By Anne Gearan
WASHINGTON -- U.S. military analysts say any Western strike against the Syrian government is unlikely to draw an immediate counterattack by President Bashar al-Assad's forces. That, however, does not make the response of the Syrian government -- or its allies Iran, Hezbollah and Russia -- any easier to predict.
Mr. Assad possesses few, if any, real defenses against long-range precision missiles launched from U.S. ships. Russia and Iran, which have navies capable of engaging those U.S. ships, are not expected to do so, defense and diplomatic experts said.
Still, the consequences of a U.S. strike could be complex: The Assad regime could intensify its assault on outgunned rebels; Iran or Hezbollah could launch attacks on Israeli or Western targets; or al-Qaida or other jihadist fighters could exploit a moment of government weakness to gain new ground.
Separately, rebels might be tempted to exaggerate any more-limited Syrian government use of chemical agents in the future, or even to stage further attacks and blame the regime, just as Syria and Russia have accused them of doing in the Aug. 21 attack that sparked international outrage.
Russia may broaden its weapons supply to Mr. Assad and pull back from plans to work alongside the United States to settle the Syrian conflict peacefully. Iran may use the attack as pretext to refuse any negotiation over its disputed nuclear program.
Several analysts said the most likely outcome is that there is little discernible reaction, at least not right away. "What does the day after look like? We're likely to see something from a very limited response within the region to maybe nothing at all," said security analyst Mark Jacobson of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
In every case, the nations with the most reason to retaliate also have bigger problems or longer-term aims that argue against getting into a tit-for-tat with the United States, analysts and diplomats said.
"All of the main actors have stronger incentives not to respond with violence than to do so," said Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East analyst at the Brookings Institution. "The Iranians have their hands full," in Syria and at home, he said. "They are not looking for a fight -- not with us, not with the Israelis, not with the other Arabs."
President Barack Obama said Friday that he has not yet made a final decision on a military strike, but is considering only a "limited, narrow act."
Secretary of State John Kerry said earlier in the day that any U.S. response is intended to be heard well outside Syria -- anywhere that leaders or terrorist networks might want to test U.S. resolve if the Assad attacks go unanswered. "It is about whether Iran, which itself has been a victim of chemical weapons attacks, will now feel emboldened, in the absence of action, to obtain nuclear weapons," Mr. Kerry said. "It is about Hezbollah, and North Korea, and every other terrorist group or dictator that might ever again contemplate the use of weapons of mass destruction."
Iran's disputed nuclear program is likely to figure in its decision about how to respond to any U.S. strike on its ally, but maybe not the way Mr. Kerry outlined, diplomats and analysts said. Retaliating either directly or indirectly on Mr. Assad's behalf could invite the same kind of strike against its nuclear facilities, Mr. Pollack said. Mr. Obama drew two red lines in the Middle East -- one against Syrian use of chemical weapons and one against an Iranian nuclear bomb. "The more they start mixing it up with us, the more the odds go up" of a unilateral U.S. strike on Iranian facilities, Mr. Pollack said.
Mr. Jacobson agrees that Iran is likely to take the long view. Hezbollah, he said, has its hands full already in Lebanon and Syria, and letting loose Iranian proxies against U.S. targets risks making those proxies more of a target for the United States.
Syria has pledged to defend itself, but Mr. Assad and his backers may be more likely to try to use the attack to garner sympathy than to mount widespread military retaliation diplomatic analysts said.world