Syria: Seven Qs and As on Military Intervention


Question: Why should the United States intervene militarily in Syria and what could it accomplish?

Answer: The United States would intervene to save lives and to help stabilize the region. It is militarily capable, without putting "boots on the ground," of destroying or seriously degrading the ability of the Assad regime, through shelling and bombing, to slaughter, stampede, and terrorize civilians by the tens of thousands; people whose "crime" is that they live in areas beyond the regime’s control. By deliberately using artillery, aircraft, and even Scud missiles against residential neighborhoods and fleeing civilians, rather than restricting itself to military targets, the regime is, according to a United Nations (UN) independent international commission of inquiry, committing "widespread or systematic attacks against civilian populations" which "constitute crimes against humanity," including "war crimes and gross violations of international human rights law…"  The commission’s report was issued on June 4, 2013.

The United States could destroy the artillery and aerial means by which the regime is able to wage a wholesale terror campaign, one that has created a humanitarian catastrophe within and outside Syria while posing grave security challenges to countries closely linked to the United States.  Washington should certainly give the regime and its allies fair warning and the chance to avoid a US military campaign by stopping the crimes against humanity forthwith. 

The victims of this crime wave are not only Syrians.  The countries surrounding Syria—especially Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon—are being inundated with refugees and other forms of spillover, including gunfire. The security of those three countries, plus that of Israel and Iraq, is being threatened by the no-limits behavior of a rapacious family regime being propped up by Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia. 

Question: Would a no-fly zone be required to achieve the desired result? 

Answer: Probably not. An Iraq-style no-fly zone could require an extensive bombing campaign to suppress regime air defenses, and would place enormous burdens on a US Air Force and US Naval Aviation already squeezed by sequestration and burdened with other requirements, both current and planned.

It is always useful first to determine the desired effect to be achieved by a military operation. In this case the goal would be to make it impossible or very hard for the regime to slaughter civilians with artillery, military aircraft (fixed and rotary wing), and missiles. Once the US military is assigned the mission, it would devise the best ways to accomplish it. In this case perhaps a combination of sea and air-launched stand-off weapons, ideally requiring no manned penetration of Syrian airspace, would suffice. Presumably all airfields and support facilities related to Syrian military aviation would also be engaged so as to produce lasting effects from a campaign of very limited duration.

A no-fly zone per se would not be required if that which flies, along with other weapons of terror and mass destruction, are killed on the ground. Such a result might also preclude flooding the country with portable anti-aircraft weapons. 

Question: Would the destruction of regime artillery, air, missile assets, and their support structures be a game changer?  Would it put the United States on a slippery slope of escalation?

Answer: The objective would be to save innocent Syrian lives as well as to help our allies and friends achieve a modicum of stability and improved security in the face of terror tactics being employed by a family regime willing to do literally anything to save itself. As desirable as a definitive end to the Assad regime would be, it would not be the objective of this very limited military operation.

Even if the operation were to achieve additional positive effects, such as the demoralization of the regime or a decisive momentum shift in favor of rebels, those effects should not be assumed in advance. Although President Barack Obama has called upon Bashar al-Assad to step aside and has employed additional strong, forward-leaning rhetoric in connection with the regime using chemical weapons, responsibility for the success of the Syrian revolution does not rest with the United States: the military operation under consideration has a limited objective. 

If a regime shorn of artillery, air, and missile assets, along with critical support facilities, can nevertheless be carried to victory by foreign fighters, surely the United States could consider additional measures.  The regime has, after all, demonstrated a hearty appetite for up-close massacres in pro-rebel areas it can reach on the ground, and a regime victory (as unlikely as it would be after crippling strikes from the air) would be the surest possible prelude to outright genocide in Syria. The notion, however, that aerial intervention to save lives and stabilize friendly countries leads inexorably to boots on the ground and occupation is wrong, as any Serb will testify.

Question: Would an operation of this nature poison relations with Russia and only lead to escalation by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah to shore up the regime, thereby increasing the overall level of violence and running the risk of war with Iran?

Answer: The management of relations with Moscow and the possibility of counter moves (not necessarily restricted to Syria) by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah are important considerations. 

What is envisioned is not a surprise attack. Moscow should be given every opportunity to persuade its client to stop committing crimes against humanity immediately, thereby obviating the need for a life-saving military operation. 

Obviously Washington and Moscow should make every effort not to permit conflict in Syria to poison an important bilateral relationship. Yet the Russian government and (sadly) some in the US government place the burden of relationship maintenance mainly on Washington, as if the saving of lives and stabilization of a neighborhood is equivalent to tolerating (if not facilitating) a client’s crimes against humanity. Moscow has even gone so far as to reject the objective findings of the UN independent international commission of inquiry, which found fault with some Syrian rebels as well. Indeed, Russia seems content to try to use the good faith US call for Syrian political transition negotiations in Geneva to freeze the West while its noisome client and his foreign mercenaries try to take tactical advantage on the ground. If President Vladimir Putin has concluded that a good bilateral relationship with Washington requires US passivity with respect to Syria, would it be wise for Washington to accommodate? Would this end with Syria?

