Syria: How to Do “More good than Harm”

May 29, 2012

Over the weekend, violence in Syria, which has suffered from a 15-month civil conflict, escalated with massacres resulting in over 100 people killed, including many children. The United Nations Security Council responded with a unanimous condemnation of the events – though did not assign blame. Kofi Annan, former UN secretary general currently serving as the special envoy for the United Nations and the Arab League, returned to Syria to meet with President Bashar al Assad. The U.S. and a dozen major industrial nations expelled Syrian ambassadors, and observers report that economic sanctions are starting to bite – but Assad continues to seem impervious to pressure, and the sectarian and geopolitical complexities continue to block any easy solution to the violence, military or otherwise. As James Traub writes in Foreign Policy, “Syria poses such a terrible problem because it is not about finding the political will to do the right thing, but rather trying to find some way of doing more good than harm.”

Diplomatic pressure notches up in response to weekend massacres in Syria. Mid-morning, the State Department expelled the senior Syrian diplomat in the U.S., joining a global initiative previewed by the New York Times: “Several Western nations hardened their protest against Syria on Tuesday, expelling senior diplomats over the massacre of more than 100 people there, many of them children, last weekend. Their coordinated action came as the United Nations special envoy, Kofi Annan, was meeting with President Bashar al-Assad in the capital, Damascus, to shore up an apparently failing cease-fire. The effort by countries including Britain, France, Germany, Australia, Spain, Italy and Canada to expel the senior Syrian diplomatic officials appeared timed to underscore the extreme isolation of the Syrian government and pressure Mr. Assad into honoring the terms of a nearly two-month-old peace plan negotiated by Mr. Annan. It followed comments by the chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff [General Martin Dempsey] warning that continued atrocities could make military intervention more likely.” [Victoria Nuland via Bloomberg, 5/29/12. NY Times, 5/29/12]

No easy military solution. James Traub summarizes for Foreign Policy the concerns which have trumped a move to military action:  “I was at a recent lunch with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who responded to a volley of questions about humanitarian corridors, airstrikes, and the like by saying, ‘There is a risk it ends in more violence, which is why the last peaceful game in town is one worth pursuing, even if it’s a low-probability game, which we readily admit it is.’”  

Geography of the conflict. Unlike the Libyan intervention, which was designed to come between two forces controlling blocks of territory in a large and sparsely-populated country, the geography of the conflict in Syria is more complex. Stratfor’s Scott Stewart explains, “the fault lines along which Syrian society is divided are not as regionally distinct as those of Libya; in Syria, there is no area like Benghazi where the opposition can dominate and control territory that can be used as a base to project power.” Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at the Center for New American Security and George Washington University explains, “The Syrian opposition is far weaker, more divided, and does not control any territory. There are no front lines dividing the forces which can be separated by air power, no tanks and personnel carriers conveniently driving along empty desert roads to be targeted from the sky. The killing in Syria is being done in densely populated urban environments.” [Scott Stewart, 12/15/11. Marc Lynch, 1/17/12]

Divisions in Syrian society both weaken opposition and threaten spillover. Syria’s map of ethnic and religious differences, and history of pitting groups against each other, make would-be interveners nervous.  Lynch writes, “The geography and sectarian landscape are different, as is the regional environment and the risk of spillover into nervous neighbors such as Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.” [Marc Lynch, 1/17/12]

Strength of Syrian military, both against opposition and potential outside forces. Any plans for military intervention or assistance must reckon with the size and cohesion – thus far – of Syria’s army, the region’s third largest, and its history of loyalty to the Assad family over the citizenry. Stewart further notes, The strength of the Syrian military, specifically its air defense system — which is far superior to Libya’s — means military intervention would be far more costly in Syria than in Libya in terms of human casualties and money. In fact, Syria spent some $264 million on air defense weapons in 2009 and 2010 after the embarrassing September 2007 Israeli airstrike on a Syrian nuclear reactor.” Syria has not seen the large-scale military defections that occurred in Benghazi and eastern Libya at the beginning of that conflict that immediately provided the opposition with a substantial conventional military force (sometimes entire units defected). The Syrian military has remained far more unified and intact than the Libyan military.” [Scott Stewart, 12/15/11]

 Safe havens in Syria would require “large number of international troops.” In March, Marine Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, “told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it would take a significant military commitment to create even safe havens in Syria where aid could be delivered… he said that since there is no protective terrain, a large number of international military troops would have to be used to create a security barrier,” reports the AP. [AP, 3/6/12]

Pressure grows on Assad regime, even as neighbors disagree on approach and leader signals he does not intend to compromise. Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation explains the lack of easy options in Foreign Policy magazine: “The limitations of the Annan mission and its mandate are a reflection of the polarized international debate on Syria and the decidedly poor options available for ending the bloodshed. Chief among the complaints against the Annan initiative has been the argument that it is buying time for the Syrian regime’s brutal crackdown on peaceful and armed opposition. However, the Assad regime has made abundantly clear that its only means for dealing with the opposition is by force. As such, it is in no need of cover. It is also not the case that the Annan initiative is blocking more consequential action. There is currently no appetite for direct foreign military intervention in Syria, despite continued hopes by some that Turkey would lead such an effort…  Furthermore, the logistical and operational difficulties of arming the Free Syrian Army, coupled with the manifest dangers of this approach, have hindered any serious efforts to do so.”

Despite the lack of a quick or easy option, the Assad regime is growing increasingly isolated and pressured, as a result of U.S. and international efforts.  The New York Times reports, “The [UN] Security Council on Sunday unanimously condemned the massacre and, while not assigning blame, censured the Syrian government for using heavy artillery against civilians,” giving Mr. Annan, UN and Arab League envoy “a new mandate from the Security Council — including Russia, which had usually blocked action against its ally in Damascus — to carry out his plan.” Additionally, Reuters reports, “Syria is struggling to meet its grain import needs because of sanctions, raising the risk of bread shortages that could sap public support for President Bashar al-Assad as he tries to snuff out a 15-month-old uprising.” [Michael Hanna, 4/12/12. NY Times, 5/29/12. Reuters, 5/25/12]

 What We’re Reading

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An Istanbul court indicted four senior Israeli military figures for involvement in a deadly raid on a Turkish passenger vessel trying to breach Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza in 2010.

U.S.-led coalition troops battling Afghan Taliban insurgents killed al Qaeda’s second-in-command in Afghanistan in an airstrike, according to reports.

China and the Philippines agreed to exercise restraint in their two-month-long standoff over a disputed island chain in the South China Sea.

Sudan announced plans to begin pulling its troops out of the disputed border region of Abyei.

A top secret process to evaluate terrorist targets to be killed or captured guides key counterterrorism decisions in the Obama administration.

Two Danish brothers of Somali origin have been arrested on suspicion of plotting a terror attack in Denmark.

A powerful earthquake killed at least 15 people and left 200 injured in northern Italy.

 Commentary of the Day

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