'Military action in Syria is lesser evil'

Despite hazards, Western military action in Syria is best option, says UK think tank.

Syrian protesters in Damascus_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Syrian protesters in Damascus_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Western military intervention is the “lesser evil” of a range of difficult options in Syria, according to a report released last week by a UK think tank that offers the first comprehensive analysis of a potential armed intervention in the battle-scarred country.
The report – entitled “Intervention in Syria? An Assessment of Legality, Logistics and Hazards” – calls for the creation of a political and military base for rebel fighters in the country’s northwest, as well as humanitarian “safe zones” for civilians fleeing the bloodshed. It also offers diplomatic avenues for authorizing military action in spite of continued Russian opposition to taking tougher measures against Damascus at the UN Security Council.
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Violence continued in Syria on Sunday as three people were killed and 124 injured by shelling in the flashpoint city of Homs, human rights groups said. The head of an Arab League monitoring team arrived in the country early in the day, but analysts and opposition figures were skeptical if monitors would be allowed the access and freedom of movement to accurately gauge conditions on the ground.
Conservative estimates say the ninemonth crackdown waged by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad has killed at least 5,000 people nationwide. The United States, European Union, UN General Assembly and Assad’s former ally Turkey have all condemned the violence.
The report cites the northwest Syrian province of Idlib as a potential location for a rebel military, political and communications hub, which could play a role comparable to that of Benghazi in helping Libya’s Transitional National Council oust strongman Muammar Gaddafi in October.
Before the creation of such a base, the report says, Syria’s air defenses would first need to be neutralized as they were in the 2007 air strike – widely attributed to Israel – that destroyed a suspected Syrian nuclear facility at Deir al-Zor.
Turkey’s NATO-leased Incirlik Air Base, it continues, could be the launch point for such an attack.
The report was authored by Michael Weiss, communications director and acting research director at the Henry Jackson Society in London.
“I would say better to have a multilateral, Western-fronted coalition on the ground to forestall the worst-case scenario rather than let this play out on the ground,” Weiss said by phone. “People in Syria have been holding up signs saying ‘NATO, where’s our no-fly zone?’ You see women in hijabs in Homs with signs saying ‘We want NATO to invade.’ I would hazard that there is now a critical mass of support for a Western-backed intervention.”
A week ago the opposition Syrian National Council issued a statement calling for the UN Security Council to help impose a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors to aid civilians. But council authorization has remained elusive amid demands from Russia, Syria’s main arms supplier, that any resolution place equal blame for the violence on the government and rebels.
“The likelihood of securing a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria is remote given Russian and Chinese recalcitrance to support the Syrian revolution,” the report says. “UNSC deadlock could potentially be circumvented by invoking the ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution (377A), which was used to authorize the ‘use of armed force’ in Korea as a way of evading UNSC obstructionism by the then-Soviet Union.”
“Is there the political will to do this? I don’t know,” Weiss said. “Everyone’s got Arab Spring fatigue and regime change fatigue. The United States has been more than sluggish on Syria – it doesn’t care. That was made clear by how long it took the Obama administration to denounce Assad... Obama has more or less outsourced handling Syria to Turkey – I think that’s a colossal mistake.”
Even with the necessary political will, the challenges involved in an intervention are significant. Syria has a 300,000- strong active army and a reserve force of 450,000, though army defections – currently estimated at 1,000-3,500 – are on the rise. Forces from Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are known to be operating in the country, and would almost certainly attempt to attack any Western troops entering its territory.
The report says Syria could be expected to seize on any Western intervention to try to ignite its border with Israel.
“Any interventionist force must therefore persuade Israel not to retaliate in the event that it is attacked,” it says. “Such forbearance proved successful during the First Gulf War, and it can be argued that it is in Israel’s strategic interest to assist in the removal of the Assad regime.
“Legitimacy for such a campaign can only come if the objectives are clearly articulated from the outset, and if they are publicly endorsed by other Arab and Muslim-majority nations as well as by the bulk of the international community,” the report continues. “The Syrian people have amply demonstrated a heroic willingness to risk more bloodshed to secure their freedom and a marked indifference to regime accusations that they are the hirelings of Western ‘imperialism.’” Weiss said at least half-a-million people – out of a total population of 23 million – had been irretrievably affected by the government’s crackdown.
“Let this go on for a few months, and what happens when it gets to one or two million?” he said. “All of these people have family members, distant family and friends who have been killed or dispossessed of their land. It’s a failed state – there’s no going back after this.”