Syria: foreign intervention still debated, but distant

A family escapes from fierce fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government troops in Idlib, north Syria, Saturday, March 10, 2012 (by FreedomHouse from Flickr under Attribution 2.0 Generic CC BY 2.0 license).

From Strategic Comments

The debate over external intervention in Syria has grown in recent weeks as the humanitarian toll of its revolution-turned-civil war rapidly mounts, atrocities by government forces multiply, pressure increases on Turkey and other neighbouring states, and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad resorts to the use of air power.

So far, Western countries have exhibited little enthusiasm for military intervention, and Russia has blocked most possible actions by the United Nations. For the United States, President Barack Obama indicated in August that the use or transfer of chemical weapons would constitute a clear red line. However, the crossing of other presumed red lines since the revolution began in March 2011 has not prompted any direct external intervention. The complexity of the crisis, its regional repercussions, the deadlock at the UN and the projected costs of any military operations have deterred other states. None has sought to make a decisive entry into the fray that could tip the balance of power.

Civil war
The struggle has descended into a civil war with sectarian undertones. While the revolution initially allowed the peaceful expression of Syria’s long subdued diversity, its transformation into an armed conflict has deepened its ethnic and sectarian faultlines, pitting pro-government fighters sympathetic to the ruling Alawite minority against mainly Sunni rebel forces. To be sure, the regime retains the loyalty of a significant number of Sunnis and non-Alawite minority groups. The armed opposition includes many Sunni secular and non-Sunni fighters. But the sectarian narrative is rapidly shaping perceptions and actions.

The death toll has risen to over 20,000. July and August were the deadliest months to date, with violence spreading to all areas, including the biggest city, Aleppo, and the capital Damascus. The humanitarian situation is dire, with 2.5 million civilians requiring assistance, 1.2 m internally-displaced people, and around 300,000 refugees crossing into neighbouring countries, including 100,000 in August alone.

Government forces and pro-regime militias are responsible for much of the violence. A recent series of massacres of civilians and captured rebels suggests that a policy of terror and retribution is being conducted. In addition, the targeting of Sunni towns located alongside areas of dense Alawite concentration in the northwest may indicate that low-level sectarian cleansing has begun. Human rights organisations have documented countless examples of indiscriminate shelling, the dropping of cluster bombs and, for example, intentional targeting of civilians lining up for bread.

Rebel forces too have committed atrocities, which include killing prisoners and carrying out suicide bombings. In response to outrage in Syria and abroad, prominent rebel brigades have issued a code of conduct and have pledged to uphold international humanitarian law. Still, the fragmentation of the armed opposition, with radical groups operating alongside or even in competition with mainstream groups, has become a source of international concern. Whether indigenous rebel groups can contain and even eliminate jihadi factions has become a test of their ability to rule Syria in a post-Assad era.

Regime survives blows
The Assad regime has proved more resilient than many anticipated, absorbing a series of setbacks. In July, a still-unattributed bombing at the government’s security headquarters killed several top figures, including Assef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law and de facto intelligence head. The regime managed to overcome those losses with the appointment of new security chiefs and little obvious disruption of intelligence activities. In August, Prime Minister Riyad Hijab left for Jordan in a dramatically-reported defection – though the practical impact was limited, as real power does not reside in the state institutions. (The impact of the desertion in July of General Manaf Tlass, scion of a major Sunni military family closely allied to the Assad family, remains unclear.)

More importantly, rebel offensives in Damascus and Aleppo decisively shattered the pretence that the Assad regime presided over a functioning state grappling with disparate hordes of Islamist terrorists. Loyalist troops managed to repel them in several urban areas, but the regime is proving unable to regain the loyalty of civilians, even when the rebels have alienated them by their behaviour or by exposing them to regime retaliation.

In a recent interview, Assad described political and military desertions as welcome acts of ‘self-cleansing’. His comments pointed to the fact that the regime could now rely on units that were more loyal than before. With this more dependable core, the regime can afford to worry even less about political fallout from its brutal security-first strategy.

