With a comprehensive attempt under way to find a diplomatic solution in Syria, punitive U.S. military strikes planned for its alleged use of chemical weapons last month have been postponed after appearing imminent just a few days ago.
But if Washington decides to ignore the war-weary American public and an extremely skeptical Congress to go ahead with the bombing of over 50 alleged Syrian military targets, Japan faces the prospect of being asked to support its closest ally in a conflict that could spread throughout a region that supplies more than 80 percent of its oil and 30 percent of its natural gas.
Thus, Tokyo faces the tough question of whether to trust Washington’s assurances that a military attack would be narrow and limited, and that there would be no need for ground troops. This assumes the intervention would all be over fairly quickly and with no need for ground-based operations.
What the United States would want from Japan in this case would be, for the moment, little more than clear verbal support, experts say. On the other hand, if a U.S. attack results in prolonging and broadening Syria’s 2½-year-old civil war, Japan may have to consider providing more than just tea and sympathy.
Matake Kamiya, a professor of international politics at the National Defense Academy of Japan, said that potential support roles for the Self-Defense Forces under such a scenario would be of a logistic nature, similar to the refueling operation the SDF ran in the Indian Ocean from 2001 to 2010.
In addition, Tokyo could let the U.S. military use the SDF base in Djibouti, which opened in July 2011 for piracy patrols.
“It will be a political decision. But before considering such scenarios, Japan needs to determine to what degree it will support the U.S. decision,” Kamiya said.
Hanging over the question of how to respond to a U.S. attack on Syria are the memories of what Japan did — and did not do — during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, and again after the Iraq invasion in 2003.
The current debate over the right to engage in collective self-defense has its origins in the summer of 1990, when Japan’s leaders hotly debated how to respond to U.S. requests for military assistance when it invaded Iraq in retaliation for its invasion and annexation of Kuwait.
Kyoto University professor Hiroshi Nakanishi, in an essay on the Gulf War and Japanese diplomacy, noted the intense U.S. criticism of Japan for not sending troops. In the end, Tokyo donated $13 billion in support.
In 1992, a sharply divided Diet passed the International Peace Cooperation Law, allowing limited participation by the SDF in United Nations peacekeeping operations. About a decade later, special laws were enacted to conduct the fueling mission in the Indian Ocean and also to dispatch SDF troops to Iraq, to assist the U.S.-led 2003 invasion and occupation.
Today, more than two decades after the Gulf War, the argument over how to respond if and when Washington asks for military help continues.
“It cannot be said that Japan has overcome the experiences of the Gulf War. The crisis and its effects continue to cast a shadow over Japanese diplomacy,” Nakanishi wrote.
As Kamiya noted, given the complexity of the Syrian conflict, with the rebels comprising many different groups, including al-Qaida-linked factions, and the lack of international support for a U.S. military intervention, it’s hard to imagine Japan taking the same steps as in the Indian Ocean.
Complicating the question of what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration should do if asked for military assistance is that public opinion in Japan appears to be strongly against U.S. military intervention in Syria. A recent JNN poll showed 69 percent of the respondents said the government should not support such action.
In the U.S., opinion polls show 60 percent of the public opposes military strikes against Syria.
In remarks to foreign journalists last week, Warif Halabi, charge d’affairs of the Syrian Embassy in Tokyo, added that this negative sentiment is being reflected in the Diet.
“Japanese politicians from the ruling and opposition parties have told me that they prefer to deal with this situation in line with the United Nations principles. This is why they seek to have approval from the U.N. Security Council before any military action is taken,” she said.
Given such political realities at home, it’s likely the support Japan would provide, at least initially, would continue to focus on aiding the millions of refugees in and out of Syria. Some $90 million has been provided by Tokyo to international organizations in Syria, with U.N. agencies and the International Red Cross getting the lion’s share.
In addition, the equivalent of about $240 million in yen loans has been devoted to efforts in neighboring Jordan to help it deal with an influx of Syrian refugees. Japanese nongovernmental organizations in Jordan and Turkey are assisting them by providing fuel, repairing damaged homes, providing water and sanitation assistance, and assisting those with disabilities.
According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of Syrian refugees had topped 2 million as of Sept. 2, a nearly tenfold rise over the past 12 months. Some representatives of international NGOs have recently predicted that even limited military action by the U.S. could double or even triple that number.