By BJ Bjornson
I haven’t written about Syria before now since it didn’t appear that the situation there was going to spill over into an international issue in anything more than a rhetorical sense. However, the bleeding ulcer of the continued fighting and escalations has stoked additional calls for international, and often American-led, intervention of some sort. Greg Djerejian has popped up with a longish post (referenced by John below) that discusses three of the more notable of those calls. (Steve ripped through the one by Ann Slaughter Djerejian describes as the “sloppiest, almost offering up something of a parody”, over at the Agonist on Friday, which is worth the read.)
Djerejian does seem more persuaded by the third of the articles he mentions from the Financial Times’ Emile Nakhleh, mainly due to a fundamental point that the Assad regime is already doomed, and so “The longer the denouement, the bloodier it will prove. So why not act now?” While Djerejian agrees with that point, his reservations regarding the wisdom of intervention are worth quoting:
1) Unlike with Libya, the opposition do not yet control territorially contiguous areas of operations, making any effort to assist them far more complicated;
2) Syria’s strategic location in the Levant implicates far more complex regional dynamics implicating at minimum its immediate neighbors of Lebanon, Turkey (particularly with respect to Kurdish areas of Syria emboldened amidst the chaos to pursue irredentist claims), Iraq, Israel and, lest we forget, Jordan (heretofore a reasonably stable, reliable ally amidst the Arab Spring despite widespread dissatisfaction among its Palestinian majority with the Hashemite throne);
3) The relationship between Syrian opposition outside the country and inside is still tenuous and patchy, at best, so that attempts to recognize the Syrian National Council do not guarantee a positive, ‘bankable’ spill-over impact in-country given this still evident lack of cohesion;
4) Related to “3”, even the external opposition itself is far more divided than Libya’s was (at least at the conception of the Libyan uprising), largely a function of Syria’s more complex ethnic and sectarian make-up, and the same issues with lack of cohesiveness applies to the so-called Free Syrian Army within Syria (they are more simply a series of localized militias, if the local opposition itself generally has a more unified agenda, namely, for Bashar to be ejected from power, but then what, regarding preservation of consistent goals?);
5) Assad’s Army is larger than Gaddafi’s, and he will unfortunately also likely retain more loyalist units until the bitter end;
6) Assad enjoys large stock-piles of perilous chemical weaponry, we can suspect if his own skin is on the line in an existential end-game he may well employ same (once a war criminal it is a slippery slope of cascading horrors, and he has already well proved his despicableness), and/or there are risk presented by whom may gain control of these stock-piles were the regime to chaotically implode;
7) The prospects of revanchist violence and horrors are at least equal to Libya, but given the crazy quilt-work of villages, town and cities where such internecine horrors would unfold, could prove far bloodier;
8) The possibility that Lebanon were pulled into the mire of a full-bore Syrian civil war is very high, and the prospects of border instability will also greatly concern Amman and Tel Aviv (there are also Iraqi issues that would concern, not only Iran, but also elements of the Shi’a leadership in Baghdad);
9) The Russians have proven so dismal in their naked-self interest (historic client state relationship, arms contracts, the naval base in Tartous, etc) that one would have to be concerned about possible retaliatory machinations in the broader neighborhood if they over-step to defend their client; and
10) Turkey’s role cannot be seen as simply that of a Good Samaritan, while they are arguably the key player in the entire equation (of which more below) they will have critical interests regarding Kurdish minorities among other priorities that may not wholly gel with those of Washington, or those of the (rather juvenilely named conclave) ‘Friends of Syria’.
Even Djerejian notes that the above is far from a comprehensive list of the issues facing an Syrian intervention, even if he comes to conclusion that the Assad regime has crossed enough “red-lines” that the international community “must become more proactive in its approach.” The details of this approach are left vague beyond noting it will depend largely on what the Turks are willing to do insofar as a “safe haven” in northern Syria is concerned, but given he’s starting from a premise that the Assad regime is already doomed, the end game is clearly regime change, which remains a drastic action without any clear idea of just how much effort, time, and resources will have to be expended by the “Friends of Syria” to accomplish.
Iraq remains the default cautionary tale for those opposed to such interventions, but for myself, Libya, an intervention I supported, contains sufficient lessons for why a similar intervention in Syria is a foolish and counterproductive endeavour.
Start with the reservations Djerejian lists himself. At #1, it is not just that the rebels don’t control territorially contiguous areas of operation in Syria, it is that they don’t control much territory at all, and that the areas they do control are not of the kind to make a Libyan-style intervention very useful.