As for Iran and Hezbollah, yes they will do all they can to rescue their compliant junior partner. Yes, they are in the business of terror and have displayed no scruples in that regard. At a minimum US diplomatic missions in the region would be at significantly increased risk in the wake of a military operation. Yet while Putin may still have a degree of ambivalence about how Russia should relate to the United States and the West, the regime in Tehran and Hezbollah’s leadership cadre have no doubt: we are the enemy. These two already have much American blood on their hands, and they sense in Syria an opportunity to defeat a hesitant, skeptical, and ambivalent West. The United States should expect Iran and Hezbollah to redouble their efforts to save the Assad regime in the wake of any US military operation.

It would therefore be prudent to assume that although US military strikes might offer relief to civilians currently living, running, and dying in sheer terror as a result of regime depredations, the combination of increased morale in the armed opposition and renewed determination by Iran and Hezbollah to save their client will result in a sharp uptick in ground combat operations. If, at long last, the United States also takes charge of the process by which Free Syrian Army units willing to take direction from the Supreme Military Council get what they need in terms of arms and equipment, Syrians themselves may be able to prevail over a criminal regime and its foreign mercenaries. Iran under current management is no friend of the United States. Hezbollah is a declared enemy. Seeing them beaten in Syria should sadden no American. 

Question: Would a unilateral US military operation split NATO and alienate Washington from much of Europe?

Answer: Even though a NATO member (Turkey) has absorbed considerable hardship and heavy expense as a result of the Assad regime’s terror tactics, NATO’s secretary general has periodically gone out of his way publicly to reassure the regime that it has nothing to fear from NATO: that NATO military intervention is off the table. In this he is no doubt representing the bulk of the alliance’s membership. As one European diplomat noted recently in a private conversation, "Most European political leaders care not about what happens in Syria as long as it stops in Turkey."

If the Obama administration decides that some combination of regime culpability in chemical weapons usage, ongoing grotesque human suffering, and US credibility before friend and foe alike mandates a hard strike inside Syria, no doubt it will warn the regime in advance to cease and desist, take the counsel of Congress, and consult with allies. The president already knows that some European leaders do indeed care a great deal about Syria and would enthusiastically welcome and support US leadership. As for the others, not caring about Syria will probably grant a wide berth for the president, so long as he asks them to do nothing. Some may carp about the absence of a UN Security Council resolution, one they know to be unattainable, but many would quietly welcome action that mitigates a humanitarian catastrophe of the first order. 

Question: What would be the legal basis of such an operation, and would it not ruin the prospects for a diplomatic solution?

Answer: In the absence of an authorizing resolution from the UN Security Council, the Obama administration would no doubt cite the ongoing crimes against humanity and war crimes being inflicted by the regime on innocent Syrians and the impact of those crimes on US allies and friends. It is possible that some of those allies and friends might even ask the United States to take the requisite action, thereby perhaps introducing Article 51 of the UN Charter into the equation. Without doubt a Security Council resolution would represent the clearest form of legal authorization, but it will not be forthcoming thanks to Russia and China. Clarity would also be present were there an alternate Syrian government operating on Syrian territory, one recognized by Washington and one requesting US assistance. This government should have been created soon after the December 2012 recognition of the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. It still does not exist. Bottom line: the legal justification for the operation would be contentious. This was true in the case of Bosnia as well.

As for the prospective Geneva conference, it is not likely that a regime content to kill large numbers of its countrymen, one that thinks it may be winning courtesy of the intervention of foreign fighters will, in good faith, negotiate the creation of its replacement in the form of a transitional governing body. This is what the June 2012 Final Communiqué of the first Geneva conference mandates. That communiqué also calls on the regime to take specific steps to de-escalate matters, such as releasing prisoners of conscience and permitting freedom of assembly. Neutralizing a major portion of the regime’s terror capability may actually change the regime’s calculation so that negotiations could become feasible.

Question: What are the consequences of doing nothing, or of arming rebels without direct US military action?

Answer: Allies and adversaries alike are measuring with care the US response to the catastrophically reckless survival strategy of the Assad regime and its foreign enablers. While ensuring that vetted rebel units reporting to the Supreme Military Command get what they need in terms of arms and equipment is essential and should have begun months ago, it may not be sufficient to persuade friend and foe that US action can be counted upon to be as strong as US rhetoric. Indeed if, after all of the rhetorical fanfare, the administration’s inevitable conclusion that the regime used chemical weapons is followed only by an announcement that lethal assistance will be provided to vetted units of the Free Syrian Army, the international reaction will be less than underwhelming.

Syrians are being slaughtered and US friends and allies are suffering the consequences. A family regime supported by terrorists threatens to plunge the region into war as it systematically wrecks the Syrian state. The leader of the Free World—a thoughtful, good, and brilliant man—sees killings in the Congo and killings in Syria and wonders how intervention in one could be justified without intervening in both.  Syria’s neighbors draw no comfort from the foregoing. Neither do US allies far, far removed from the killing fields of Syria.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the former special advisor for transition in Syria at the US Department of State. 

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