Why Syria is Special

By Matthew M. Reed

Last week I said NATO’s success in Libya will accelerate the debate surrounding Syria and intervention there. It’s worth repeating that I didn’t argue for intervention in that post or the follow-up. But I’m now convinced intervention is a mistake. While Assad deserves a monster’s funeral, and Iran stands to lose a great deal, Syria is different from Libya in ways that make intervention a foolish gamble. Force is not the way forward. Instead, the Obama administration should focus on Russia and China for now, and encourage regional powers—particularly Turkey—to take principled positions that isolate the regime in ways the US and EU cannot.

It’s important to remember that Syria’s military remains largely unified. Infrequent reports suggest “tens of soldiers” are defecting on occasion but Syria’s military is committed to the crackdown by and large. This isn’t surprising: Assad carefully staffed his military with co-religionists and those beholden to minority rule. Prior to that, his father did the same. I have no doubt that NATO could crush the Syrian military given its vintage Soviet gear, but the fight could drag on longer than the five-month Libyan campaign and cost a great deal more since there are so many more targets to strike. It’s unclear if the Europeans are up to the task or are willing to spend so much. The same applies for the US as austerity and defense cuts curb ambition.

Staging an intervention would also not be very easy. Most of NATO’s 20,000 sorties took place along Libya’s coast and were launched from Italy. Action against Syria would require similar access to Italian fields but they could refuse. Syria, after all, is no major concern for Rome, while Libya mattered greatly because of energy concerns, commercial links, and refugees. No intervention can be staged from a neighboring country either. Saudi Arabia and Jordan will not invite NATO in; neither will Israel, Iraq, or Lebanon. Turkey seems unlikely too.

It should be noted that the Syrian resistance isn’t begging for assistance either. A request would have to come first, of course. It would confirm the outrage of the international community, spur regional organizations like the GCC and Arab League to change their posture and get out ahead of events, and it would also force outliers to line up for tougher resolutions at the UN. Intervention is impossible until a shift occurs.

Other than operational issues and diplomatic heavy-lifting, any assessment would be incomplete without consideration of several other factors. For starters, Assad allowed jihadists to enter Iraq through his territory for years after the American invasion in 2003. These elements destabilized the country, perpetuated strife, and killed Americans. It’s entirely possible that the regime could unleash these forces again either within the country or beyond. The spill-over effects should give decision-makers pause. So too should Assad’s massive stockpile of chemical weapons. According to Leonard Spector, former assistant deputy administrator for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration:

“Syria is one of a handful of states that the U.S. government believes possess large stocks of chemical agents in militarized form — that is, ready for use in artillery shells and bombs. The arsenal is thought to be massive, involving thousands of munitions and many tons of chemical agents, which range, according to CIA annual reports to Congress, from the blister gases of World War I — such as mustard gas — to advanced nerve agents such as sarin and possibly persistent nerve agents, such as VX gas.”

Here’s another key difference between Libya and Syria: Syria enjoys foreign sponsorship. Damascus is Iran’s one true ally and it’s fully committed to Assad. Geneive Abdo’s article in Foreign Affairs, titled “How Iran Keeps Assad in Power in Syria,” confirmed as much on August 25:

“According to U.S. officials, as of April Iran was providing the Syrian security services with weapons, surveillance equipment, and training. Earlier this month, Ankara intercepted an arms shipment headed from Tehran to Damascus — the second such shipment it caught this summer.

The Iranian regime has also provided Assad with technology to monitor e-mail, cell phones, and social media. Iran developed these capabilities in the wake of the 2009 protests and spent millions of dollars establishing a ‘cyber army’ to track down dissidents online. Iran’s monitoring technology is believed to be among the most sophisticated in the world — second, perhaps, only to China. Shortly after Iran shared its know-how with Syria this summer, Assad lifted restrictions on social networking Web sties [sic], presumably to lure dissents out into the open.”

Forcing Assad out may force the Iranians to respond. Their ability to produce havoc in Israel and Lebanon is well known considering their influence with Hamas and Hizballah. (Although I’m not convinced Tehran has an ‘on-off’ switch for proxies, it’s entirely possible that smaller, less accountable groups of sympathizers could initiate hostilities.) Iraq and American troops would also be at risk since Iran sponsors Shia partisans there with lethal results.

Beyond Assad’s removal, which is possible but costly, reconstruction in Syria will be painfully slow. Before the crackdown the country was miserably poor; Syria has little oil and gas and the tourism industry cannot be rehabilitated soon—just ask the Egyptians. Libya, on the other hand, may be producing serious amounts of oil in the next two years, and, so long as contracts are honored and revenue-sharing agreements are finalized, the post-Qaddafi era will be paved with black gold. The Syrian people aren’t so fortunate. Remember too that Syria’s population of 24 million is four times larger than Libya’s. Assad’s crackdown qualifies as a humanitarian crisis but it could get messier still. Picking up the pieces could take a lot longer than in Libya.

Every reason listed above makes me anxious: the Syrian military will not turn on the regime; staging an operation could be very tricky since there are no bases nearby; the resistance, as of today, doesn’t want intervention; Syria remains a jihadist’s dream and a non-proliferators’ nightmare; Iran complicates any action with the threat of retaliation, small as it may be; and reconstruction, which it’s never too early to think about, will be infinitely harder than in Libya.

The more I think about it the more I’m convinced one of my major reservations about the Libyan intervention was actually a blessing. “Libya is not a ‘hinge state,’” I wrote on July 7. “I use that term to describe a state with the potential to positively impact neighbors by example. The population is too small (6.6 million). And for too long it’s been removed from the centers of power that define overarching trends originating from Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, etc.” Precisely because Libya was isolated, tiny in terms of population, friendless, oil-rich, and had given up WMD’s in 2003, the intervention there carried limited risk. Syria is the exact opposite.

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2 Comments

Filed under Matthew M. Reed

2 responses to “Why Syria is Special

  1. You’ve convinced me Matt. What do you think of the recent revelation that Dick Cheney wanted to bomb a nuclear reactor in Syria a few years ago? Was he right? (Israel ended up bombing it.)

  2. I’m not surprised Cheney wanted to bomb the reactor. I’m more surprised he was confident enough in intelligence coming from Syria after the Iraq War produced no WMD. (Then again, I’ve seen pictures of that facility and it seems like satellite photos just don’t lie.) My understanding is that Bush didn’t want to be burned again—at least that’s what the reports I’ve read suggest—and that he expected the Israelis to deal with it if it really did worry them. Bush, I think, rightly chose to do nothing since the program was still in an early stage and was not a genuine threat to American interests just yet. 2007 was also the high-water mark for sectarian violence in Iraq and the year Bush committed to the troop “surge.” No doubt Bush knew Syria could turn the screws on American troops. If that’s the case and he was aware of the consequences, there’s no doubt in my mind that Bush was right and Cheney was just too trigger-happy.

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