A destroyed aircraft in Sirte, Libya 311 (R).
(photo credit: Reuters)
Monday was Syria’s bloodiest day, this was its bloodiest week and November is
set to be its bloodiest month yet. The mounting body count – at least 70 people
were killed Monday, 100 this week and 300 so far this month – has returned Syria
to the top of nightly newscasts and the editorial pages of the world’s leading
Diplomatic efforts to end the eight-month counterinsurgency
have foundered. Last week the Arab League proposed a peace plan that would see
the Bashar Assad government withdraw its troops from Syria’s cities, release
political prisoners and begin dialogue with the opposition. Assad agreed to the
plan but did nothing, leading the normally cautious Arab League to take the
extraordinary step of suspending Syria, a founding member, from the 22- member
Veto-wielders Russia and China have thus far scuttled US-led
attempts at UN Security Council sanctions, which even if enacted are unlikely to
significantly change Syria’s conduct. Most analysts now agree that drastic steps
will be necessary to end eight months of carnage.
Few policy-makers in
Washington, London or Paris seem to have the stomach for yet another Mideast
entanglement. America is withdrawing all troops from Iraq by year’s end,
Afghanistan is a seemingly intractable mess and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces rushed to quit Libya as soon as practicable after
Muammar Gaddafi’s capture.
Nor does international public opinion seem
amenable to another military foray into a volatile Muslim country, particularly
when such an adventure is certain to provoke that country's chief patron – the
Islamic Republic of Iran.
Robert Satloff, executive director of the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Western officials are slowly
growing more receptive to a military option in Syria, though at the moment an
actual intervention remains a distant prospect. For now, Satloff recommended the
US work with regional countries to set up “humanitarian zones” along Syria's
border to help absorb civilians fleeing the violence.
“I’m not today
urging the government to bomb military bases in Syria because I don't think the
public is ready for it. But I do think there would be receptivity to
humanitarian protection,” he said.
From a purely strategic perspective,
Satloff said, Syria is of far greater value to Western interests than Libya.
“Change in Syria will not only protect the Syrian people from mass killings, but
will be a huge strategic victory in the battle for influence with Iran, whereas
the regional implications of the Libya crisis were virtually nil,” he
“Assad has learned some lessons from Gaddafi, who was foolish
enough to say, ‘I'll kill them like rats wherever I find them.’ Assad gives the
public face of continuing to promise change and reform, while continuing to kill
20 people a day instead of 500. It's a slow drip of
Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute, said
sanctions alone are unlikely to unseat Assad, a Londontrained eye doctor who was
at one time courted by the West as a possible reformer.
“I don’t think
economic sanctions – or diplomatic or political pressure – will do the job. To
change the regime will require some application of brute military force – either
from the internal forces or with some kind of outside help,” White
“The regime is continuing its very bloody repression of any
dissent. The armed opposition is growing stronger and better organized, and has
started to take on regime forces and to inflict casualties on them,” he said.
”That dynamic will in and of itself lead to greater violence and a greater
challenge to the regime. Whether or not the West intervenes, violence will in
all likelihood increase.”
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the
American Enterprise Institute, said that even if Russian and Chinese opposition
is overcome and the Security Council condemns Damascus, political and economic
sanctions will have little to no impact.
“Beyond the symbolic, sanctions
on Syria will have little effect for two reasons. First, Syria doesn't really
have enough trade with the industrialized world to matter. After years of Assad
dictatorships, it really has a pygmy economy. Second, even if sanctions could be
effective, Syria has pressure valves in Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon and, after
December 31, 2011, Iranian-influenced Iraq,” Rubin said by e-mail, referring to
the US troop withdrawal deadline. After that date, he said, “any military action
would become far more complicated because, with American troops gone, Iran will
have a much easier time with overland resupply of Assads regime through
“Military intervention along the Libyan model could be successful.
Syria is not a strong country. Frankly, once the Syrian military figured out the
West was serious – after the first couple Predator strikes, for example – the
biggest uncertainty might be which general would stage the coup, because they
would all be rushing to sacrifice Bashar to protect themselves,” he
said. “I think any outbreak of full-scale civil war would be headed off
by a preemptive coup. Many of the generals simply have too much to lose.
When they look over the precipice and see what awaits them, they’d be much more
likely to see in Bashar a sacrificial lamb. Perhaps they will see straighter
than the Western-educated ophthalmologist.”