Libya is a country with a thinly populated strip of land along the coast, and the opposition took over control of a large swath of said land, including the second largest city, and had considerable support within the capital itself. The eastern front of the revolution in Libya was almost picture-perfect for airstrikes to play a decisive role, which they did, only to get swiftly bogged down when the terrain in question was the western mountains or urban battlefield of Misrata, terrain which more closely matches the Syrian situation. Add in the far more sophisticated Syrian air defences and the larger, more loyal, and far better trained and equipped Syrian military, and the difficulty of the operation increases manifold.
This is also where I have to question the fundamental point of Djerejian’s (and Nakhleh’s) argument, that the Assad regime is already doomed. The opposition to Assad is nowhere near as widespread as the Libyan opposition to Qaddafi was, nor has it accomplished anywhere near the level of success the rebels in Libya managed prior to the regime’s counter-attacks. That the Syrian opposition has continued to fight on in the face of such grinding defeats is remarkable, but given how much of a struggle it was for the better organized, supported, and widespread Libyan opposition to overthrow Qaddafi even with Western support, I am nowhere near as convinced that the Assad regime is staring into the dustbin of history at this point.
(As an aside to the above, the sheer tenacity of the Syrian opposition also calls into question whether or not the Qaddafi regime’s march east on Benghazi and Tobruk would have actually ended the rebellion against him or merely started a longer and more brutal insurgency as the repeated Syrian military conquests of rebel strongholds has resultantly spiraled into in Syria.)
Things grow worse regarding Syria from there. While Western media coverage of Libya has been mostly quiet since the premature back-slapping victory laps of those who had called for the intervention celebrating the defeat and death of Qaddafi, the country has hardly been all candy and roses in the aftermath, and while the spillover effects have been relatively minor to date, they certainly exist, and are causing serious issues in at least a couple of neighbouring states as returning pro-Qaddafi Tuareg mercenaries stir up trouble in their home countries.
Here again, Djerejian notes that the prospects for retaliations and internecine horrors are likely even worse in Syria than they are in Libya, and that Syria is starting from a more divisive opposition to begin with. And he also notes that Syria is far more strategically located than Libya, with spillover effects far more likely and disruptive.
Really, there isn’t a single neighbour of Syria’s that doesn’t have a stake in how things turn out. Israel has obvious security concerns related to their occupation of the Golan Heights and what kinds of actions a new regime in Damascus might pursue in relation to Israel overall, much as they’ve been concerned about a new Egyptian regime made up of parties less likely to overlook or accede to Israeli policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians in Gaza.
How the parties in Lebanon react is also an open question, and probably the most at risk for violence and turmoil to spill over thanks to the intertwined recent history of the two nations, likely causing even more Israeli concerns as a result.
Turkey has the Kurdish regions to worry itself about. Jordan’s stability during the whole Arab Spring is also at risk thanks to a new flood of refugees, and Iraq’s newly aggressive Shiite regime must be concerned that the many Sunnis who fled the cleansing of their neighbourhoods during the American “surge” may choose to return home and again challenge their authority.
Further, while Qaddafi had no real allies among the world powers and his isolation allowed for intervention to proceed without much opposition from non-Western powers, Assad and Syria retain some international backing, making an international consensus, and therefore bringing at least some legitimacy to the intervention, next to impossible.
Let’s face it, the Libyan intervention was a hard, bloody slog that has left behind a fractured state struggling to put itself back together and resulting in knock-on effects that have yet to play out. And at that, it remains the best-case scenario I can think of for a Western-style military intervention.
As a result, I see no way that an intervention into Syria will not cause far uglier consequences on every measure. On this, Iraq does provide a parallel worth considering. When one talks of the “red-lines” Assad has crossed that requires the international community to act, namely the level of death and destruction he has visited upon his own people, how do those acts compare in scale to the level of destruction the U.S. military visited upon the people of Iraq and in cities like Fallujah during their long occupation of that nation? You can’t argue from a moral high ground you don’t actually occupy.
Ultimately I don’t know what is going to happen in Syria, but given its strategic importance to numerous regional and international players, I suspect we’ll see enough meddling from the outside that the situation won’t be getting any better in the year to come than it has been during the one past. I can only hope the powers that be prove either intelligent or self-interested enough to keep the meddling from blossoming into overt intervention, since that will be the worst of all possible results for the people of Syria.