By Riccardo Dugulin – 11 February 2012
The specter of a civil war is looming over the Syria as the rift between the government, along with its supporters, and the anti-Assad demonstrators is beyond repair. The death toll of the regime’s ruthless crackdown on the uprising is enormous, with conservative figures placing the number of deaths at 6500.
The crackdown on current demonstrations has not yet reached the extent of devastation caused by the Hama massacre of 1982, in which Hafez al Assad ordered the destruction of the Sunni opposition stronghold, causing between 10,000 and 25.000 casualties. The indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas in Homs, which has caused the deaths of more than 500 Syrians in the last week alone, highlights the government’s policy of arbitrary destruction of protesting neighborhoods and cities. Syria is in the process of becoming an isolated state in which the central government is defending its entrenched position. The regime’s only lifeline today is the diplomatic support it enjoys from Russia and China. Regionally, the Assad regime has been virtually cut off from the rest of its Arab neighbors, excepting the support it continues to receive from Hezbollah and Iran. The longevity of a Baathist Syria and of the hardships endured by its population may depend on Russia and China’s refusal to act.
The developing conflict has been spiraling into a humanitarian crisis, as basic needs such as water and electricity grow scarce in many Syrian regions and suburbs. In addition, the Syrian territory is turning into a new arena for a regional proxy war as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Arab states clash over competing interests in the country.
In this situation, the Russian and Chinese positions at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as well as the Arab League’s failed monitor mission, underline an important point:the West and the Arab world may not have the capability or the will to forcibly engage in military operations against the Assad regime. The core concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has been tested in Libya, with China and Russia hardening their opposition to the R2P doctrine. If it is unquestionable that Syria today needs wide-ranging political reforms and an immediate halt to the killing of civilians, these changes may not be obtained via direct external intervention. The fall of the Assad regime has become a necessary condition for a political transition in the country. Despite that, foreign military action will not bring peace and stability per se.
What could an intervention look like?
A military operation aimed at protecting the Syrian people should not be excluded, despite the recent turn of events at the United Nations. It is unlikely that an operation that could be led by Arab states with logistical support from NATO would resemble the Libyan scenario.
UNSC Resolution 1973 authorized the implementation of a ‘no fly zone’ over the Libyan territory. This decision was essential, as many combat operations taking place around Benghazi were conducted by Qadhafi’s Air Force. By depriving Qadhafi of his military superiority over the rebels, and by providing the latter with tactical support, NATO forces together with their Arab allies gave the rebels a major strategic asset over the Libyan army. Nevertheless, the weaponry used by rebels was mostly obtained through the looting of Libyan armories and the details surrounding direct material aid provided by NATO forces to the insurgents on the ground remain murky.
The nature of a possible intervention in Syria will depend on the pattern the government is using to suppress the uprising. To effectively protect civilian populations, military force would have to be used in precise air attacks. The Syrian Air Force would not be a primary target, as a large amount of demonstrators have been killed by sniper fire, small unit actions and light armored vehicles. An air campaign would need to focus on the command and control structure of the Syrian Army, depriving it of its ability to effectively maneuver inside the country.
The Syrian Air force would be a secondary target. In effect, the Air Force division represents one of the major sources of military loyalty to the regime, with many officers hailing from Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite community. By implementing a ‘no drive – no fly’ zone, the Syrian army would be deprived of its intelligence gathering and coordination capabilities.
This course of action presents a number of challenges. Such an operation may not result in the immediate toppling of the Assad regime. It would weaken the Syrian regular army capability to stage operations inside the country but would not stop the exactions committed by the shabiha, the regime’s irregular thugs. The balance will be tilted if regular units defect en masse, virtually depriving the government of its most repressive tool. Further, military strikes may also result in further violence between loyalists and regime opponents. The feasibility of this operation would also depend on its perception in the region. NATO forces or Western countries must avoid being at the forefront. The Arab League and Turkey, through combined military forces, should head such a campaign. While UNSC legitimacy to support a solution has been ruled out following the Russian and Chinese veto, a push for intervention could be debated in the ‘Friends of Syria’ initiative being currently created.
A foreign military intervention against the Assad regime would carry a number of regional risks. The risk of retaliation by Assad’s allies and proxies is likely. While one can only speculate about the nature of a retaliatory move, it is unlikely that Hezbollah and Iran would allow for such an event to pass over in silence.
Iraq and Libya: foreign intervention does not bring immediate stability
Recent history provides us with two cases proving that foreign intervention alone may not be sufficient to rid a people of an authoritarian regime. The invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies in 2003 and the Libyan joint operation of 2011 are both examples of why ridding a country of a dictator by force is not a panacea.
Post-Saddam Iraq descended into chaos that produced devastating long-term effects on the country. Civil unrest across the country, which resulted in the breakdown of law and order, and the insurgency, caused by the dismantlement of the Iraqi armed forces left the country’s infrastructure shattered. Moreover, a Shiite-Sunni civil war divided the Iraqi nation along confessional lines; with terrorist attacks orchestrated by extremist groups across the sectarian divide preventing national reconciliation.
In Libya, the removal of Qadhafi facilitated by NATO’s intervention, led to the resurfacing of deep regional rivalries. It may yet be premature to judge the efficiency of the NATO operation, yet the risk of a low intensity civil war between competing factions of rebels who fought Qadhafi’s troops is still present. Tribal allegiances and diverging interests may reveal to be at the heart of long-term instability, which already resulted in several acts of violence across the country.
Apart from the already mentioned geopolitical risks, an intervention in Syria would open the door to the potential for a protracted period of instability. Reprisals against groups that have supported Assad may very well overshadow any transition to peace and democracy after the fall of Assad. Further, the failure to protect various communities from the period of initial lawlessness that will follow the regime’s demise, will have lasting repercussions on the country and the region.
“You break it, you own it”
In the first months of 2012, a military intervention led by Western powers with the support of Arab states and the consent of Russia and China does not appear to be the preferable course of action to help the Syrian people get rid of their oppressive regime.
The damage caused by even more civilian deaths, regional instability and uncertainty of results do not make the military option the best available one. By forcibly taking out Assad, involved states would become linked to the events that will unfold in Syria and the region following a possible air campaign.
A preferable option would be to enable the Syrian opposition to independently achieve its goal. For this, the parties involved could provide them with enhanced communication capabilities on the ground. Bordering states, willing to cooperate, may set up field hospitals on their borders to ensure that wounded Syrians are able to receive treatment and for rebels to regroup.
On the eve of operation “Iraqi Freedom”, US Secretary of State Colin Powell told former President Bush that if “you break it, you own it”. In 2012, it is in no one’s interest to ‘own’ Syria, and by breaking its government, the international community may well end up breaking the country. The liberation of the Syrian people must result from their own will, thus Western powers and the Arab states should implement tighter sanctions to further encourage desertion in the army and provide the Syrian opposition with logistical capabilities enabling them to effectively check the regime’s military forces.