In light of today's news from Syria, I wanted to post an update of a previous commentary I wrote for this blog.
Calls for a western intervention in Syria are growing. While I understand and share the concern of many regarding Assad's continuing campaign of murder, I do not believe that military intervention in Syria would be an appropriate strategy.
First, a direct military intervention would be far from easy. Unlike Gaddafi's weak military infrastructure, Syria possesses a formidable array of military capabilities. These include thousands of tanks and artillery pieces, an advanced air defense network and hundreds of thousands of soldiers - the key units of which are ideologically attached to the Assad regime. Military intervention would require engaging and destroying these units. Such a mission would be complex, risky and would require a much more substantial coalition military force than that which was seen in Libya. Only the United States Military could carry out this operation. The pathetic European attitude towards foreign security policy - 'big talk, no kit' means that practical support from the EU would be almost non-existent. So.. in effect, if the US were to embark on an operation in Syria, it would be forced to commit significant military resources away from critical operations in Afghanistan, while undertaking full practical responsibility for the evolution of 'post-action' events inside Syria. I would however re-consider my position on military intervention if Turkey and other regional states were willing to contribute substantial military assets to any operation.
Beyond the pure military complexities, a prospective US intervention in Syria also raises other major concerns. First, in the context of existing tensions, Iran would likely regard direct US engagement against Assad as a direct threat to the Iranian regime. Combining this with the looming Israeli-Iranian showdown, Iran's paranoid leadership might elect to go 'all in' to support Assad. Whether through supporting terrorist attacks against western interests around the world, mining the straits of Hormuz or sending a much greater level of military support to Assad, Iran would probably take a much more overt role in the conflict. Israel might also decide to launch an early strike on Iranian nuclear facilities (to offset future negative international concerns) thus increasing the likelihood of a situation in which every regional power alliance rapidly escalated towards war. It is crucial to remember that the situation in Syria is not divorced from other regional dynamics.
In another area, for Assad domestically, a US intervention would encourage the regime to portray the internal rebellion as a foreign project controlled for example by the 'Zionist puppets in Washington'. Assad's desire to portray recent terrorist attacks as a representation of the broader protest movement, suggests that the regime would jump at any opportunity to weaken the narrative of legitimacy that the current rebellion continues to expound. Put simply, American intervention might encourage Assad to use massive amounts of force in an attempt to finally annihilate those who challenge him. In such a situation, the US might have to apply equally vigorous force to quickly remove Assad from power. This would likely be expensive in its cost on American military personnel.
I believe that there is a better route towards destroying Assad's regime. This approach should take the form of a dual track strategy.
First, the west should increase covert support to Syrian resistance cells. This should focus around provision of money to allow cells to fund logistical costs (like fuel, food and communications) and to build organisational structures that can contest Assad's forces more effectively. If possible, the west should provide military special forces advisors to help direct the resistance military strategy.
Second, the west should continue to draw attention to Assad's actions and their incompatibility with the arab spring. The west should aggressively highlight continued Chinese and Russian unjustifiable support for Assad's regime, while continuing to build regional pressure alongside allies like Turkey. We should also seek to draw attention to the sickening hypocrisy of Iran and Hizballah in the current fight. While the Iranian regime claims to have lead the region towards revolutionary empowerment, in reality, Iran's clerical leaders are supporting the murder of thousands of innocent civilians in order to maintain their grip of power over the Syrian people. Similarly, by supporting Assad, Hizballah's narrative of 'emancipation for the oppressed weak against the power of the corrupt strong', is being rendered a transparent falsehood. At least in the case of Hezbollah, if sustained attention can continue to be brought against that group's relationship with Assad - a tipping point in which they break effective ties will probably become possible. As in Lebanon, Hezbollah is vulnerable to further negative attention.
The near/middle east is undergoing seismic shifts in state-society relations. Ultimately the current Syria-Iran-Hezbollah+Russia/China alliance is its own worse enemy. We should seek greater publicity of this alliance, coupled with more vigorous support to the Syrian rebels.