Recently there has been a deluge of calls for action to topple the Al-Assad regime in Syria in order to stop its bloody crackdown against the opposition movement. Many ideas have been thrown out into the open, the most prominent of which center around an air campaign, using a harsh set of sanctions against the regime, or arming the opposition with weapons capable of leveling the playing field. The loudest champions of these ideas by and large are generalizing the matter. Reducing the situation into black and white, election-friendly terms glosses over many of the grim realities in Syria. Looking at the main ideas listed above, we see that they are either unfeasible or the risks involved make them not only undesirable but also counterproductive.
The air campaign idea is adhering to the success of NATO’s no-fly zone that was used in Libya. However basic this statement is, it must be carefully understood: Syria is not Libya. Significant differences exist between the two countries in not just the situation, but also in sheer defensive capability. First, Al-Assad is not using aircraft to aid the massacre of Syrian citizens, unlike Gadhafi, who used jets and helicopters in Tripoli and Benghazi. This was the reason for the no-fly zone in Libya. Second, Syria possesses a vastly superior air defense network in comparison with Libya:
With an estimated 54,000 personnel, [the Syrian Air Defense Command (ADC)] is twice the size of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s air force and air defense command combined… comprising thousands of anti-aircraft guns and more than 130 surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries. The bulk of Syria’s ADC SAM… systems… were also operated by Gadhafi’s forces. However, the Syrians operate these systems in far greater numbers, have devoted significant resources to the maintenance and upgrade of these missile batteries, and have also successfully deployed their SAM systems in a dense and overlapping layout that would complicate potential Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses operations.
This complex air defense system has been upgraded by Russia as recently as November 2011. Syria also maintains a much more formidable air force made up of MiG fighters. Third, an air campaign would be dependent on Syrian fighters gaining and holding ground in order to form gaps in the air defense network. This isn’t the case in Syria as it was in Libya, since the Syrian rebels can’t effectively hold territory.
Calling for crippling sanctions against Bashar Al-Assad and his regime are important, however, these also need to be successful. Installing sever, full-breadth sanction won’t accomplish the goals of ousting the regime and buoying the opposition.
Many advocates of stricter sanctions feel that targeting those at the economic base of the regime will lead them to abandon Assad. But no amount of economic pressure is likely to convince those loyalists that they will be better off in a post- Assad world; dismal economic prospects will always be much more attractive than the organized revenge killings and systematic discrimination by the state that many fear will be their future once Assad is gone.
What’s required are specific, multilateral sanctions that choke the capability of higher echelon elements in the regime in conjuction with a strong, united opposition. However, an integrated opposition is more of a dream right now, as minorities (Alawites, Kurds, and others) fear sectarian violence and political sidelining:
Many are deeply suspicious and fear that a new Sunni government will marginalize them even further. In meetings of Syrian opposition leaders, Kurdish representatives have quarreled over which rights, freedoms and powers Kurds would have– or would be denied–in a new Syria.
The most popular solution for toppling the regime, arming the opposition fighters, is also the most risky one on the table. At first glance, it would seem that giving weapons to the rebels is a low-cost, low-involvement solution. However, this is a very short-sighted answer, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently:
It is not clear what constitutes the Syrian armed opposition – there has been no single unifying military alternative that can be recognized, appointed, or contacted. While the opposition is fighting back and military defections and desertions are on the rise, the Syrian regime continues to maintain a strong military… there is every possibility of a civil war, and an outside intervention in these conditions would not prevent that, but could expedite it and make it worse.
To further emphasize the undefinable nature of the Syrian opposition, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations Leslie H. Gelb asks,
But who are those rebels exactly? Oh, former Syrian soldiers. Oh, people fighting against Assad’s tyranny. That’s fine. But who else are they? Are there major al Qaeda elements among them, or other Muslim extremists? Would they be a bigger threat to Israel and to Arab neighbors like Jordan than Assad himself?
It’s impossible to predict the results of giving the nebulous opposition weapons, but very real possibilities include years of sectarian violence similar to Iraq, full scale civil war, or the formation of an anarchic haven for radical Islamic fundamentalists. Let it be noted that we armed the opposition movement in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and after initial success, the situation degraded, and we are still dealing with the severe consequences in fighting with the Taliban.
This situation does not provide any clear answers, nor does it paint a hopeful picture of peace and freedom, whether Assad is deposed or not. As one expert notes, many Syrians still support Bashar Al-Assad because “they prefer his (flawed) promise of security and stability to the (untested) opposition’s offer of a democracy enveloped in blood. Assad’s appeal is not that he offers freedom, but security.” There is no doubt that the human cost of Assad’s massacre is great, but there could also be a heavier human cost if our approach to this situation is not more detailed and calculated. The right answer may be to take immediate action, or it may in fact be to do nothing and wait. A lot is at stake in Syria: regional stability, the opportunity to seriously impede Iran’s regional influence, the human cost, and largely America’s power in the eyes of the world. If we take the gamble and lose, the resulting mess will be on us. Warmongers and humanitarians alike would be wise to take more than a superficial look at Syria and realize that the costs of involvement warrant serious consideration and planning.