With calls continuing for the West to do something about the mounting bloodshed in Syria, it is important to consider what an intervention would look like. While it is all well and good to say that “something must be done” in Syria, relatively little attention has been given to what that would be. As we shall see, any intervention will be troublesome.
The Pentagon has signalled that intervention would be an expensive endeavor. A report by the influential Brooking’s Institution says that an invasion and subsequent occupation of Syria would require at least 200,000 troops and cost $20-30bn a year. This is a major commitment at a time when western militaries are having to cut back in order to reduce budget deficits. For the US, this would wipe out the ‘savings’ the United States is making from withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. The situation would also likely be similar to the invasion of Iraq, with foreign troops facing widespread hostility and insurgency.
While advocates may argue that they aren’t suggesting a full-scale invasion of the type outlined above, this is what an intervention in Syria would require. While Senator McCain among others has argued that NATO can accomplish its goals with a repeat of the air campaign against Libya, it is doubtful that this will have the same result. Syria has a bigger population and many more cities than Libya, which is mostly desert with a few cities on the Mediterranean coast. With only a handful of major population centers, the campaign in Libya had much fewer targets. Secondly, the Syrian military is much larger and better armed than that Gaddafi’s was, including Russian-made anti-aircraft weapons, which could be a major threat to foreign aircraft. While in Libya the military was always neglected by Ghadafi and thus became a major source of discontent, the Syrian military is loyal to Assad, and made up largely of Alawites, who will want Assad to stay in power.
The Syrian opposition is nowhere near as strong as the one in Libya, and doesn’t control territory in the way the Libyan opposition controlled Benghazi and the eastern provinces of Libya. The Syrian opposition only controlled Homs, and has since lost it. If the Free Syrian Army is to defeat Assad they will need to hold a good percentage of Syria, and at least threaten the capital of Damascus. So far this is a pipe-dream and the only efforts in the capital have been isolated attacks. For these reasons intervention in Syria would be completely different to last year’s success in Libya. But we now know that even that success was close-run.
One suggestion for limited intervention is the idea of setting up ‘safe havens’ across the border in Turkey. Former Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter has been a vocal proponent of setting up these zones to allow civilians to flee terror and for the opposition to build up its strength. Though this is a well-intentioned idea, in reality it would likely make the situation even worse. To many, Syria would be justified in invading said safe areas if an opposition army is planning to launch attacks from there. This could lead to a regional war that would drag in neighbouring countries. It would also be very hard to enforce. Would NATO troops have to protect the border to make sure Syrian troops don’t cross it?
Another idea has been to send in Special Forces units to help the opposition. This had some success in Libya, where Qatari Special Forces worked closely with rebels. The image of Special Forces is at an all-time high right now after the successful raid on Osama bin Laden last year and other recent operations. But as blogger Robert Caruso points out, they are not “magical” and would also require substantial support units and aircraft.
Advocates of intervention need to clarify what intervention in Syria is supposed to achieve, and what the strategy would be. In Libya, the United States, France and Britain pressured the passing of a UN Security Council resolution that allowed intervention to protect civilians. But this was interpreted to mean regime change, something other states (including Russia) said fell outside the mandate. Those countries are unlikely to support a similar resolution on Syria as they feel they were misled last year. As in Libya, a mandate to protect civilians would inevitably lead to the realization that the Assad regime must be forced out. However this would be much more difficult than last years intervention, and may even make things worse.