The time has come for the United States, preferably backed by NATO and hopefully by the United Nations, to intervene decisively in the “Syrian Civil War.” By “intervene decisively” I mean that the United States should use military power to fatally weaken the Assad regime as well as equipping and supporting moderate and trustworthy rebel factions to overthrow the regime themselves. Toothless words uttered at the U.N. and sanctions will not, and have never, solved such conflicts. This type of intervention would not require the Americans or NATO to commit to an extensive and costly ground war such as in Iraq or Afghanistan, but to use their advantages in air power and special operations much as they did with considerable success in Libya in 2011. While intervention, as such, in Syria would likely be more difficult, both militarily and politically, than in Libya there are no indications that it would be extremely risky. Additionally, whereas there are many advantages from an early American intervention there are also considerable risks of continuously sitting on the sidelines and hoping for the best. If it can be proven beyond a doubt that the Syrian government was responsible for widespread use of chemical weapons against its own people then military intervention by America and NATO against the Assad regime would be justified.
The first, and most obvious, reason for intervention would be the current humanitarian crisis in Syria. After two and half years of war the death toll has surpassed 100,000 (a much higher number than how many Palestinians the Israelis have killed during the last 65 years) and there are an estimated 1.7 million Syrian refugees who are either dispersed in their own country or living in dreadful refugee camps in neighboring countries. Additionally, there is the alarming use of a considerable number of chemical weapons by the regime against rebel forces and civilians. Not since Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against the Iranians and the Iraqi people has there been such a widespread use of such weapons in any conflict. Back then the United States and NATO not only did nothing, but also backed Iraq to various degrees; it would be disgraceful for them to remain silent and do nothing again. There is no reason to believe that the number of deaths, refugees, and use of chemical weapons will not continue to rise prohibitively until the conflict ends. With American aid the conflict would most likely end much sooner and lead to less suffering in the long term.
There is also the fact that many of the Syrian people (safe, of course for the minority who support the Assad regime out of self-interest or perks), the Syrian National Council and most of the Syrian resistance groups have openly called for, and desperately need, both outside intervention and material support. While there is no way to know for sure, as the Obama administration could be using proxies or CIA black operations to equip the rebels, it seems as though the rebels are generally outmatched against the Assad regime. Incidentally, while the western world searches its conscious regarding what to do to help the Syrian people the Russians, the Chinese and the Iranians have not hesitated to support Assad, both diplomatically and materially (including delivering weapons) and help him stay in power.
There are certainly no lack of precedents where giving rebel groups sufficient weapons and supplies has ultimately proved decisive. The Chinese aid to the Vietminh against the French, the American aid to the Mujaheddin against the Soviets, and of course NATO’s aid to the Libyan rebels are obvious examples. And while skeptics would point out the long term instability and calamity regarding the aftermath in the cases of Vietnam and Afghanistan the main mistakes were made after the wars were over and the host country failed to properly set up the new governments, both structurally and financially, for success.
While skeptics and pessimists point out the risks of intervention there are also many risks of non-intervention. Although there is no way to tell, in the case of non-intervention, who will triumph in the “Syrian Civil War” the chances of a faction winning in such a case who would be friendly to American and Western interests would be low. In the case of Assad’s regime holding onto power the status quo would remain, in the case of an anti-western jihadist or secular faction winning power it could arguably become much worse, and in the case of a moderate faction it could arguably get better. However even in the latter case the political capital the West would hold with such a faction would be limited as America would have sat out the conflict instead of helping them when it mattered.
But if America and NATO intervened they could choose which factions to support (hopefully the more moderate and pro-western ones) and prop them up with the ultimate aim of installing them, at least initially, in place of Assad. While admittedly this would be anything but easy in such a messy situation as a civil war with countless factions it would certainly be more likely to benefit Western interests than sitting back and hoping a moderate faction would ultimate triumph (which would be unrealistic as the more hard core Islamic factions tend to be the most organized; as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood have shown).
It must be remembered that there is more at stake regarding this conflict than Syria itself. In fact, Syria’s position in the Middle East is an extremely important one. Syria has, or has had, an important role regarding Lebanon, Israel, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Turkey, and Iran. Regarding Lebanon, it has continuously backed the militant group Hezbollah; allowing it to both fight Israel as well as challenging the Lebanese army and government (both usually reliable western allies). Regarding Israel it has been in a state of war since 1948 and has continuously fought the Jewish state conventionally or via proxies for over 65 years. Regarding Gaza it has backed Hamas both diplomatically and materially against Israel. Regarding Jordan it has continuously undermined the Hashemite Monarchy (a moderate and useful ally for the West) and tried to raise the masses against it. Regarding Turkey it has occasionally provided support for Kurdish separatists in southern Turkey. As for Iran it has been its major ally in the Middle East, continuously opposing the West and the more progressive Arab moderates since the late 1970s.
