avoiding a mess of an intervention in syria

Earlier this morning, CFR fellow and Middle East specialist Steven Cook laid down the most recent argument for international intervention in Syria. Cook’s analysis didn’t offer a particularly new perspective, offering familiar and, in general, moderately well-placed justifications for armed intervention: with diplomatic channels largely exhausted, military intervention represents a “last resort,” in accordance with the “responsibility to protect” doctrine; the Assad regime is hemorrhaging, and just a small push would send the rate of military defection over the edge; and, perhaps less convincingly, the “do no harm” principle of unintended consequences doesn’t apply because, well, Assad can’t possibly escalate his military operations any further. Seeking to preempt operational rebuttals from more cautious colleagues, Cook dismisses the operation’s technical limitations as a immaterial, due to the relative impotence of Syrian air defense systems:

The opponents also claim that intervention in Syria is likely to be harder than it was in Libya. On a technical level, the argument is specious. There is nothing in the Syrian arsenal that would pose an undefeatable threat to Western aircrews. That’s not to suggest that undertaking military action in Syria would be a “cakewalk,” but relatively recent Israeli incursions into Syrian airspace suggest that in terms of force protection, the risks are minimal. The technical issue is, however, a red herring.

Cook has it wrong: the strength of Syria’s air defense systems, and not the technical difficulties associated with international military intervention, is the red herring. In a quick response to Cook’s analysis, Marc Lynch outlined some of the core barriers to a successful intervention, across the full spectrum of technical, operational, and strategic levels. On a technical level, Cook’s no-fly zone would serve a marginal purpose, given the relative sparsity of airpower usage by Assad’s armed forces. From an operational perspective, Syria’s urban warfare is more dense and more fluid than Libya’s multi-terrain conflict, and, accordingly, much less able to accommodate the discriminate use of force in third-party air sorties. The strategic component of an international Syria intervention would likely prove the most challenging–the Syrian National Council has been unable to consolidate authority over the Syrian opposition, to an even greater extent than the severely handicapped Libyan National Transitional Council. As Lynch observes, a quick-strike international intervention would do little to bolster a sustainable, reliable opposition infrastructure; such an end goal would necessitate a longer, more robust safe zone operation, which carries its own moral hazards.

Diplomatic, financial, and economic interventions are much easier to conceptualize, but, even in the absence of military experience, an international safe-zone’s intensive military and political-will requirements are evident. The Henry Jackson Society’s Michael Weiss, an avowed supporter of robust military action in Syria, conducted a logistical, legal, and hazard assessment of a Syria intervention, observing the threat of proxy violence from Hezbollah and Iraqi insurgents, Russia’s naval grand-standing against the threat of NATO force deployment, and the possibility of regional destabilization. Weiss’ report, however, did little to consider the complex technical and operational characteristics of a safe-zone intervention. There has been no consensus amongst the commentariat on the purpose of such an intervention: Would the safe zone be directed towards the Syrian opposition, allowing them a more flexible base of operations? Or, would the area be focused on a civilian protection mandate, seeking to restrict violence against displaced persons and unarmed populations? If the former, the safe zone would likely make few contributions to a reduction in violence against civilians (see the MARO report‘s description of safe-area operations for a similar consideration); if the latter, the safe zone would require a long-term, sustained ground-force presence, with significant fiscal, human, and political consequences for international forces.

As the Syria intervention debate has indicated, quick-and-easy dismissals of the technical challenges of military intervention lack a degree of argumentative integrity. If a no-fly zone is technically inappropriate, we need to be clear on the tangible barriers to alternative policy mechanisms. Otherwise, advocates are setting themselves up for mission creep, unintended consequences, and, from a long-term perspective, the gradual political delegitimization of measured, limited intervention’s moral principles.

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