Steven A. Cook

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Syria: The Agonies of Intervention

by Steven A. Cook
March 1, 2012

Demonstrators gather during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Homs (Handout/Courtesy Reuters)


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?, Libyan fighters.

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 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 outweigh the risks of intervention?

On Monday, I’ll explore the Syrian opposition and post-Assad Syria.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Ed Jazairi

    All talks and no action. Where is Dick Cheney when you desperately need one like him.

  • Posted by Ed Jazairi

    Syria Intervention: Sooner or later the West minus the US, and many Arab States will get involved in a direct military intervention in Syria. The west meaning France, Britain and Turkey if you wish and many others will get involved. Saudi Arabia, The Gulf States, Eygpt and perhaps Morroco and Jordan will also get involved as well. Syria is not Kosovo, Bosnia & Herzigovina, not a Balkan state nor is it Libya or Yemen. Syria is a very different kind of place and state. Syria is a crucible to all countries, cultures, religous make up and ethnic make up of all civilizations that ranges from Europe, Asia and Africa. Beside Arabs,Kurds, Assyrians and Turkomans, there are plenty of Greeks, Italians, French, Russians, Germans, Armenians, and for good measures Americans and some Japanese. Oh, minus Chinese!?
    Yes, this is Syria….an envy state even to that of the United States in its multicultural backgrounds and ethnicities.
    Syria will not implode as many have suggested but it will explode with terrible effect to world’s security and stability not only in the region, meaning the Middle East, but also for Europe, Asia Minor and the entire Arabian Peninsula at large as well as the good USA. Russia and Iran will change their minds regarding the organized crime family of Assad and company. They may not join the families of the interventionst, but they will watch carefully the processes of intervention and will only get involved when their own personal interests are at stakes.
    The Role of the US: No one should expect any kind of intervention or an opinion regarding intervention in Syria by the US as long as President Barack Obama is the President of the USA. only history will tell us about the exact reasons for the lack of enthusiasm about not getting involved in Syria despite the horrendous impact on the US national security interests. Perhaps Obama and his Administration feels sympatheic to the “minority” establishment in Syria of Assad and company since the President of the US is a part of a minority group himself. A politically correct positions at best. Only time will tell!?
    The recent emphasis by the Obama Administration that Al-Qaida in Iraq is involved in Syria’s events is comical at best. Not only that but according to the same people in the same government have emphasized Syria’s secret police establishment and creation of the same organization to combat Americans and Iraqis not so long time ago. Ms Hillary Clinton and the White House Spokespersons need to find another excuses for not getting involved in Syria. Please, the world is not so stupid.
    If the Obama-Hillary Administration does not want to get involved in Syria. Well, that is fine. They need to say so out and clear and not hide behind stupid excuses. Ms. Clinton and her Al-Qaida in Iraq in Syria thing is already the butt joke of Syrians everywhere.
    Yes, the world needs to get involved in Syria and needs to get involved in Syria. The Syrian leadership of Assad and company is not a part of the Axis of Evil. It is Evil itself. The sooner the better the world is without him and his organized crime family.

  • Posted by Tom Groenfeldt

    It seems to me that a lot of regional powers have bought a lot of advanced weapons from the U.S. and have received a lot of training — where are they? Didn’t Bahrain sent planes to Libya? How about other powers like Saudi Arabia and Turkey? This is their neighborhood, after all…One advantage to some air attacks is it might make military leaders split from the regime just to preserve their planes and tanks.

  • Posted by Amália dos Santos

    Some say that once you pose a question you already know the answer you are looking for. In this case, I would like to make a few observations about the main question in this text: “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?”.

    First of all, this question limits a fairly complex situation (as the author very well know) to two opposite cenarios: Doing absolutely nothing or military intervention. In a situation that demands the articulation of several measures, this kind of thinking leads us to simplistic “solutions”, with often disastrous outcomes. There is not a single reference to the role of the Syrian civilians, for example, that should be an important part of this equasion. Instead of looking up the minutiae of the military situation in Syria, one should spend some time researching about its people as well. To summ up this point, there are other ways for international community to step in in this matter. Or, at least, we should be able to think outside this very narrow box of “solutions” that we keep sinking in.

    The second part of the question is equally problematic for the answer ends up erasing the “if” part of it. According to the author, the military intervention “may end up saving lives”. In other words, it also may not save up any lives. It is a gamble. Or, to be fair, it is a decision that should be taken if the interests are justifiable. So we should talk about the real interests at stake here, and not try and justify a war with unceartain choices.

    ” There is no way of knowing the outcome of an intervention, but is that a reason not to act?” Well, there is no way of knowing the outcome of every one of the possible choices, so we should not base our decisions on this argument.

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