Think of all these conflicts and contexts and imagine how different they could develop if factions, either more pro-western and less anti-Israeli, or more anti-American and more hostile against Israel came to power. While citing extreme examples is arguably unfair the following should at least be able to put things into perspective: In the case of a more enlightened government coming to power in Damascus there could potentially be a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty, Hezbollah and Hamas would become weaker or even forced to come to terms with Israel instead of further bloodshed, Iran would lose its best ally and Syria could have more constructive relations with her neighbors and the West. In the case of a more hostile government coming to power there could be further conflict between Syria and Israel, more support for terrorist groups, potentially more support for Iran and a further deterioration of relations between Syria and her neighbors and the West.
In fact the “Syrian Civil War” is perhaps the pivotal battle in the Cold War in the Middle East between America and her allies which favor slow reform to address the many grievances in the region vs. Iran, Syria and their proxies which seek to violently overthrow the status quo and generally want to see a more conservative, Islamic fundamentalist, Middle East. This latter group supports widespread terrorist groups and insurgencies which have not, and never will, lead to democracy or prosperity for the region, as well as fomenting violence between Hezbollah and Israel and Hamas and Israel. Critics of American foreign policy as well as their less than enlightened allies among the Arab states can certainly find much to criticize about both but they certainly cannot make a convincing case that a Middle East dominated by Iran, Syria’s Assad and terrorist groups would make for a safer, or more stable, region. The very reason most of the Arab countries are U.S. allies is that they fear Iranian influence and Islamic fundamentalism more than America. It is telling that during the “Arab Spring,” the “Libyan Civil War” and in the current Syrian crisis the Arab people and resistance factions have usually turned to the Americans, not the Iranians or Al-Qaeda, for help.
Likewise, decisive intervention in Syria also gives America the chance to eliminate Russia and China’s last major ally in the region. While the Soviet Union had plenty of allies in the region during the “Cold War” since the 1990s Russia’s influence has been steadily waning. Additionally, both the Russians and Chinese are still bitter about the overthrow of Gaddafi who was another key ally (not least because the new Libya has turned to the West instead of them). Just as in the case of Iran a Middle East dominated more by Chinese and Russian influence than by American would not lead to more democracy or prosperity for its people. While Western media (somewhat perversely) has traditionally focused on the many wrongs America has inflicted on the Arabs and the Muslims, the Russians and Chinese have killed and oppressed many more. Russia killed arguably 2 million people during their occupation of Afghanistan and countless Chechens in two separate wars and certainly treats their Muslim population much worse than America treats its own. China also arguably killed millions of their Uyghur population in the northwest Xinjiang province and also severely limits their rights. In fact, whereas there has only been one successful terrorist attack by Islamic fundamentalists on American soil since 9/11 (the Boston marathon) there have been several notable ones in Russia and China, including a small scale insurgency by the Uyghurs against the Chinese state.
While naive idealists and apologists for neo-communists and Islamic fundamentalists would rather see America withdraw from the region, realists, and those who are informed about the fragile context of the region, understand American influence is a necessary evil. This does not mean that America has not committed grave errors with tragic consequences for the inhabitants of the region, but it does mean that in the case of total American withdrawal that Russia, China, and especially Iran would fill the vacuum and the long term results would be much worse.
Finally there is the fate of Syria’s considerable stocks of chemical and biological weapons (among the largest in the region). While in lieu of the Iraq fiasco 10 years earlier it is understandable that few want to debate the potential threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction once more it is an issue that needs to be addressed eventually. It only makes sense that the Americans and NATO make sensible plans to secure these weapons rather than trusting that whomever triumphs in Syria will not use the weapons against them or give them to terrorist groups. And before someone mentions the tired old saying of “no blood for oil” it should be noted that there is very little oil in Syria!