The employment of air power and especially of the shabbiha, mostly-Alawite militiamen notorious for their brutality, has served to terrorise the population and has enabled the regime to attack larger formations of rebels training and organising in areas beyond the reach of its regular ground forces. The atrocities that have resulted are meant as both retribution and as a warning to local populations not to welcome rebel units in their midst.

In fact, the government no longer has the military capability to re-assert control over the whole of Syria. The army’s combat power has been considerably reduced. It appears to be neither willing nor able to use combined arms tank/infantry tactics to mount close assaults on rebel positions and there is no evidence that it has any useful capability to counter improvised explosive devices (IED). The regime probably suffers losses of 20 or 30 security personnel every day and has admitted that, in periods of peak fighting, this number has risen to 50 fatalities per day. There are probably two or three times as many personnel seriously wounded.

Therefore, the actual strength of the army may be half its strength on paper of 220,000 troops. Perhaps half of these can be trusted with routine security duties, such as guarding installations, manning checkpoints and escorting convoys, but the regime can only be certain of the loyalty and fighting effectiveness of the mainly Alawite 3rd and 4th divisions, elite special forces and the Republican Guard, a total of around 50,000 troops. These have carried out most counter-offensive operations in urban areas.

There are other signs that Assad’s forces are over-extended. Reserves are being called up for active duty, but only about half are showing up. The resort to air power indicates that the regime is unwilling to deploy troops who might defect and to commit personnel to inconclusive battles over rural territory. Unit commanders seem to have been given significant latitude to conduct their operations. The regime has lost control over several army bases, including air defence installations, while other barracks have come under constant attack. Regime forces are sometimes unable to hold areas they clear. Instead, they prefer to isolate rebel areas with a ring of checkpoints, followed by concerted attacks on the area with mortar, rocket, artillery and tank fire, increasingly joined by helicopter and fighter attacks. There is evidence of some local and temporary ‘live and let live’ accommodations between rebel and regime commanders (for example in Ain al Fijeh, a village with natural springs that serve as the water supply for Damascus) as well as exchanges of prisoners.

With depleting resources and a spreading war, the question of what type of support Assad is getting from Iran has become crucial. In recent weeks, Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have reaffirmed their alliance with Assad. Until recently, the support was thought to include advice, financial aid, propaganda and monitoring of the Internet and communications. Rebels claimed in August that they had kidnapped dozens of members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. US officials have claimed that Iran was supplying weaponry by air.

Rebels disunited
The rebellion controls large amounts of territory, especially in the northwest and around Aleppo, as well as several entry points into Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon. Armed opposition forces have gained greatly in strength, sophistication and effectiveness in the last year. Their only common objective is to force Assad and his regime from power, but beyond this goal they have no unified political or military strategy. About as many groups operate autonomously as accept the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). As rebel factions evolve from ragtag groups of defectors and civilian volunteers into better-organised and -equipped brigades, their often-conflicting identities and approaches are revealed.

In the absence of an uncontested civilian leadership, competition between rebel groups over territory and resources is increasing, and tactical and strategic divergences are appearing. Thanks to defectors, their ranks are swelling, although many soldiers prefer to desert rather than join the rebellion. Some groups are benefiting from valuable foreign expertise, including Libyans who fought against the Gadhafi regime.

The fact that the opposition is increasingly arming itself has important consequences. In many places, rebel commanders double as local administrators and set priorities for the civilian population. This leads to frictions. Early activists of the revolution have either joined the armed insurgency or complain that they have been sidelined. In areas where the fighting has been intense, tensions have emerged between the local population and the rebels. The cohabitation between military defectors and the civilian combatants has proven complicated. Defectors bring to maturing military units skills that help to organise logistics, gather intelligence and conduct operations. But many of the recent defectors are sometimes disliked by those who switched longer ago, for having served the regime and for allegedly seeking to dominate the rebellion. They have also had to contend with an influx of foreign fighters, many of whom are jihadis. Homegrown radical factions like Jabhat As-Nusra have embraced terrorist tactics. Radical groups remain marginal and are largely disliked, but they may grow in size and impact as the conflict continues.

