Arab World: Contemplating intervention in Syria

With diplomatic efforts at a dead end, some experts are advocating military action to stem the bloodshed.

By OREN KESSLER
November 18, 2011 21:35
4 minute read.
A destroyed aircraft in Sirte, Libya

A destroyed aircraft in Sirte, Libya 311 (R). (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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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 broadsheets.

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 bloc.

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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 said.

“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 death.”

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 said.

“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 Iraq.”

“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.”

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