Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Syria Thing

Homs, besieged and under relentless artillery fire
Bashar al-Assad's Syria represents a horrific problem for the international community.  Syria is nothing like Libya, and any kind of direct intervention, for a variety of reasons, is extremely difficult, if not impossible.  And yet.

Certainly the international community in a modern, civilized, educated world has some responsibility to try to stop a dictator from slaughtering his citizens.  Sovereignty simply cannot mean that an individual, political party, organization or cult can use the conventions of international borders to commit the unfettered industrial scale murder of vast swaths of his population.  But at the same time, any military intervention is fraught with risk, and there is no value in any process that leads to further destabilization, a regional war, more killing and more destruction.

The politics of it are what make it so hard.  al-Assad is not going to back down - for him it truly is an existential struggle.  There is no place for him and his Baath party cronies except either as the autocratic rulers of Syria, in a cell in The Hague or in a grave.  His father murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people (well, Syrians, but (mostly) not Allawites) to stay in power, and any dictator today, well aware of the fate of those such as Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein will see no future in compromise.  So diplomacy, negotiations, even brutal economic sanctions are unlikely to alter the path.  A dictator in al-Assad's position today must either completely and utterly crush the revolt or eventually he will be deposed, and he will die.

Direct intervention is not possible at all without a UN Mandate, and the willing participation of the regional organizations like the Arab League and the GCC.  And as long as Russia is willing to provide cover for the Syrian leadership in the UN Security Council then there can be no mandate, and European nations, having seen firsthand what international miltary adventures without UN support look like in Iraq, will not be willing to participate.  And the US has, rightly, had her fill of unilateral "cowboy" actions that lacked international support.  Even with a UN Resolution, there are real, practical questions about what can be accomplished, and what the indirect and unintended consequences of any military action might be.

So if, at least for now, we must rule out direct intervention in Syria - and let's be perfectly clear:  we must - and yet, even still, we feel that to do nothing would not only compound the crimes, it would be a crime in itself - just what CAN the international community do?

What about a No Fly Zone?
Both sides learn from history, and al-Assad has learned well the lessons of Libya.  First, he doesn't need air power to suppress the rebellion.  Oh sure, make no mistake, he'd LOVE to use the terrifying power of random death from the skies, but the risks and costs just don't justify the benefits.  If he used his air against Homs and the Damascus suburbs, that would give the international community an excuse to push for a No Fly Zone, much as they did with Gadhafi.  And he must always be aware that Israel is ALWAYS looking for an opportunity to engage, and if he starts flying fighter bombers and dropping bombs and a few of those jets stray a bit too close to the border they'll get knocked down.  Problems he does not need at this point.  And the bottom line for the Syrian regime is that suppressing this rebellion is dirty, close, eyeball range murder.  It calls for tanks, machine guns and snipers.  It calls for detention and torture.  The idea is to make the rebels stop rebelling - and that means inflicting maximum pain on them, their families and their tribe.  As long as he doesn't actually NEED his air power, he won't make that mistake.

Sanctions just don't matter.  There is no option for Bashar al-Assad.  He's in a win or die struggle, and anybody in the Western community who doesn't understand this is bound to miscalculate.  Sanctions won't end the slaughter.  They won't even slow it down.  The regime knows they're losing revenue, but they're fighting to keep their lives.  They'll let the whole country starve before they'll negotiate in good faith.  See North Korea.

Arm the Rebels?
This seems a reasonable course of action when first examined.  Some kind of active support that challenges the regime, sends a message the the international community is not going to stand passively by and allow these crimes, and maybe hastens the fall of the dictator.

The argument against arming the rebels is that injecting a large number of arms into a particular region is destabilizing, and will contribute to violence and instability in the post-conflict future.  I suspect there is some truth to this, but for the most part it seems to be a correlation without causation.  In the aftermath of war, the population is predisposed to violence because they are inured to it.  Indeed, all of the societal barriers to violence, killing and destruction have already been stripped away, and people will use any available weapons because that is what they have come to believe is necessary and proper. So the presence of weapons might well enable post-conflict violence, but it seems unlikely they are actually a primary driver of it.  And the fact is we're faced with a slaughter TODAY, and the balance of power is fully in the favor of the regime.

The larger question is whether the rebels actually NEED arms.  The number of actual rebel fighters isn't clear, and the core of the Free Syria Army seems to be military professionals who brought their weapons with them.  What's needed militarily is a way to stop the armor and artillery, to bring a halt to the shelling of civilian neighborhoods and end the indiscriminate slaughter.  And that's either tanks or air power, and there is no hope of either as things stand today.

Carve out a "Safe Zone"?
It would be nice if there was a place where Syrian refugees and those targeted by the regime could go to be safe and begin to form the basis for an opposition leadership.  But I am skeptical about the chances for this for a couple reasons.  First, whether done under the auspices of the Arab League or the UN, it would still constitute an invasion of Syria, probably from Turkey, and the international soldiers on the ground would not be peacekeepers, but would very quickly find themselves in heavy combat.  Second, the Internally Displaced People that would be protected in this safe zone would have to find a way to get there, and the al-Assad loyalists would make that a very bloody, very dangerous trip.  And third, remember Srebrenica.  The UN promised the Bosnians they would be protected there, so they came, and when they did the Serbs murdered them by the thousands in the worst genocide in Europe since the Second World War.  The UN troops?  They stood by and did nothing, or they fled.  You cannot promise a safe zone if you're not committed to doing whatever is necessary to protect those to whom you promised sanctuary.

I'm the first to admit I don't know what should be done.  But civilized nations have GOT to be willing to spend some treasure and take some risks to stop this kind of horror.  It is brutally dishonest to call it an "Internal Syrian Affair" and do nothing while thousands are killed, wounded and tortured.  In a way, Bashar al-Assad may be making it somewhat easier by ratcheting up the violence, brutality and suffering to the point where even his most stout defenders may be forced to turn away, and that might open up some options for the West to intervene.  The open question is how many have to die before that comes to pass?


  1. There are thousands upon thousands of people who die every day that could be saved without tanks and air power, mikey.

    Our political and media attention in the alleged 'civilized world' is focused on Syria because they're on the list.

    But so is Iran, and unlike Syria they have oil.

    Looks like a toss up.

  2. Glad to see you're back. You're a thoughtful guy, and I like to read what you have to say. Courage, in Frog.