One thing that has always struck me about the NATO campaign in Libya is that the rebels against Muammar Gaddafi were on the verge of defeat when NATO finally decided to intervene and start bombing Libya in support of the rebels. The timing was dangerous, it should be noted; no matter what the prophets of air power claim, wars are won and lost on the ground and the rebels might have been a spent force no matter what NATO did. This would have forced NATO to either admit defeat, thus granting a victory to the forces of tyranny, or insert large numbers of NATO ground forces. There was little stomach for either in the Western Governments.
There have been rumours of intervention in the Syrian Civil War since it began, but recent events – the apparent use of chemical weapons – have made intervention seem like a real possibility. The use of WMD has been internationally declared a ‘Red Line,’ with threats of real consequences if the line is crossed. This, however, raises a common problem in diplomatic negotiations; if someone crosses the line you drew, you have to decide if you’re bluffing or not. If you’re bluffing, you not only look weak; you are automatically in a weaker position in future negotiations. Your allies will fear that your promises of protection are untrustworthy; your enemies will not fear your threats.
It is not yet clear who actually deployed the chemical weapons. The regime certainly could have done so, although as they appear to be winning the war on the ground it would be quite irrational for them to do so. However, it could have been intended as a threat and a warning of the dire consequences of intervention. The only other possible suspect is one or more of the rebel factions in the region, which might have obtained the weapons from a captured arms dump. Their motive might be to galvanise Western support in a war they may well be losing.
If the West – particularly President Obama – wishes to retain any credibility when it comes to issuing threats, something will have to be done. The only question is what. What can be done?
As I see it, there are three possible options;
One – send weapons and supplies (and perhaps Special Forces) to the rebels. (Some reports say that this is already being done.)
Two – launch an air campaign in support of the rebels.
Three – insert ground troops and overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
All of these have considerable risks that cannot be avoided, only migrated.
The principle problem with arming the rebels is two-fold; we may not be able to arm them sufficiently to even the odds against the regime and weapons we provide to them may fall into very unfriendly hands Some of the rebel groups are afflicted with AQ; others are working with governments of dubious motives, particularly Saudi Arabia. The odds of a pro-democracy faction coming out on top in the inevitable faction fight that will follow a rebel victory are very low.
Providing air support to the rebels might well even the odds. On the face of it, however, Syria is a far tougher nut to crack than either Iraq or Libya; there will be causalities among NATO aircrew. The regime may also raise the stakes itself by launching missiles at Israel (as Saddam did in the first Gulf War) or into Turkey or Europe. At this point, there will have to be retaliation. Question; how far can the regime’s missiles reach? If a missile with a chemical warhead came down in Greece or Italy, there would be calls for bloody (nuclear?) revenge. In short, if air power fails to tip the balance, we would have to either pull back and abandon the rebels, or do something else. Like …
A direct insertion of NATO troops would be capable of unseating the regime. However, logistics alone would make this a daunting task. NATO troops – and these would be mainly American –would have to be concentrated in Turkey or Iraq (which raises the question of those nations being willing or not to help) and then advance into Syria. (I doubt that a forced landing along the coast is viable, although the USMC might disagree.) This would require a colossal commitment, fully on the same scale as OIF, and it would utterly shatter the regime. We might even require the assistance of both Turkey and Israel – and that would be a propaganda victory for the regime.
There would be other problems. For example, Hezbollah has been fighting in support of the regime. Hezbollah is also reputed to have the ability to launch attacks in Europe and perhaps even America; it will certainly try to launch attacks against Israel. The conflict might not remain distant, but include terrorist strikes in European cities. Hezbollah, which would probably be unable to survive without Syria, will fight tooth and nail to keep its patron alive.
Worse still, Syria is a close ally of Russia. How will the Russians react if the West moves to unseat the regime? Or the Chinese? Or Iran, for that matter? Are our leaders actually taking this into account?
However, wars may be run … but history does not stop. Both Saddam and Gaddafi ruled their counties through not allowing any strong subordinates, let alone rival centres of power. When those regimes were destroyed, the social glue holding the nations together was badly weakened – and, in Iraq’s case, shattered. The removal of the Syrian Regime, as unpleasant as it is, will unleash chaos across the region. Rebels held together by a shared hatred of the regime will not remain united when the regime is gone. At the very least, we can expect to see plenty of score-settling, ethnic cleansing, mass slaughter, etc. Even if NATO sends peacekeeping forces to the region, it is unlikely that they will wind up as more than targets for the various factions.
And even that does not include the worries about just what will happen to the regime’s arsenal after it falls.
Do we really want to get involved in this ghastly mess? As far as I can tell, absent a massive commitment that would make Operation Iraqi Freedom look small, we could only make the situation worse.
President Obama and former Prime Minister Tony Blair really are two of a kind. They mistake words for action, fine rhetoric for actually doing something. And then, when they find themselves scrabbling to actually do something, they generally make the situation much worse.
I’ll let Howard Taylor have the last words.
President Mancala: Ambassador, how are you today?
Ambassador Breya: Shortly very busy, I expect. To what do I owe the pleasure, Mister President?
President Mancala: Our G.I.D. Chief tells me that the Fleetmind has been actively interfering in the affairs of several Sovereign States. The Tohdfraugs lost an entire fleet, Kestrona’s insurgency lost an armor column, and Qlaviql’s Tricameral Assembly was destroyed from orbit. I’ll send you the full report. This kind of opportunistic militarism cannot be tolerated. The United Nations of Sol and allied planetary Governments will not stand idly by while sovereign galactic powers are overthrown, crushed, or assimilated by the Fleetmind.
Ambassador Breya: What’s our plan, Mister President? Do I need to deliver a declaration of war, and then withdraw to the embassy?
President Mancala: Don’t be ridiculous. Your job is to lodge a protest, using the strongest possible diplomatic language.
Ambassador Breya: Ah. And how is that different from "standing idly by?"
President Mancala: If we were standing idly by, we would not be lodging a protest.
Ambassador Breya: Wow. We are fearsome.