Preserve Rather Than Undo Syria’s Unfinished Revolution
After months of protests and with a crackdown by security forces killing dozens each day, it would understandable to despair at the stalemate in Syria. Assad seems perfectly willing to wait out the protesters until the last protester falls or until his militias run out of bullets, which ever comes first. Under these circumstances, the opposition, most obviously the opposition in exile, has sought out a means by which to break the statement.
The Arab League observer mission is the latest failure to bring the bloodshed to an end. An estimated 390 Syrians have been killed during the duration of the mission. The political opposition -I’m distinguishing from the opposition on the streets- has inevitably become discouraged, asking for the Arab League mission to be replaced by a United Nations mission. Aside from the possibility of the UN having more observers available, hopefully observers with better human rights records than the current Sudanese head, it’s unclear what the UN would change on the ground. This thought must also pass through the minds of the opposition, some of whom are again bringing up the prospect of foreign military intervention.
This is not one of those moments when a leftist in America starts preaching to Arabs about the dangers of foreign intervention both to the lives of Syrians and to the integrity of their revolution. It’s very easy to do so from the security of New York or Boston, where there’s no prospect of being among those gunned down by Assad thugs on the streets of Homs or Daraa. That said, there’s compelling tactic reasons why a Libya style no-fly-zone would not be as military advantageous to Syrians in toppling Assad as it was to Libyans.
To start, the no-fly-zone in name entirely misrepresents what sort of military action it involves. In Bosnia, it was used to pummel from the air artilery pieces belong to the Army of Republika Srpska. In Libya, it was bombarding Gaddafi’s heavy armor. But in both cases, there was a measure of separation between what was viewed as a faction acting in self defense and the other out to conduct grave violations of human rights. It is hard to see that separation between factions in Syria, where the snipers and the tanks belonging to Assad are amid the populations they’re being used against. There is no tank advance to destroy while it’s in route, they’re already in place.
To appreciate the difficult of such an air campaign, in Libya, a far larger country and far less densely populated, Nato airstrikes on a number of occasions struck the opposition fighters they were coordinating with. It isn’t difficult to believe then that civilians would’ve been more frequently struck, given they have no such coordination with Nato. Implement such a strategy in Syria as was done in Libya and you can imagine how a disaster could unfold. Consider that Assad isn’t Gaddafi, that Assad has backers in the region still, namely Hezbollah and Iran. An intervention from outside Syria to back one faction in what is an increasingly a civil war could easily escalate into something much worse, something that could drag in other regional players in a way the Libya intervention did not.
All of this suggests an increased level of insecurity for both the revolution and the people of Syria if a foreign military intervention takes place. I’m not a natural optimist, and I’m not one to put hope that the protests and army defections will eventually overcome the regime. However, the Assad regime is at its weakest state with no clear path for it to recover. The regime is running out of money while defections from the military have been estimated as high as 10,000, a potent threat to contest the regime’s control of isolated regions of the country and to further deplete the regime’s stamina and resources. Israel, which fears the fall of an Assad regime that only cynically supports Palestinians, is predicting the regime may have only weeks left. A prolonged, messy, and divisive foreign intervention in Syria may be what gives the regime renewed life, but worse, it may sweep the revolution by the Syrian people under the tide of a regional war.