Assessing the Risks of Military Intervention
clipped from article:Executive Summary
Syria's stability and its role in regional security politics have become steadily more uncertain since early 2011. The country has now experienced eight months of popular protests. Despite a lack of political cohesion or unity of purpose among the country's opposition forces, rural areas and smaller cities continue to experience increasingly armed unrest. Meanwhile, the regime's crackdown on dissent has shown little to no sign of abating as the country's Alawite-led praetorian security forces attempt to restore order and quash unrest.
The chorus of international pressure on Syria has steadily increased. The US and EU have bolstered unilateral sanctions regimes, turned to the UN to deepen international pressure and have openly called for President Bashar Al-Asad to step aside. Turkey, until recently one of the regime's closest allies, has been one of Syria's most vocal critics. Lastly, the conservative Gulf monarchies, which continue to have reservations about regional popular unrest, have nonetheless pushed ahead with Arab League efforts to further isolate Syria.
On the one hand, local and expatriate Syrian forces opposed to the regime are backed by the West, and key Arab and Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. On the other hand, the Al-Asad regime enjoys the support of its key regional ally Iran, support from Hezbollah in Lebanon, and strong international backing from Russia and China – countries that could play counter-revolutionary roles during what is increasingly looking like a "long winter of Arab discontent."
A number of countries – including US NATO allies such as France and Turkey – increasingly entertain the prospect of creating a "humanitarian corridor" in Syria, potentially along the border with Turkey, to provide relief to both the Syrian population and dissident groups opposed to the Asad regime. These calls are echoed by Syrian opposition forces both in and outside Syria, including the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council (SNC).
These calls do not address the real world challenges of creating such a "humanitarian corridor": joint and combined military operations to suppress Syria's air defense network, the need to neutralize the country's air force, eliminating Syria's asymmetric deterrence by containing unconventional threats from long range missiles (potentially armed with chemical or biological agents) and instability along the Golan Heights. They also do not address the risk of eventually having to engage loyal Syrian ground forces (including large concentrations of Alawites) that see few prospects in a post-Asad Syria.
Some consider military intervention in Syria to be a potential next step in shifting the regional balance in favor of the US and its allies. There is little question that sustained military operations in Libya would have been impossible without American logistics, targeting, command and control and sheer military capacity. In the case of Syria, military intervention is similarly unlikely to succeed without US involvement. However, military intervention, in the Middle East, let alone near the epicenter of the Arab-Israeli conflict, always involves serious risks and the impact of the law of unintended consequences.
There now is only limited support in the US, Europe, and the Arab world for direct intervention in Syria. However, the same could also have been said in the lead-up to operations in Libya. There are also reasons why the US might directly (or indirectly) take the lead in such efforts. The withdrawal of US troops from Iraq has left many questions about the future role and influence of the US, especially in the context of strategic competition with Iran. Instability in Syria presents Washington with the opportunity to undermine Iran's regional posture, weaken or change the leadership of one of its key regional allies and potentially to downgrade the Islamic Republic's role in the Arab-Israeli conflict through Hezbollah.
Syria is not Libya. While the later may be geographically much larger, it is a mostly empty country with a small population and very limited military capacity. In contrast, Syria's population is more than three times larger than Libya, has almost 30 times the latter's population density and a much larger and far more capable military overall. All of these factors complicate any calculus on military intervention in Syria, whether in terms of the level of potential military opposition, or with regards to the risk of high civilian casualties.
Opposition forces in Syria do not control territory, nor do they currently have military resources at their disposal to mount more than hit-and-run attacks. Most attacks by the FSA, while potentially coordinated, seem to have limited tactical or strategic depth and have yet to present a serious challenge to units loyal to the regime. While Libya's opposition forces were divided, Syria's are far more so, with little unity or agreement on the use of violence as a means to an end, and discord about the potential role of foreign intervention. The bulk of the security forces remain largely loyal as decades of over-recruiting from mainly rural minority groups bares fruit in terms of a strong corporatist military culture.
As the US and its allies weigh options for their next-steps in their Syria policies, they need to consider a number of key military and political factors that shape the prospects for any form of direct intervention: [read more at link]