Dan Trombly 10.23am
The pressure has increased for more forceful intervention in Syria. Despite the presence of international observers, the Assad regime refuses to adhere to a ceasefire demanded by the UN.
Whether it involves arming the rebels or a repeat of the NATO intervention in Bosnia in 1995, the ongoing strife in the country calls for further action, and US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry recently urged consideration of both options. Yet despite the frustration of diplomatic efforts, military options seem bleak.
Those who argue that past success in Bosnia could be replicated in Syria both ignore the history of the Bosnian war and its differences with the current conflict. The UN’s attempts to create “safe zones” resulted in the horrific massacres of Srebrenica and elsewhere. The Bosnian war was ultimately won when the numerically superior combined force of Croatian and Bosnian troops launched ground offensives, not when NATO began air strikes.
Similar attempts to implement “safe zones” in Iraq following the first Gulf War required the threat of ground assault in the south of the country, and the tactic failed frequently in the north, such as at Irbil in 1996. Even after the Desert Fox bombing campaign, forces withdrew once a Baghdad supporting faction secured that area. Notably, Saddam Hussein’s rule was not ended until troops fought their way to the capital in 2003, despite “safe zones” having been declared alongside frequent US air patrols and strikes.
In Syria, as in Bosnia and Iraq, neither protection of civilians nor regime change can be assured without superiority on the ground. Even air strikes would require a bombing campaign larger than in Iraq in 2003.
And enormous obstacles stand in the way of arming the Syrian rebels. In Bosnia, for instance, it was Croatia’s invasion that brought about a Serb defeat, not Bosnian forces. In Syria, without a ground invasion of tens (or hundreds) of thousands of troops - from Turkey, the Arab states, or the West - Syria’s rebels will remain woefully outmatched in conventional capabilities. Indeed, Turkey rarely conducts cross-border raids against PKK terrorists without several thousand soldiers.
The Syrian rebels need artillery batteries, armour and air support, not just man-portable anti-tank or anti-aircraft weaponry.
Even with Western air support, the rebels would likely continue to use the guerilla tactics befitting the outmatched force that they are, avoiding pitched battles and ceding territory to draw out hostile forces. While these might be effective tactics in a long-term insurgency, they are unlikely to result in regime change or effective protection of civilians in the short-term. Even the maintenance of a safe haven for rebel forces would need to be done outside Syrian territory, rather than in “safe zones”.
Simply arming rebel forces is more likely to cause a protracted civil war than a quick victory. The United States and others learned this is Nicaragua, Angola and Afghanistan during the Cold War. But in those cases, there was thought to be some value in attrition, and supporters of proxy groups were relatively indifferent to civilian casualties and the collateral damage of prolonged conflict. In Syria, such outcomes are unjustifiable on humanitarian grounds, nor on strategic aims (seeing Assad depart quickly).
Moreover, an influx of arms leaves lasting consequences. The behaviour of Libyan militias is a case in point.
An authoritarian regime such as Assad’s can hold on until hostile armoured columns roll on Damascus. Therefore the only strategically feasible option for a quick victory in Syria is a full-scale invasion. Yet no Western state is willing to undertake such a mission and a Turkish or Arab effort seems very unlikely.
Ultimately, Syria’s civil war will drag on. In the meantime, Western powers must work with Syria’s neighbours to prevent WMDs and other arms from leaving the country; they must provide aid to refugees that manage to escape Syria; and continue to exercise diplomatic options to the best of their ability.
Unless Western policymakers can convince their own populations and their Middle Eastern allies that an invasion is justifiable, providing military aid or half-hearted intervention can only worsen the consequences of Syria’s conflict - for both that country’s neighbours, and the interests of the West.
Dan Trombly is a student of International Affairs at George Washington University. He blogs at Slouching Towards Columbia.