To remedy these failings, the FSA began in the spring to establish Provincial Military Councils. But rivalries within the senior command of the FSA and distrust between local commanders and the FSA leadership, which struggles to meet the practical needs of the fighting units, have impeded efforts at consolidation. A recent defector, General Hajj Ali, announced an initiative to unify FSA ranks, only to be rebuked by Colonel Riad al-Assaad, its nominal head.

Notably, the advance on Aleppo revealed a lack of coordination, strategic overreach, tactical and logistical shortcomings, and political failings on the part of some rebel groups. The rush to liberate the city clashed with a strategy of attrition that had been aimed at securing the countryside, harassing supply lines and complicating the movement of regime forces. Notably, Aleppo residents, including opposition sympathisers and fence-sitters, failed to rally behind the rebel attack – further evidence of the deep divides in Syrian society. While the rebels continue to hold several east Aleppo districts, they will have to adopt more sophisticated political strategies if they are to conquer the city. Otherwise, they will likely face opposition from fearful minority groups which are being armed by the government.

Forms of external action
While many civilians decry the lack of external help out of despair, the mood among armed rebels and the political opposition is one of resignation and pragmatism. Many realise that no substantial or immediate intervention is in the offing, even if some rebel commanders seem to be positioning themselves for potential external action in the medium term. Rebels have therefore decided to carve out and administer their own safe zones inside Syrian territory. These liberated areas allow for the training and organisation of larger units, but remain vulnerable to the regime’s air force.

Some rebel groups have managed to shoot down airborne helicopters and aircraft – including at least one jet fighter – most likely as a result of anti-aircraft artillery. Rebels have also attacked air bases to destroy the regime’s air capabilities. This is not yet enough to threaten Assad’s dominance of the air space: hence the demand for anti-aircraft weaponry. Rebels have also seized tanks, and may have acquired surface-to-air missiles.

The rebels have obtained indirect assistance. Since a Friends of Syria conference held in Istanbul in April, there has been an increase in Western and Arab assistance to armed rebels through the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, but also through other intermediaries. Coordination centres have been established in Turkey to manage this help, notably salary payments to FSA fighters. This mechanism has however suffered from infighting not only among rebel groups but also between donor countries, especially Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Western states face constraints. The fear that weaponry may end up in the hands of radical groups, including al-Qaeda affiliates, has been an important policy concern. Western governments have therefore focused on identifying and vetting Syrian groups before they provide assistance. While often derided, their provision of non-lethal assistance, notably communications equipment, has freed precious rebel resources to acquire weaponry. There have been reports that Western states have provided intelligence to select rebel groups, and have encouraged defections.

Gulf states have fewer restrictions on the nature of their help. They have given financial support to rebel units and have allowed fundraising on their soil if conducted in a discreet manner. The Syrian diaspora in the Gulf has emerged as a key funder of the insurgency. As a result, weaponry is making its way from North Africa into Syria through third nations, with the silent acquiescence of Western nations.

Still, rebel commanders insist that most of their arsenal is brought with defectors, looted from army barracks, bought from corrupt army soldiers or the black market, or manufactured in workshops.

International deadlock
Little has changed in the political calculations of Russia and China, which have repeatedly vetoed tough UN resolutions on Syria. Both countries scoff at the Western attachment to the UN doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect’. They suspect the West of harbouring an insidious agenda and refuse to accept the premise that Assad should cede power. Russia itself continues to provide the Syrian regime with weaponry and ammunition. It recently proposed a UN-backed transition plan, which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said was too little, too late, and dismissed as having ‘no teeth’.

The end of the UN Monitoring Mission and the resignation of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as the UN-Arab League envoy on Syria, illustrated that it would be impossible to negotiate a solution under current circumstances. Annan’s successor, the veteran Algerian and UN diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, quickly dampened expectations by describing his mission as ‘nearly impossible’.

A contact group, composed of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to broker a regional solution, met in September in Cairo at a sub-ministerial level. It is unlikely to deliver any tangible result in the short term since the latter three states demand Assad’s resignation as a prelude to a transition, which Iran opposes.