These are the reasons why America should intervene militarily, but another question is could it? Plenty of skeptics point out that a Libyan style intervention would be more difficult in Syria. Indeed, much of the fighting in Libya was in desert terrain which is more ideal for the use of Airpower than the mostly urban battlefields in Syria. Additionally, the Syrian regime has a much stronger and more modern military, especially regarding SAMs (surface to air missiles) and AA (anti-aircraft) defenses. Then there is the matter of logistics as NATO had many bases close to Libya which allowed their air forces to attack it efficiently whereas they have few close to Syria. Finally, there is the fact that whereas Gaddafi (perhaps foolishly given his end) gave up his chemical and biological weapons before the Libyan intervention Assad still has his. These are all valid points and an American and NATO intervention in Syria would not be an easy feat.
However, these factors can most likely be mitigated and the U.S. effort would certainly not involve scores of ground troops (although it is likely special operatives would be used as they were in Libya).
Regarding the urban battlefield it should be stated honestly that there would be considerably more collateral damage than in Libya and that it would be much harder to hit targets accurately than in the desert. However, whereas it is easy for insurgents and individual soldiers to hide inside cities it is much harder, though admittedly not impossible, for them to hide the considerable numbers of tanks, trucks, planes, artillery pieces, equipment and supplies that is needed to run an army.
Besides which even if American Airpower did not physically destroy many of these assets (as it often remarkably has not in past situations as in Kosovo and the air campaign in the “Gulf War”) it would likely prove decisive in other ways. Firstly, to avoid being hit the Syrian army would have to hide most of this equipment and go onto the defensive; indeed it would change its mission from quashing the rebels to that of mere survival. This would give the Syrian resistance breathing room and allow them to reorganize and better equip themselves and ultimately to take the offensive and overthrow Assad. Secondly, the air offensive would also have a moral effect; encouraging the rebels and discouraging the Syrian regime’s soldiers. Most soldiers are aware of the fact that no conventional army in modern history has won a war without air superiority. Thirdly, much of the NATO’s first strikes would be against the Syrian’s command and control capabilities and as a result the Syrian army would inevitably lose its cohesion and thus lose much of its edge over the rebels.
As for the fact that the Syrian armed forces are both larger and better equipped than Libya’s was on paper, the last 65 years of military history in the Middle East should dispel the notion that it would be able to seriously withstand American and NATO’s military might. The Israelis alone, with a smaller population and resource base vs. Syria have consistently bested the Syrians, even when the latter have had considerable numerical superiority and often just as good, if not better, technology and equipment. In 1967 the Israelis destroyed the majority of the Syrian Air Force on the ground and won aerial supremacy in a matter of hours (even though they were also fighting the Jordanians and Egyptians at the same time). In 1982 the Israelis also destroyed the entire Syrian SAM network in the Bekaa Valley (the most concentrated and extensive air defense system outside the Soviet Union in the world at the time) in a matter of hours without the loss of a single plane. They also shot down nearly 100 Syrian planes, again without loss, in a matter of days. The Israelis even managed to bomb a suspected nuclear plant in Syria in 2007 without any loss or Syrian retaliation (likely as the result of cyber-warfare that shut down the entire Syrian anti-aircraft defense network). There is simply no reason based on history or the comparative balance of forces that the Americans and NATO, who have vastly superior Airpower and technology, and indeed who have given Israel much of their military technology, will not be able to quickly over power the Syrian air force and air defense network and then have the liberty to bomb at will any target they please.
Since 1944 the Americans have never been without air superiority in any conflict; it is hard to believe that Assad’s Syria will be the exception. While it is wise to admit that Airpower has never won wars on its own, and that any Syrian intervention (if the objective was to remove Assad from power) would arguably be more difficult and take longer than it did in Libya, which took many months, there is certainly little risk that it would result in significant, or even negligible U.S. or NATO casualties. There will never be an Iraqi style intervention with an invasion or prolonged occupation by Western group troops in Syria; neither the Obama administration, nor the American people, has the political will.
As for logistical constraints, America and NATO could potentially find it more difficult to use Airpower in Syria than in Libya for the fact that there are fewer, and less developed NATO bases from which to launch such a campaign from. Besides the obvious use of aircraft carriers and ships and submarines with precision guided missiles, there are the British bases on Cyprus, which in terms of numbers and capabilities are much less impressive than those used in Italy to launch the Libyan intervention. Admittedly this is more of a problem for the Europeans, who generally do not have the amount of carriers, the aerial refueling capabilities, nor the considerable military logistical network that the Americans have. It is probable that the Americans, who would carry out most of the tasks anyway, would be able to carry out such a mission, but for the Europeans they would either have to limit their consignment of troops and supplies to the few carriers they have and to whatever capabilities the Cyprus bases can accommodate, or secure the use of bases in neighboring Arab states or Turkey.
