.

Second, Qatar probably assesses that the MB is the wave of the future in the Middle East, a movement that resonates with pluralities -- if not majorities -- in many Arab countries, despite its recent setback in Egypt. While Qatar may be able to acquire comparable influence over secular and liberal groups, which also badly need external support, the Qatari leadership likely believes these movements would not afford it much influence abroad. The former emir's record of supporting MB organizations throughout the region (with Qatar, itself, being the notable exception) and the emirate's long-standing relationship with the influential MB-affiliated cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi have given Qatar an enormous advantage in cultivating alliances with emboldened Islamist groups throughout the Middle East.

Qatari leaders might logically fear that the march of populist movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, across the Arab world might someday threaten their rule. But, sheltered by its vast wealth, the Qatari government seems confident it can contain the threat posed by potential domestic MB movements in Qatar while supporting the MB abroad.

This Qatari strategy implies that U.S.-Qatari divides are not simply a difference in tactics, as U.S. officials often assert. Nor is Qatar simply filling a U.S. leadership vacuum. As the Libya example demonstrates, Qatar has the capacity to frustrate U.S. goals even when the United States is deeply engaged. Rather, the superficial similarity in U.S. and Qatari goals masks much deeper and more abiding differences about the two countries' visions for the Middle East. At times, these visions coincide and allow effective cooperation. But when they don't, Qatar has proven willing to work actively to frustrate important U.S. policy goals.

In Syria, for example, Qatar's goal of establishing a MB government dependent on Qatar cannot be achieved through a political settlement. The very process of negotiation, particularly one brokered by the United States and Russia, would dilute the influence of the MB within the opposition and require some degree of compromise with elements of the Assad regime. Thus, Qatar's goals require military victory, first by the opposition forces over the Assad regime and then by Qatar's political and military proxies over other sponsors' proxies within the opposition. So, Qatar's actions have not been aimed at promoting a political solution in Syria, nor have they been aimed at promoting a more coherent opposition.

One of the most conspicuous -- and disruptive -- manifestations of this approach was Qatar's overt support for the divisive MB candidate for interim prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, in March. His selection led nine members of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) to suspend their memberships, undercutting opposition unity, and seemed intended to derail SOC President Moaz Al-Khatib's initiative to start a dialogue with the regime. Khatib resigned shortly thereafter.

If Qatari involvement in Syria has hindered the prospects for the emergence of a stable, functioning, and representative Syrian opposition, this is not the unintended consequence of a poorly designed or implemented policy. Rather, it is the logical culmination of a strategy that privileges Qatari influence and favored actors over peace in Syria and the stability in the region.

Overall, while Qatar is not necessarily an enemy of the United States, it is certainly not an ally. The usual U.S. government response to such deviationism among partners is to advocate "high-level engagement" to make known U.S. displeasure and to convince the ally of the errors of its ways. But in the Qatari case, engagements at the highest levels on both Libya and Syria (as well as on efforts to get the Qataris to cut off their support to Hamas) have failed to alter Qatari behavior. It is time to recognize this and consider whether the United States needs to reconsider its approach to Qatari activism.

The recent leadership transition in Qatar, in which the emir stepped down in favor of his son, might present some new opportunities for the United States to turn Qatar from its present course. But most analysts agree that there is little indication that the new emir would seek to change Qatari foreign policy. In his maiden speech as emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani seemed to be at pains to demonstrate continuity in foreign policy, vowing to follow his father's "path" and strongly asserting that Qatar would continue its "independent behavior." Indeed, Tamim is widely regarded as one of the architects of Qatar's Libya and Syria policy over the past two years, including his country's patronage of the MB.

The United States should certainly be open to a more cooperative relationship if Tamim agrees to alter the pattern of recent Qatari policy. But it would be imprudent to assume that the new emir will fundamentally change what Qatar views as a successful policy. If the pattern persists, it will be time to accept that U.S.-Qatari differences do not result from failures to communicate. They are differences over goals in Syria and elsewhere. Accordingly, the United States should cease trying to convince the Qataris that their actions are undermining shared goals and accept their objectives in these cases are not the same as those of the United States. Instead, it is a question of changing the cost-benefit calculus that Qatar faces in its Syria policy. This would be very difficult in the case of Qatar because of its wealth, its role in U.S. basing in the Persian Gulf, and its value to the United States on other geopolitical priorities in which U.S. and Qatari interests are more aligned and Qatar is working well with the United States.

