The 17-month-old Syrian uprising has entered a new phase, with significant fighting in Damascus and a devastating bomb attack on the regime’s national security headquarters that killed and injured key figures of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, including the Defence Minister and the President’s brother-in-law, who was serving as deputy chief of staff. These developments have raised the stakes for Western countries and have brought brutal clarity to the choices that remain for effective outside engagement, including military action, in Syria.
Until now, Western intervention in Syria has been held back by three illusions, some more Machiavellian than others. One illusion was that the Assad regime would prevail against a ragtag Syrian armed opposition and that international military intervention would only result in a civil war on behalf of the little-understood anti-Assad forces. A second illusion was that the Assad regime would see the wisdom of moderating its use of military force, recognize the need for international legitimacy and come to the negotiating table with the rebels. A third was that the Western powers could work through the Russians to encourage a change of behaviour by the Syrian government.
As the fighting in Syria escalates and instability worsens, such assumptions and associated policies have proven bankrupt.
The danger is that a new illusion may emerge, namely that Syrian rebel forces have now gained the upper hand and can break the regime quickly. A more prudent calculation would be that the armed conflict in Syria is likely to be protracted and bloody. The regime has shown that it is not going to give up and will now bend its energies to further displays of military force to seek revenge for the bombing of the security headquarters.
With Kofi Annan’s peace plan essentially dead, the United Nations Security Council deadlocked and the Russians unwilling to support any anti-Assad intervention, the strategic options for concerned Western powers, including Canada, have now come down to two. Both would require U.S. leadership.
One option is a major increase in support for the Free Syrian Army through the clandestine provision of communications and logistics support, arms, military advisers and intelligence. This is the covert war option, and it has its appeal. It sets limits on Western involvement, is relatively risk-free in terms of loss of Western lives, is low-cost and potentially avoids harsh international disputes with states like Russia and China. The obvious downside is that Western influence with a post-Assad regime is likely to be proportional to the scale of overt support for the uprising, especially in the crucial early days of a new Syria. With the covert war model, the power that will be poised to exert the greatest influence will be Turkey, which openly took the rebel side early on.
The other strategic option that remains available, for now, is a Libya-style solution. This would require the rapid imposition of a no-fly zone by NATO forces with whatever UN, Arab League and other support that can be acquired. As in Libya, the no-fly zone would have a declared immediate objective: to force a stop to the Assad regime’s killing machine by grounding its air force and by requiring a halt to the movement on the ground of heavy weapons on pain of destruction. It would also have, as we saw in Libya, an undeclared objective: to force the government’s removal and open the way for a democratic solution in Syria.
NATO could certainly mount the forces for a no-fly mission against Syria, provided the United States was once again prepared to take the military lead. NATO has the planes, combat ships and bases (especially in Turkey) to do the job. It has the all-important intelligence assets to be able to monitor Syrian ground and air movements, and through U.S. channels could presumably tap into Israeli intelligence about the Syrian military.
While the capabilities required to impose a no-fly zone over Syria are available, the political will may still be lacking. Doubts exist about the political endgame and whether the Syrian rebels are a political force to be trusted. (Similar doubts existed with regard to the Libyan rebels.) Overt military intervention in Syria has the potential to destabilize the region: Iranian reactions are a wild card; the conflict could easily spill over into Lebanon; and Israeli intelligence is already indicating its concerns about a power vacuum in the disputed Golan Heights border region.
Political will to act is also undermined by the worsening European economic situation and the fact that we are in an election year in the United States. Resorting to military force through the imposition of a no-fly zone would decisively tip the military balance in Syria but would still be enormously expensive, cost lives and risk political setbacks. It’s a bad summer for such an act.
Yet the reasons for sitting on our hands while Syria burns are gone. Either we embrace the covert war model, open an arms and intelligence pipeline to the rebels and hope it is enough to bring the fighting to a rapid end and bring about an acceptable political solution; or we impose a no-fly zone, do more of the fighting ourselves and potentially have greater political leverage. Either way, we have to accept that diplomacy has failed and that military force has presented itself as the last resort, as it always should. Failure to choose one of these options will result in an unnecessarily long civil war in Syria and the genesis of a humanitarian disaster.
Wesley Wark teaches a course in global security for the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, and is a visiting research professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.
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