The West’s debate
For all the agonising in the West over Syria, there is little domestic pressure to intervene. Among the factors contributing are general fatigue over involvement in the Middle East (a sentiment that may be sharpened by the recent violence against US embassies in Cairo and Benghazi) and deep scepticism among military commanders about what could be achieved and at what cost. A UN mandate for action seems impossible to obtain given Russian and Chinese opposition. Arab countries, whose cover is indispensable, would be constrained in their support. For example, Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi has called for Assad’s departure but opposes foreign intervention. The Organization of Islamic Countries has suspended Syria but is unlikely to endorse an intervention. More importantly, a wide spectrum of voices inside the Syrian opposition rejects direct action.

Some American politicians, critical of the Obama administration’s caution, have vocally supported external intervention, but have obtained little traction. Prompted by growing numbers of Syrian refugees on its soil, Turkey has warmed to the idea of a no-fly zone, but has stopped short of campaigning for it. France too has declared an interest in a no-fly zone, but only under a UN mandate. Gulf states are awaiting Western leadership.

The practical challenges of a no-fly zone and a safe zone, the two most-discussed humanitarian options, are considerable. Western officials worry that any intervention would require the destruction of the Syrian military. Given concerns about Syria’s chemical weapons, porous borders and internal security, there is an understandable reluctance to target this institution, especially when considering a post-Assad situation and the lessons of Iraq. Western military planners expect that once the aerial threat was removed by imposition of a non-fly zone, some rebels would ask for a widening of the targeting to include artillery, tank columns or regime convoys. They also express concern that the fragmentation of the armed opposition would complicate intelligence gathering for targeting and the general battlefield picture. Aerial operations would also require the deployment on the ground of special forces.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, articulated these concerns. He stressed the magnitude of the potential military undertaking: ‘If you chose to establish [a safe zone/no-fly zone inside Syria] you would assume the responsibility for protecting it. If you are tasked to protect it you have to look at those who might seek to attack it or to influence it and that could take you…to the point of having to interdict air and ballistic missile systems.’

To be sure, the Syrian military has no shortage of hardware, a capable air defence system, thousands of tanks, a dozen fighter squadrons, around 30 coastal craft, Scud missiles and chemical weapons. But they are only partially modernised and most army units are probably poorly trained. The military’s cohesion and morale has been shaken, but could be reinvigorated by an external threat. Assad’s forces would almost certainly have developed contingency plans to respond to any military intervention. For example, their air defence organisation has had a year to plan how it would handle the imposition of a no-fly zone. The possibility that it has received Russian or Iranian advice cannot be ruled out.

Any type of air-oriented campaign would require the use of bases in Turkey, and possibly Cyprus and Jordan, which would expose these countries to possible retaliation. The US Navy and France might be able to offer carrier-borne air power. However, Syrian coastal defences would need first to be nullified. (They boast, in particular, SS-C-5 Stooge (Bastion) supersonic anti-ship missile coastal defence missile batteries supplied by Russia within the last two years.)

Syria’s air defences are far greater than those faced last year by NATO air forces over Libya. Its ground-based air defence infrastructure and surface-to-air missile systems represent a credible threat, particularly the SA-11 and SA-17 medium range missile systems and the SA-22 short-range system. The SA-5 long-range SAM is becoming obsolete, but would still pose a threat to allied mission support aircraft, such as tankers or airborne early-warning platforms.

The deployment of ground forces to protect a safe zone would be a major operation, requiring at least 50,000 troops on a complex battlefield. No country seems eager to envisage this option. One of the ground contingencies currently under consideration is the deployment of special forces to secure chemical weapons should the Assad regime collapse, or move them. Covert operations in the form of special forces providing training and support, drone strikes, aerial intelligence gathering and provision of select weaponry and equipment, would be a more acceptable option.

While direct intervention in Syria remains remote, the issue will remain a burning one for Syrian opposition leaders and Western, Turkish and Arab policymakers as the toll increases. Without a legal UN mandate and solid Arab cover, the practical and strategic risks may well outweigh humanitarian considerations. Tragically, the longer they wait to intervene, the stronger the case for intervention will be – but the costs will also be greater.


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