Turkey, itself a NATO member, seems like the obvious choice with its respectable military and extensive air bases. However, it is questionable how willing the Turks would be open to such a move. While they certainly have no warmth for Assad, having had to host thousands of Syrian refugees and to deal with many Syrian manipulations over the years, it is debatable how much the Turks would want to risk fighting a Syrian regime that has shown itself willing to use chemical weapons. The use of other countries in the region seems even less likely. Jordan is militarily weak vs. Syria, Iraq would unsurprisingly be reluctant to once again having western forces deployed on its soil, Lebanon is virtually a Syrian vassal state and the presence of Hezbollah (which has considerable power within the Lebanese government) rules out its use. It is also obvious that the Arab world would not tolerate American or NATO planes bombing Syria from Israel and given the current political turmoil in Egypt it would probably not assent to helping NATO either. Thus it is inevitable that the lion-share of any military action against Syria will be mounted by the Americans with a more limited effort by NATO.
However the considerable stocks of Syrian chemical and biological weapons are definitely a more dangerous factor. While the risk to American and NATO personnel of such weapons would be low considering they wouldn’t be inserting ground troops the Syrians could launch attacks against NATO bases in Turkey or Cyprus, or against U.S. allies in the region. However, given the inherent unreliability of chemical and biological weapons, as well as the huge conventional advantage of U.S. and NATO forces the vast majority of such weapons would either be shot down in flight, destroyed on the ground, or their delivery systems rendered inoperative via cyber-warfare (where the Americans have the indisputable advantage in the world). While it would be foolish to dismiss the potential risks of such weaponry the history of war and the technological imbalance between the Syrian and western forces suggest there is little risk to America or her allies.
Yet the Syrian people would still be vulnerable to these weapons and it is possible the regime would escalate such attacks in desperation. While none of this should be discounted the fact remains that there is considerable evidence that the regime is already launching chemical attacks against their own population while the rest of the world does nothing. Additionally, as stated above, if the west does not intervene it will not be able to secure such weapons when the Syrian regime finally collapses and there would be a significant chance of them falling into the hands of factions that are irrevocably hostile to American and western interests. Admittedly, it would be no simple task to secure such weapons and there would exist a chance of such weapons landing in hostile hands anyway, there would be better odds of limiting the proliferation of biological and chemical weapons if America intervened.
The time for American intervention in Syria is now. All efforts at diplomacy or mediation have failed. After two and a half years of civil war more than 100,000 people have died, more than 1.7 million Syrians have become refugees and the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against its own people. The Syrian National Council, most resistance factions and much of the Syrian people have called for decisive intervention on their behalf. The Americans and NATO need to prop up the more moderate factions in Syria and groom them for power so that the next government in Damascus is friendly, and not hostile, to both her neighbors and western interests. Likewise, the elimination of the Assad regime would be a major blow to the Iranians, the Russians and the Chinese; all of whose interests’ in the region are more cynical and sinister than America and the West’s. Additionally, while it would be risky to confront a regime with chemical and biological weapons it is arguably more risky to hope for the best and that such weapons would not ultimately fall into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who may think of using them against Israel or the West. While such a military venture would be more difficult and potentially last longer than the one mounted in Libya in 2011 it is well within America and NATO’s capabilities to do so.
Opponents of intervention are afraid of Syria becoming “another Iraq” while advocates of intervention want to stop another slaughter as occurred in Darfur or Rwanda. However Syria is neither Iraq, Darfur nor Rwanda. There is no political will in either the American people or the Obama administration for a ground war or occupation; there will not be “another Iraq.” However America and NATO have the potential to use Airpower and special operatives, and prop up rebel factions, to allow them to overthrow Assad themselves. This is not fantasy; it has precedents in Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and Libya in 2011. In these three situations no considerable ground forces were involved in the defeat of the enemy government and the only reason American ground troops entered Afghanistan in big numbers was to find Bin Laden in lieu of the attacks on the World Trade Centre. Before intervening the Americans should be able to prove beyond a doubt that the Syrian regime used widespread chemical weapons against its own people to satisfy world opinion and not repeat the same mistake regarding Iraq 10 years earlier. While war should not be taken lightly and the risks should be carefully weighed there is a good case to be made for immediate American intervention in Syria.