Could a Syrian Intervention Work? – by Steven A. Cook
Yesterday I posted on the limits of diplomacy in Syria given all of the incentives for Bashar al Assad to fight on. The question then is what to do about it.
I take the criticisms of intervention from the likes of Peter Munson, Andrew Exum, and Marc Lynch seriously. In the case of the Munson and Exum, these guys have actually picked up a weapon and gone to war and Marc did yeoman’s work on the issue in his recent policy memo. There are regional specialists calling for intervention in Syria, but who haven’t taken the time to study the military complexities or the nature of the threat foreign forces might encounter if they intervened. I include myself in that category. As much as I am fascinated by militaries and politics, I am no guns and trucks kid. Exum posted the Syrian military’s order of battle, which should be sobering to anyone itching to ride the first cruise missile into Damascus. At the same time, observers also need to have a realistic view of the Syrian military, which on paper may have lots of equipment, but does not seem to be all that capable. To paraphrase what Colin Powell said about the allegedly battle-hardened Iraqi military on the eve of Operation Desert Storm, « These guys are not 10 feet tall. » The Shabiha–Alawi militias–would make me far more nervous than Syria’s regular military.
I also take seriously the fact that the burden is on me as an advocate for a different course to develop a convincing argument why intervention is a superior policy. Blithely dismissing the complications and problems associated with a preferred course of action is analytically unacceptable and veers into the realm of advocacy. In particular, Munson has encouraged me to « engage the difficulties associated with mounting an intervention. » One of those difficulties has nothing to do with battlefield geometry, but rather philosophy. Is it a morally superior position to sit by as people are being killed rather than take action that will kill people, but nevertheless may end up saving lives as well? Many professional philosophers say the former is morally better; I remain unconvinced, which is further reason for critically examining the military options as they currently stand.
1) Safe zones–In all deference to Anne-Marie Slaughter, I am convinced that this is the most dangerous option that has the smallest chance to make a difference on the ground and might very well make things worse. No doubt, it is the fastest way to escalation given Marc Lynch’s crucial point that the Syrians will likely outgun the multinational forces designated with defending these areas, requiring the commitment of more and more troops. In addition, it’s unclear to me whether safe zones can actually be established on hostile territory in the relatively unproblematic way it is imagined.
2) Arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA)–Along with the establishment of safe zones, arming the Free Syrian Army has become a much discussed option. In January, the FSA was a « few hundred people » that were of mildly newsworthy interest and now for some, they are worthy of international support. Moreover, it seems that « FSA » is merely a convenient label for different local militias that have emerged in an effort to fight back and thus they have a tenuous, at best, connection to the Syrian opposition. It’s hard to know exactly the current status of the FSA. There are echoes of the Libya debate in the discussion, but the lack of complete information about the Libyan rebels and their clear dearth of military capacity did not deter the United States, NATO, and members of the Arab League from taking action there. In fact, the inability of Libyans to defend themselves against Qadhafi’s loyalists actually spurred the international community to action. In the end, I agree that arming the rebels is risky business and may very well lead to an escalation, but arms are going to make their way into Syria anyway so escalation is an outcome that standing by will not forestall. In addition, if the international community does help the FSA there is always the possibility that we can help these groups become more effective fighters while hopefully building goodwill and setting the stage for post-Assad cooperation. At the very least, there is a core of military professionals within the FSA just as there were among the ragtag group of non-unified, who are they?
Analogies only go so far, however. The international community may arm the Syrian rebels and then they lose or set the stage for blowback, but if there is a foolproof way of mitigating all the risks of the conflict and helping the Syrians, it has escaped me and everyone else who has weighed in on this issue. Still, arming the FSA is likely not enough given the overwhelming firepower of even the limited number of forces (in relation to the overall size of the Syrian armed forces) that Assad has thrown into the fight. Consequently, the international community, should it decide to intervene, is going to need to undertake something much bigger than a clandestine (or not) effort to funnel weapons to Syrians and that is where air power comes in.
3) Air power — Of all the options available to the international community, it mystifies me that the use of air power is as controversial as it is. To be sure, we are not talking about a No-Fly Zone, but rather something more akin to close air support, which requires more intensive air strikes over longer periods of time. The major objections to using air power to destroy Assad’s tanks and go after those military forces engaged in attacking civilians are 1) there are no front lines, 2) degrading Syria’s air defenses and protecting population centers would require many sorties and take a long time, 3) civilians might be killed or injured, 4) Syria’s terrain is different from Libya’s open-flat desert, and 5) the airspace will get crowded over Syria. Of these, #1 and #3 are serious concerns while the others surely can be managed through the combination of technology and good airmanship. Did the U.S. taxpayer build the mighty military machine that it owns to be used only in wide open spaces with clear front lines? American F-16s, F-15s, F-18s and their pilots aren’t capable enough to engage in air operations in varied terrains? AWACS and the people who man them are unable to manage the battle? If the answer to these questions is yes, I want my money back. In all seriousness, I understand the complications that the use of air power poses, yet as I mentioned in the Atlantic.com piece, « it’s hard » or « it’s harder than Libya » should not be determinative of our policy.
All that said, « no clear front lines » raises the prospect of mistakes and collateral damage that may very well turn a population that by now is hoping (against hope) that the international community will assist them against the efforts and people who have been sent to help. Again, there is no foolproof way to mitigate these risks even with all the technology available to American warriors and, of course, their prowess. Yet, if there is a chance that the combination of arming Syrians and using air power can help the situation and hasten Assad’s fall, then the international community should take that step. It’s an empirical question. There is no way of knowing the outcome of an intervention, but is that a reason not to act? In the end, we are then left with a question of morality. At what point is the Assad regime’s use of force against its own people beyond the pale? And, at what point do the deaths of thousands of outweigh the risks of intervention?
This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.
Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.