Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The case against military intervention in Syria

Tensions appear to have cooled in the Levant after Syrian President Bashar al Assad gave an interview July 3 stating regret about the downing of a Turkish fighter jet June 22. Al Assad rejected Turkish accusations that the incident was intentional, saying that the F-4 jet, which was conducting a training mission over the Mediterranean, was flying at a low altitude in an air corridor used three times in the past by the Israeli air force.

Right now, neither country has indicated any desire to chase this incident further. At the moment Turkey is simply not in a position to launch any effective kinetic retaliatory strike without the assistance of the United States. And the U.S. has made it quite clear that it has no appetite for opening up a new front in the Middle East, especially in an election year.

However the international community continues to issue calls for intervention in the Syrian conflict after more reports of helicopters and warplanes bombing insurgent positions appear in the press. The call is for western nations and in particular the U.S., to intervene in Syria as they did in Libya. The deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria is drawing international aid workers and journalists to the embattled country and their reports are painting a dark picture of the interior.

One of the perceived positive consequences of intervening in Syria is to forcibly stop Bashar al Assad’s regime from conducting any more violence towards the Syrian rebels. An intervention would remove Assad from power and bring stability to the country. Once Assad is gone the opposition could then nominate a replacement leader, hopefully through a democratic process. Future atrocities will be avoided and recent victims of atrocities will find retribution when Assad is dragged before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Because the outcome of intervention is uncertain, the international community will continue to covertly assist the opposition but fall short of contributing conventional forces to exact a regime change.

The parallel being made between Libya and Syria is not entirely accurate. Libya at the time of NATO intervention was a country split from its east to west. The opposition controlled around half of eastern Libya centred on the city of Benghazi. By the time Gadhafi began to use aircraft to bomb rebel positions, triggering the NATO-led war, the rebellion had total control of a clear territory. This made it simple for the NATO planes to find enemy targets. Those targets turned out to be almost anything military in the west of Libya where Gadhafi remained in control. A split in the Libyan military also significantly assisted the rebels.

As for the no-fly zone, Libyan air defence systems had been critically weak for years and were unlikely to be at full operating capacity. Finding and destroying these batteries was not difficult as the surface-to-air missile system was neither overlapping nor redundant giving anything but full protection for Libyan positions. The fixed sites were also well known to NATO intelligence.
Finally, apart from inserting western Special Forces into Libya to coordinate rebel forces (as shown by the almost overnight advance on Tripoli, a feat the rebels had not been able to accomplish by themselves) and to also direct airstrikes, no NATO ground troops were committed to the war. The task of securing Libya was left to the rebel factions as NATO departed. There was no occupation force.

Syria on the other hand is not experiencing an insurrection where clear rebel positions are delineated. The rebellion is broken up all over Syria and even in cities such as Homs, where the uprising has been very active, there are suburbs still housing supporters of Assad’s regime.

While Libya at the time of western intervention contained competing rebel factions, they were able to coalesce into a unified, legitimately recognisable group that facilitated western political support. Syrian opposition is not unified, and their goals are not identical. Therefore the uprising cannot lend a singular international voice to the movement when it addresses international councils. This makes it very difficult for outside countries to offer assistance when helping one faction may hinder another and ultimately may not even achieve the goal of bringing Assad down.

Syrian air defence is easily one of the most robust, if slightly aging, systems in the Middle East. It is redundant, overlapping, and is accompanied by a strong early-warning network. Enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria would require a concerted effort by an extremely competent air force. Currently the only country that possesses such an anti-air defence capability is the United States. But breaking the network of the Syrian SAM sites would take weeks to months, cost millions of dollars in munitions and lost aircraft, and probably cut short the lives of many American pilots.

The current political will of the American voting public is simply not conducive to such a campaign. An election is planned for November 2012 and President Barack Obama’s second-term election prospects would be severely lowered if an intervention in Syria becomes unexpectedly complicated.

This is not to mention the political will and military capabilities of other NATO countries. The advocates of military intervention suggest NATO would shoulder the burden but there is deep division among European countries over what should be done and when.

As the Libyan war displayed, NATO was unable to function without U.S. logistical and military assistance. Germany did not participate; France quickly ran out of munitions; Italy could not bring enough aircraft into theatre; Denmark did not allow its pilots to fire on Libyan units, and the United Kingdom could not field anywhere near enough jets to enforce the no-fly zone. The United States, which have implicitly underwritten the military costs of NATO since its inception, were needed just to continue the initial momentum of the first series of strikes.

