West faces only high-cost options in Syria

August 28, 2013

By Una Galani

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

Western powers readying to strike Syria must weigh the price of doing nothing against the likely negative impact from an intervention. The form of the military action will matter, but in this sectarian war, all options are fraught with risks.

The surgical strikes that are being contemplated would probably aim to undermine the regime’s ability to deploy chemical weapons, rather than target the stockpiles themselves due to the obvious risk involved. The question is whether the West can avoid an escalation and a prolonged battle.

A limited approach is unlikely to change the on-the-ground dynamics of a two-year crisis where the death toll has already surpassed 100,000. The possibility it might bring the parties to some form of negotiating table is remote and the prominence of radical Islamist groups amongst the rebels isn’t a good omen for what might follow sitting President Bashar al-Assad.

Intervention is likely to prove costly. Rebels who haven’t been radicalised yet may be disappointed at the limited nature of the action, and could be hurt by possible civilian casualties. Stock markets and currencies around the world have already tumbled amid fears that intervention will exacerbate regional sectarian tensions. Bomb attacks in Lebanon have intensified of late, and Iraq has seen its highest monthly death toll since 2008.

Retaliation by Syria and its powerful foreign backers would be costly. Syria’s conflict is hurting Jordan, where the fragile economy was already dependent on foreign aid before the flood of Syrian refugees. Russia, which supplies 4 percent of Turkey’s oil imports, could try to punish the country for its determined support of intervention. That would add further pressure on the battered lira. Hopes for a thaw in relations with Iran’s new leadership may also wane. Furthermore, the flare-up of Sunni/Shi’ite tensions in the whole region would lead to lasting tensions on the oil market.

True, inaction would also have a price. The Syrian conflict may spill over to neighbouring countries even without outside military intervention, and ultimately lead to the same results. Investors should brace for prolonged instability. Confronted with an unpleasant alternative, the U.S. and its European allies must know that whatever they choose, they will have to face unpleasant consequences.

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