Intervention in Syria: Challenges and Lessons Learned

Syria is gripped with unrest and rebellion. Rebels and government forces fight city by city, exchanging weapons and mortar fire. On the surface, these circumstances seem quite similar to those in Libya ahead of the overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi. Compared to the full-scale ground invasion and occupation of Iraq, the conflict in Libya seems like a blueprint for how Western nations should help local dissent coalesce into regime change. Overthrowing the Syrian government might weaken the influence of Iran in the Middle East and replace a hostile government with a more democratic one indebted to the West, but it also may aid in the dispersal of deadly chemical weapons, small arms and unemployed combatants throughout the region. Many other factors make an intervention in Syria more difficult to mount: limited international support, including adamant opposition in the Security Council; the threat to Israel of a destabilized Syrian border; the military power of the Assad regime, and the nature and composition of the Syrian state. In the end, the lessons of Iraq and Libya may lead to a grand international coalition assaulting the Assad government with overwhelming air power; but those lessons and the challenges of such an endeavor make it just as likely that no intervention at all will occur.

As a conflict, Syria may be more like Iraq than Libya. Iraq in 2002 was governed by a small Sunni minority; sectarian tensions with the Shia minority were held in check through violent and authoritarian measures. Syria is governed by members of the Alawite sect of Islam, and the primary impetus for the rebellion in Syria comes from its repressed Sunni majority. The potential for sectarian violence, both during and after the conflict, is a specter that sets Syria apart from Libya and complicates any potential intervention. Syria also has several other key differences that might impede any attempt to support the rebellion in the style established in Libya. Libya is a large, sparsely populated state. This made it easy for rebel groups to receive supplies and support from outside allies, for them to secure areas for organization and planning, and eased the task of capturing cities from distant government garrisons. In contrast, Syria is smaller and densely populated with heavy penetration of regime security forces. In these conditions, it's much more difficult to supply and organize disparate rebel groups with weapons and intelligence. Stacked against Syria, Libya was also comparatively poorly armed, ill-equipped and disorganized. The Syrian armed forces are larger, wealthier, and equipped with more and better large weapons systems. These defenses can be concentrated in areas of the country controlled by the Alawi minority. At need, the Syrian forces may be able to retreat into a highly defensible coastal redoubt, including the Tartus port, in an attempt to carve out an Alawite remainder state. Syria also possesses a chemical weapons stockpile, which it has threatened to use against any attempted foreign intercession in its civil war. These factors combine to present a much stronger defensive posture for the Syrian government than existed in Qaddafi's Libya, of a nature and type that would make an intervention in the mold of the Libyan conflict much more difficult for Western powers.

The lessons of the Iraq War make a ground invasion in Syria unlikely. In Iraq, a military coalition led by the United States discovered that deposing the official symbols of the regime was only the simplest element of successfully waging the conflict. Sectarian tensions, a well-armed and numerous populace and a vacuum of legitimate authority led to an extended insurgency against coalition forces. A commitment in Syria to a similar military strategy would require a major investment of troops (at least half a million or more to ensure order after regime collapse), as well as a long-term military presence. The global reaction to the war in Iraq, and the political and economic realities in Western nations including the United States, make such a solution untenable.

Given the difficulty of a Libyan-style air war and the impossibility of a ground invasion, the remaining military option is a larger and better resourced air intervention combined with an aggressive effort to equip the Syrian opposition forces. This effort might be similar to that in the first Gulf War or against Serbian forces in Kosovo, but would require broad coalition support and international legitimacy. The two wars in Iraq and the intervention in Libya provide good examples of the different models of coalition engagement. The first Gulf War involved a coalition force authorized by the U.N. Security Council and led under the authority of the United Nations. While primarily led by the United States, the second war in Iraq also involved what has been described as a “coalition of the willing”, including a significant force from Britain and small contingents of support personnel from a number of smaller states. This group went to war without the explicit support of the Security Council or broad involvement by major world powers, a decision that had major political implications for all involved. Public support around the world was deeply against the war towards the end of the decade, and many leaders like Tony Blair and Jose Maria Aznar, who supported the war, found themselves and their parties consigned to the electoral wilderness. The force that intervened in Libya was a NATO coalition involving the organizations' largest powers, backed by a Security Council resolution authorizing limited efforts to protect Libyan civilians. Russia and China later complained that the NATO effort went far beyond what was contemplated by the text of the resolution.

