Do the Math: Syria Might Be Next

Bashar al Assad's father Hafez meets Qaddafi in 1977

By Matthew M. Reed

Events in Syria and Libya are going in different directions but may soon converge, for better or worse. Bashar al Assad of Syria began Ramadan with an all-out assault. Hundreds have died since August 1, as government forces deploy heavy armor and seapower against civilians. Assad’s bloody crackdown—comparable only to Qaddafi’s in scope and mechanization—is now being openly condemned by the international community. Ambassadors have been recalled, major powers want Assad to step down, the EU is considering punishing sanctions, and the UN Human Rights Commission may soon submit a list of crimes against humanity. All these moves point in one direction: the regime’s isolation will match the severity of violence.

Meanwhile, events in Libya are far more encouraging even though rebels are paying a steep price for their good fortune. In recent weeks they’ve captured major cities of strategic importance, including Zawiya and Gharyan. Both towns straddle roads through which supplies pass to Qaddafi’s forces in Tripoli. There’s no more talk of a stalemate with NATO pounding targets and rebels surrounding the capital. It’s easy to imagine the Battle of Tripoli getting underway soon, or—better yet—Qaddafi’s flight from the capital, which would prevent bloodshed.

Syria’s darkest days are ahead of her, no doubt, while Libyans are just now seeing a light flicker at the end of their tunnel. So how might events in Libya and Syria inform each other? Consider this: Libya’s civil war is quite possibly reaching an “endgame” stage, whereby Tripoli falls and Qaddafi is removed. NATO and the US specifically will naturally step back and calculate the cost and merits of their intervention once Qaddafi is gone. Micah Zenko commented on these costs last week:

The cost of military operations is difficult to determine, since the Pentagon has not been forthcoming regarding Libya. Nevertheless, five data points are available either from official releases or media leaks that can be used to extrapolate current expenditures: March 30, $550 million; April 11, $608 million; Mid-May, $664 million; June 3, $714 million; and June 30: $820 million. It is unclear if these numbers include replacing known aircraft loses, including the crashes of an F-15 on March 21 (roughly $30 million) and a MQ-8 Fire Scout on June 21 ($9 million). However, it can be assumed that U.S. military operations costs in Libya per month are between $60-$80 million, with total current costs around $1 billion.

The cost of humanitarian aid is easier to determine thanks to the weekly “Libya: Disaster Response Updates,” which the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has published since late February. The latest update lists the total USAID and State Department humanitarian funding at $84 million.

Finally, the amount of (overt) non-lethal assistance has remained $25 million since the April 26 presidential memorandum, which authorized the “drawdown of nonlethal commodities and services from the inventory and resources of any agency of the United States Government… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in Libya.” It is unclear if all of this non-lethal assistance has been dispersed. On May 10, the State Department announced that one shipment of halal meals, medical supplies, uniforms, boots, and tents had been made, with a second shipment arriving in Benghazi on June 17.

Therefore, based on the available data, the total direct expenditures of America’s role in Libya is approximately $1.1 billion and counting. Assuredly, there are also covert funds being dispersed (hopefully, with close congressional oversight), and there will be equipment and munitions replacement costs that require additional future funds. In addition, it is impossible to calculate what U.S. personnel and resources will be needed to help stabilize and rebuild Libya after the civil war ends.

“$1.1 billion and counting.” Double that. Triple that number even. And measure the money and physical risk against the gains. For years, Qaddafi supported terrorism against the US and Europe. At home, he held millions of his countrymen captive, establishing a reputation over four decades as a human rights violator with few peers. I recommend Hisham Matar’s novel In the Country of Men if you want an intimate and haunting portrait of Qaddafi’s Orwellian rule. Also, consider this statistic: “10-20 percent of the population was engaged in surveillance for the [Libyan] Government,” as of 2005, according to the State Department. Qaddafi was a hazard to all even though he was not a direct threat to the United States.

So where does Syria fit in? There’s a very good chance NATO and the US will holster their guns at about the same time Damascus lurches toward the abyss. A full-blown humanitarian crisis is already underway but it could gain even more steam as the regime targets certain religious groups. Remember too that the stakes are higher in Syria. For decades the regime has acted as Iran’s right-hand, affording it an unnaturally long reach into Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, where it provides cash and arms to Hamas and Hizballah. Should Assad fall, Tehran will lose a valuable appendage. There are very few options for hurting Iranian interests directly. And so a vulnerable Assad is a target with unique appeal.

