A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, February 13, 2012

Syrian Scenarios: Are There Any Real Options?

You probably already are tiring about the online debate over what to do about Syria: intervention? No-fly zones? Safe havens? Duty to protect? Arm the Free Syrian Army? With the US military now studying its options, every online armchair strategist from the "82nd Chairborne Division" is weighing in. So I might as well chime in.  Let's start with a few basic principles that, I think, are always worth keeping in mind.

1. When you're in an ordnance factory, don't be too quick to start shooting. Syria does not reside, as Qadhafi's Libya did, in splendid isolation. Iran, and Hizbullah in Lebanon, are profoundly invested in the Syrian regime. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are increasingly invested n the opposition. Israel will not stand idly by while the whole region goes up. Lesson: unless you understand the whole regional equation, don't shoot any Austrian Archdukes.

2. When you have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail, but not every humanitarian crisis is amenable to a military resolution.

3. Syria is not Libya. It is not Bosnia. It is not Kossovo. (And have you looked at Libya recently?)

Late last year there was much more talk of direct military intervention by the West or the UN (that, of course, is out due to the Russian and Chinese vetoes). The neoconservative advocates of neoimperial intervention and the humanitarian "duty to protect" advocates seemed to be coming together in their eagerness to do something about the horrors appearing daily on YouTube.

The debate about what to do has changed a bit sine then, and I won't try to rehash everything that has gone before. The calls for Western (US, UN, NATO) military intervention have weakened as even the most interventionist commentators realize the limitations of direct external intervention, no-fly zones, safe havens, and such. Logistically and in terms of regional escalation, it's really not very feasible.  The newer mantra seems to be "Arm the Free Syrian Army." It's not just hawks like Elliott Abrams and John McCain who are advocating this, though they've been among the most vocal. On the opposite side, I think Marc Lynch has been quite coherent in expressing some of the problems arising from this call: the inability of the opposition forces to unite, the local nature of the resistance, the uncertain leadership. At one point he called the Free Syrian Army "basically a fax machine in Turkey," which may be an oversimplification, but the Syrian opposition is hardly a cohesive force under centralized command. See Nir Rosen here as well.

Arming a non-centralized, multi-focused opposition that varies from locality to locality raises some problems. It's approximately what the US and Pakistan did in arming the Afghan mujahdin against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. (Well, it did get rid of the Soviets, but with some unintended consequences.)

Then, the question is, what do you arm them with? Another cool head here is (not surprisingly, an actual military expert), Andrew Exum. His "The Order of Battle Problem," gets to the key point: Syria has 4,950 main battle tanks, 2,440 BMPs and 1,500 other APCs, 3,440 artillery pieces and 600,000 men under arms. So:
Now, for the sake of argument, let's say Syria can only field half of the above equipment and personnel due to maintenance issues and defections or whatever. We're still talking about a ridiculous amount of advanced weaponry. What arms, then, are we talking about giving these guerrilla groups? Nukes?
If Western intervention is out and arming the Free Syrian Army may not work, there are still some murmurs about a regional intervention by Turkey and the Arab League. This article in The National offers a daring vision:
The best-case scenario would be a two-front war. On the northern front, the Turkish army would push south to take Aleppo and sever Damascus's links to the Syrian Mediterranean region (which contains a large Alawite population). This would reduce the likelihood of a repeat of the battle of Sirte, where Qaddafi loyalists held out for several weeks after the fall of Tripoli.
On the southern front, a combined Jordanian-GCC force would take Al Harisa and Shahba, before pushing on to Damascus. The rationale is based on low population density. The Syrian military may have units that are better trained in defensive asymmetric warfare, which would fortify themselves in urban environments, having learnt from the experience of Hizbollah in Lebanon. The southern approaches to Damascus are relatively flat, supported by a road network and have a lower population density, allowing a mobile offensive that avoided urban areas and minimised civilian casualties.
Please. It may be fun to wargame, but does anyone who knows anything about the balance of military forces in the area and the traditional mindsets of these states really believe a Jordanian-GCC invasion force is likely to appear? Although Qatar and Bahrain are very gung ho on intervention (Bahrain because "Asad is waging war on his own people," which some Bahrainis would say their own government is doing as well), a "Jordanian-GCC" force would be in effect a Jordanian-Saudi force. Yeah, that's going to happen.

And, of course, the pipe dream in the quotation above seems to assume that Iran (and Israel, and Hizbullah) will stand aside and watch.

I'm glad at least that the idea of direct Western intervention has faded as advocates realize the genuine military obstacles and potential complications; and for all the imagination in the paragraphs above, the GCC will fund the opposition but won't, if the last, oh, 80 years of history are any clue, actually engage in a full-scale ground intervention.

There are a few other voices, of course, crying in the wilderness, like Dan Serwer's "Yes, Nonviolence Even Now,".

The horrors being inflicted on Homs will, I think, ultimately ensure the fall of the Asad regime, but not tomorrow or the day after. The growing military strength of the resistance is apparent, but its lack of heavy weaponry is a major impediment, though as the Afghan mujahidin demonstrated, that can be overcome. But Afghanistan is a cautionary tale about arming a disorganized and decentralized resistance. Syria is descending into a civil war. If I were convinced any of the scenarios proposed would bring about a stable solution I'd support them, but all seem to be riddled with minefields. The dangers of a much broader regional war are increasingly real, and such a war would involve global implications, including disruptions in oil supply at a time of fragile economic recovery in the US and grave uncertainty about European economies. Caution, despite the horrors of Homs, would seem to be in order.


aron said...

Thanks for talking sense. That Turkey-GCC scheme beggars belief, and the whole idea that Damascus can be neatly "cut off" from the Alawite coast is idiotic.

First of all, a couple hundred thousand Alawites live in DAMASCUS, not in the Jebel el-Alawiyin. Many of them, if not most, were in fact born in the capital. These are generally also those people who are personally invested in the regime, unlike the more or less involuntary hangers-on up in the mountain. And this segment of the community also happens to be the backbone of the elite forces most likely to fight to the bitter end.

Already in the 70s, Refaat el-Assad was constructing neighborhoods in the Mezze area to house all the officers and men he was channeling in from the coast for his special forces. Get off the bus in Damascus and you're in the Soumeriya neighborhood, so named after who? Refaat's son Soumer, because Refaat was the one who constructed the whole area for his military clients, who also happened to be overwhelmingly Alawite.

The point is that Syria's religious geography is simply not what it was in 1950 anymore -- urbanization, modernization, and Baathist nation-building, for all its faults, has seen to that. If Syria bursts, it will in most places be a neighborhood-by-neighborhood sectarian war à la Lebanon or Baghdad (or Homs), not a war where you can pick off tanks on the highway à la Libya.

Secondly, the quaint idea that you could use Lebanon as a stopping block to the west of such a force. No you can not: those borders will just be lines on a map if Syria goes south, and Lebanon will be a battlefield in this almost as much as Syria. Perhaps more. The Bab el-Tebbaneh/Jebel Mohsen conflict in Tripoli is already starting to simmer... and just wait until the national government breaks.

attack on Iran said...

Great post. This whole idea is a fantasy. There was also a great article by Juan Cole from CNN on 10 reasons why an Israeli attack on Iran would be a disaster for them - http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2012/02/06/cole-10-ways-an-israeli-strike-on-iran-could-radically-weaken-israel/?hpt=wo_r1