In the end, Qatar is neither an enemy nor an ally of the United States. While the United States cannot build a deep strategic relationship with Qatar, this does not mean it should oppose Qatar at every turn. Rather the United States should realize that it will always have a very transactional relationship with Qatar and thus should seek to get the best deal on every transaction. And, the United States does have some cards to play, and should consider if it decides that the new Qatari government intends to continue Qatar's recent policies.

In the case of Syria, the United States could try to use its influence with Turkey and Jordan to cut off Qatar's access to the theater. In Jordan, which fears Qatar's influence on Islamist actors in Syria, this is not a difficult case to make. But in Turkey, the United States may need to point out that Qatar doesn't have the intelligence apparatus to support a weapons-delivery process that ensures its cargo reaches the intended recipient with any degree of reliability. It would be very surprising if a significant share of Qatari arms didn't leak to other groups, including the Kurds given their proximity to shipment routes from Turkey. Even if Bashar al-Assad falls, Qatari efforts may ultimately result in a second civil war that will pit secularists versus Islamists and Arabs versus Kurds and risk the dismemberment of Syria -- an outcome that Turkey fears might worsen its Kurdish problem. Concurrently, the United States could try to reduce Qatari influence by encouraging Saudi Arabia, which is more supportive of moderate and secular Syrian factions and more aligned with U.S. goals, to use its financial resources to substitute for Qatar, as new reports indicate may already be happening.

In addition to denying Qatar's access to Syria, the United States could seek to raise the costs for Qatar of continuing on its current course. The United States could exploit the long-standing Qatari-Saudi rivalry and encourage the Saudis to host Qatari dissidents who challenge the legitimacy of the Thani family and even give them a platform on Al-Arabiya, the Saudi satellite television network (a reversal of the Qatari practice of putting Saudi dissidents on Al-Jazeera). Similarly, the U.S. government could suggest that universities and think tanks invite members of collateral branches of the Thani family at odds with the emir and his branch to events in the United States and elsewhere to demonstrate splits, or at least the perception of splits, within the ruling family. On the international front, the United States could consider embarking on a systematic campaign to publicize the deplorable conditions under which over a million migrant laborers work and live in the emirate. Such negative publicity could tarnish Qatar's reputation as it gets ready to host the 2022 World Cup and plans a bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics.

On a broader level, dealing with Qatar's negative effect on U.S. Middle East policies would require changing the terms of the U.S.-Qatari bargain. Qatar is deeply unpopular with its more powerful neighbors and has long sheltered its immense wealth behind a U.S. military presence. It depends on the United States to keep open the shipping lanes that allows its gas to get to the market. But the critical role the United States plays in protecting Qatar from its neighbors buys the United States shockingly little influence with the Qatari government. The Qataris seem to understand that the U.S. desire to play the regional hegemon in the Persian Gulf requires bases in Qatar, giving them all the leverage in the bilateral relationship. They are reinforced in this belief by U.S. officials and military officers who tell them that the U.S. military presence in Qatar is critical to U.S. policy even though its importance is declining dramatically as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan.

The United States could stop reassuring Qatar in this way and, to the contrary, convince it that it has other options for protecting U.S. interests in the Gulf. The existence of such options would undoubtedly focus the Qataris on just how important U.S. protection is to their continued vitality in a very difficult neighborhood. Of course, making this case will actually require devising some realistic alternative basing options. But the first step in doing that is acknowledging the price that the United States is currently paying for its reliance on Qatar.

None of this is easy. But at the end of day, U.S. policy on critical Middle East issues like Syria is being held hostage by the contrary agenda of a tiny country that the United States defends militarily. This is massive failure of diplomacy.

Jeremy Shapiro is a visiting fellow with the Foreign Policy program at Brookings. From 2009-2013, he served in the State Department on the Policy Planning Staff and in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs and currently consults for the Policy Planning Staff. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent officials positions of the United States Government.