European militaries in the 1990’s were not as degraded and limited as they perhaps are today. During the Kosovo war, a campaign fought in Europe’s back-yard, the continent’s major powers could not maintain the no-fly zone. U.S. air power was needed to enforce the no-fly zone over Kosovo and yet the atrocities continued to occur until UN peacekeepers were allowed in. Even then, the humanitarian crisis was only contained, not resolved. All this occurred just 1,200 kilometres from Berlin and 1,500km from Paris.

Controlling Syria would take more than just enforcing a Libya-style no-fly zone. A country so divided and so large is predicted to require the insertion of ground troops to set up safe zones for the rebels. Those troops would need protection, implying the inclusion of armour and close air-support. To carry out this function, those tanks and aircraft would need access to military bases in neighbouring countries. Politically, those nations would need to agree to house thousands of foreign troops and open logistical routes, a difficult sell for any government let alone a Middle Eastern government.

One has to remember that the situation inside Syria is not as black-and-white as first appears. The Syrian opposition does seem to have a fair amount of local support, but just how much covert foreign assistance they are receiving from foreign intelligence services is unknown. In a country of 22 million people, the uprising has included only a small fraction of that number so far. This indicates that the Assad regime still has a significant support base.

That would make sense. A regime like Assad’s does not live in a vacuum. Just like Gadhafi in Libya, the ruling government has learned how to play the various tribes and factions of their countries. After all, a regime that does not know how to do this is doomed from the start. The western narrative of an entire country gripped by hatred for its despotic leader fails to account for the small fraction of opposition participants in the population.

Assad is a representative of the minority Alawite sect, a fact that explains why he is receiving such a depth of support.

Removing Assad will endanger the Syrian Alawite population. The Alawite branch of the Shi’a Islamic faith has historically been persecuted in both Lebanon and Syria. Together with the other Shiite Muslims living in Syria and the minority Christian sects, Assad’s regime represents protection. While there certainly is discontent towards Assad from the Syrian Sunni, the minority Alawite and Shia Muslims owe their relative safety to Assad’s rule. It also goes some way in explaining why the military and security apparatus has not turned on Assad yet. Almost all of the top positions, sometimes down to individual officer levels, are filled by Alawites who are deeply loyal to the regime.

Therefore, losing the regime through western intervention could precipitate the unintended consequence of even greater atrocities for Syria’s minorities. In the attempt to limit the humanitarian crisis in Syria militarily, the international community could be ushering in an equally great harm of immediate political chaos while awakening deep historical grievances.

Just as in Egypt where the military somewhat protected the minority Orthodox Christians, the Copts, the Alawites look to Assad for security. After last week’s election of an Islamic government in Egypt, the Christian sects are understandably worried their persecution will begin again. The unpredictability of the Islamic Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is an outcome that should be anticipated as countries exiting the “Arab Spring” begin to dance with democracy. Syria, if Assad falls, will have to contend with the possibility of an Islamic government replacing him and all that entails. As will Syria’s neighbours.

Intervening in Syria may also have the unintended consequence of a temporary drop in security over heavy weapons that already fill the country. Remember that when the Libyan guards deserted their packed weapons depots Tuareg mercenaries who fought for Gadhafi apprehended those arms. They promptly took those weapons home to Mali, using them to stage an uprising of their own. Now the sub-Saharan country is divided and the Tuareg-led rebellion now controls half the state.

NATO did not directly instigate this outcome but their intervention collapsed the Libyan state. The resultant lapse in security gave the Tuareg mercenaries an opportunity to take weapons that potentially include portable surface-to-air missiles. These weapons may still fall into the hands of militant such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or the Nigerian Boko Haram group.

Syria is at much greater danger of weapon proliferation than Libya if the regime fails. Where Syrian arms would end up is anyone’s guess, but militants in the Middle East are likely clamouring to get their hands on them. If Syria falls via a hasty and ill-prepared western intervention, militant factions of the region would directly benefit.

Ultimately there are still some good reasons to intervene in Syria. The humanitarian crisis is morally impossible to ignore and international calls for action will become louder as it intensifies. However, the unintended consequences of an intervention are potentially so disastrous for Syria and the region that western countries will remain unwilling to commit to military intervention.

Featured in the National Business Review: http://www.nbr.co.nz/article/opinion-syrian-intervention-fraught-danger-wb-123026 

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