US allies offer backing but little military support

Free Syrian Army fighters escorting vehicles carrying a team of United Nations chemical weapons experts during a visit to one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus' suburbs on Wednesday.

UNITED STATES - WHEN US President Barack Obama eventually gives his military commanders the order to strike at targets in Syria, the Americans won't be alone: Their offensive will be supported by some key European and Middle- Eastern nations.

But although the hastily convened coalition allows Mr Obama to claim broad international support for US actions, actual military contributions from these allies will be minimal, and their backing for the United States' longer-term strategy in the Middle East remains tenuous.

Britain and France have spent many months urging the US to consider military action against supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, albeit for different reasons.

The critical concern for the British was the damage which a long period of inactivity appeared to be inflicting on the US' reputation in the Arab world, as well as worries of growing Iranian involvement in Syria's civil war.

France, however, was more concerned about the potential spillover from the prolonged Syrian war into neighbouring Lebanon, where around 1,000 French soldiers are stationed as peacekeepers, as well as the radicalisation of French Muslims back home.

Either way, hints that Mr Obama is planning a military operation in Syria were matched with immediate pledges of support from London and Paris. British Prime Minister David Cameron has spent the last few days huddled with his military commanders, examining various plans.

French President Francois Hollande has also vowed action, saying his country was "ready to punish" Mr Assad's government for using chemical weapons, citing a 2005 United Nations provision for international action to protect civilians from their own governments.

Ostensibly, the financial crisis which afflicts Britain and France should have also tempered enthusiasm for a new and expensive overseas intervention.

It costs Britain £2.5 million (S$5 million) a day just to send one of its Typhoon fighter jets on combat missions; each Brimstone missile - the air-launched, ground attack precision weapon which Britain's armed forces used with lethal effect in Libya in 2011 - costs a cool £183,000.

But the leaders of both Britain and France consider this price worth paying, for their action in Syria maintains their status as Europe's only serious military actors while Germany, the continent's biggest economic power, remains hobbled by its history and has already ruled out any military contribution in Syria.

Still, France and Germany find themselves in different conditions of military readiness. While Mr Hollande has untrammelled constitutional powers to send troops wherever he wants, Mr Cameron failed to prepare his public for a potential Syrian operation and is now scrambling to gain support.

Britain's Parliament has been recalled from its summer recess for a special session on Thursday to debate the use of force and, although Mr Cameron seems set to get the necessary support, MPs are likely to place restrictions on the extent of the British military contribution.

Partly because of these difficulties but also because the US administration is not envisaging a sustained campaign in Syria, the European contributions will be small: French Rafale jets based in the Gulf will be scrambled, and British missiles will be launched from aircraft stationed in Cyprus.

Britain's intelligence intercept facilities in Cyprus will also offer good logistical backup to the US.

Turkey in turn will offer the Americans logistical support in the shape of access to its vast Incirlik air base. Although Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed on Wednesday that "concrete steps" against Syria are now "inevitable", he has ruled out use of his country's forces.

Meanwhile, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two other strong supporters of the Syrian rebels, will offer no military capabilities. Their real strength lies in their deep pockets, and their money may become important in subsidising a united opposition movement in Syria at some future date.

Overall, therefore, Washington's chief benefit from its coalition partners is the ability to claim that the US is not alone, and that it actually has the support of some Arab nations.

Even this represents a very fragile alliance. For, while Britain and France appear obsessed with punishing Mr Assad, Syria's Middle- Eastern neighbours remain fixated on what will happen to their region after the US attacks.

For they know from bitter experience that the Americans are very good at smashing through a country, but less good at putting it together again.


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