You can see where this is going. If Qaddafi falls soon, NATO’s intervention will be branded a success—and a cheap one at that. Given that the stakes are higher in Syria and action there could save lives and sever one of Iran’s major arteries, the “Libyan solution” may indeed be on the table sooner than some think. Admittedly, the questions surrounding Syria are bigger and the situation in Libya remains unresolved. For one, Syrian revolutionaries refuse to establish a formal structure for their uprising; there remains no leadership or leader and with good reason—Assad would kill whoever spoke loudest. The international community is thus left wondering who they would intervene on behalf of.

The debate will start as soon as Qaddafi is gone. Cost-benefit analysis won’t be the only factor at play either. The debate will also be affected by upcoming American elections. Presidential hopefuls like Romney and Bachmann have already criticized President Obama for waiting too long to condemn Assad. Condemnation might not be enough in this case, for Obama or his rivals. Let me be clear: I’m not arguing for military intervention in Syria. But I do believe more and more people will because the stakes there are so high and the Libyan example suggests the costs could be quite low. If the US and NATO spent $10 billion or $20 billion on a similar mission in Syria, would it be worth it? You tell me.

4 Comments

Filed under Matthew M. Reed

4 responses to “Do the Math: Syria Might Be Next

  1. Pingback: Retour inquiétant de l’arc de crise « Ishrâq Blog

  2. Matt, great blog post. And I just want to comment on the last bit in which you imply that NATO intervention in Libya might be an option with growing popularity. I do believe that any concerted NATO effort to effectively eliminate Syria’s military capacity once and for all. However, I feel if NATO were to act against the Assad regime that Assad could lash out by way of proxy, via Hezbollah or Iran. Here are some hypothetical scenarios that could develop. A) NATO attacks Syria and Hezbollah suddenly attacks Israel. The reason? Draw Israel into a conflict with Syria, in order to either destabilize the region, complicate NATO’s mission, or generate pan-Arab support for itself in the face of what could be spun as Israeli aggression. B) Iran decides to cause trouble in Iraq yet again in order destabilize the shaky peace that exists between Sunnis and Shias and incite another long drawn out civil conflict, which could potentially require the United States to recommit troops to Iraq. Granted, these are all hypothetical scenarios. But I think that these hypotheticals have been adequately considered by the Obama administration and may have even dissuaded it from engaging in military action against the Assad regime.

  3. Thanks B. Always happy to see a thoughtful comment! I think you’re right to raise those two scenarios because I didn’t admit Syria has its own retaliatory options. What I accidentally suggested was that Syria could have an intervention imposed on it, and that it would suffer without offering a response. You’re right to suggest otherwise: I find it hard to believe Damascus would take it on the chin or that Iran would remain silent while its only true ally was snuffed out. Syria, precisely because it is a linchpin state in the Middle East, carries with it that much more risk for neighbors, especially Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. Each would have to be consulted before action was taken (though you might not need their approval). I think what we should keep an eye out for are sequential condemnations from the GCC, the Arab League, the UN, EU, etc. These are the steps taken first before any intervention is considered. Another factor also needs to be considered, and that’s the body count. The worse the situation gets in Syria, the more an intervention can be argued for on humanitarian grounds: the strategic spillover effects will be an added bonus (i.e. denying Iran easy access to its Western front) but if this regime keeps killing its own, it will be very hard for the world to stand by. Assad is killing an average of 15-25 people a day. If this drags on, even if it doesn’t escalate, he might make Qaddafi’s crackdown appear tame.

    And honestly, I don’t think Obama’s been dissuaded from considering military action against Syria just yet. Remember he’s rolled the dice twice in recent months and he’s won big. First was bin Laden. Second, it seems now, will be Qaddafi. He might not toot his own horn on these two points but he may now be convinced that American power, judiciously applied, can in fact reap outsized rewards, and that airpower and advanced surveillance equipment is all you need to bring down a tyrant. Sure, the Libyan rebels suffered from a tough learning curve, but their scrappy, modest force came out on top because NATO systematically erased the regime’s advantages. The mission would be no different in Syria.

  4. Pingback: Premature Calculations | The Foreigner – الأجنبي

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