Those complaints, and the close relationship between Syria and Russia, complicate efforts to construct an international coalition supported by the United Nations. Taking a more forceful stance against foreign intervention in domestic disputes, and in an effort to maintain its influence in the Middle East, Russia has repeatedly vetoed Security Council resolutions with strong language against the Syrian government. It has also sent weapons and ammunition to Syria (including refurbished Russian attack helicopters), and stationed a detachment of the Russian Navy at a Russian base near the Syrian port of Tartus. Despite calls by French philosopher and politician Bernard Henri-Levy, who many credit for spurring the intervention in Libya, there seems to be little appetite among NATO members to take action in Syria without the support of the U.N. Security Council.

While the end of the Assad regime in Syria will reduce the influence of Iran in the Middle East by removing a traditional ally, the destabilizing effects may spread throughout the region and affect security for Syria's neighbors Jordan, Israel and Turkey. A Syrian state divided along sectarian lines will give greater freedom and autonomy to its Kurdish minority, creating a second Kurdish-held region along Turkish borders and increasing pressure on Turkey in its attempts to deal with the repressed Kurdish minority in Turkey and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Refugees, and the flood of weapons into the black market, may also increase pressure on Jordan's King Abdullah for reform and for greater activism on behalf of the West Bank Palestinians. Finally, Israel has already seen incursions by the Syrian military into the de-militarized area of the Golan Heights. An unstable Syrian government may lead to a collapse of Syrian border control along the Golan, increasing demands on Israel and the United Nations to monitor the border for refugees, militants and weapons smuggling.

Ultimately, a intervention in Syria by Western powers is unlikely without broad international support and a multinational commitment of military force. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have trained the United States and other Western governments in the necessity of public support and limited engagement and the dangers of unilateral action. The most likely vehicle for this kind of coalition is a U.N. Security Council authorization of force, but Russia may never agree. The result may be either no support for the Free Syrian Army, or only minimal covert effort by foreign powers. Regardless, the destabilization of the Syrian state has broad and long-term implications for the region and the role of the West in the Middle East.

References (John Podesta, “NATO's Libyan Lessons”, 2012) (“NATO's Intervention in Libya: A New Model?” Eric Westervelt, NPR, 9/12/2011.) (“Instability in Syria: Assessing the risks of military intervention”, Aram Nerguizian, Anthony Cordesman, Center for Strategic & International Studies, Dec. 13 2011) (“Clinton rejects military option in Syria following Houla Massacre”, Reuters via Ha'aretz, 5/31/2012). (“Abu Muqawama: In Syria, a Quick, Decisive Outcome is Unlikely” Andrew Exum, World Politics Review, 5/2/2012). (“The Real Reason to Intervene in Syria” James P. Rubin, Foreign Policy, 6/4/2012). (“Alawistan”, Tony Badran, Foreign Policy, 7/27/2012) (“Libya's New Government Unable to Control Militias” Anthony Shadid [RIP], New York Times, 2/8/12) (“UN Security Council Resolution 678, Iraq / Kuwait”United Nations Security Council 11/28/1990, reprinted by Council on Foreign Relations) (“Syria: Beyond the UN Veto” Richard N. Haass, Council on Foreign Relations, 7/19/2012) (“Summary Report, Gulf War Air Power Survey”, United States Air Force, 1993 [hosted by Federation of American Scientists, Project on Government Secrecy) (“NATO's role in relation to the conflict in Kosovo”, NATO, 7/15/99) (“Russian warships said to be going to naval base in Syria”, Andrew Kramer, New York Times, 6/19/12.) (“Why Russia Supports Assad”, Dmitri Trenin, New York Times, 2/10/12). (“For Russia and Syria, bonds are old and deep”, David Herszenhorn, New York Times, 2/18/12). (“Israeli military intelligence chief warns jihadists move into Syria border area, may attack” Associated Press, via the Washington Post, 7/17/12). (“French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy calls for West to intervene in Syria”, Kaleem Aftab, The Independent (UK), 5/25/12).


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