This is a contribution to ‘What Should the United States Do About Syria?: A TNR Symposium.’
In the past several weeks, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other independent rebel brigades have made great strides: They have “liberated” key cities such as Zabadani, 20 miles outside of Damascus; set up checkpoints in restive areas throughout the country; and even begun to seize a few tanks and armored vehicles. For a network of ragtag militias, armed mainly with AK-47s and RPGs that defecting soldiers have given or sold them, the rebels have impressively taken the fight right up to Bashar al-Assad’s doorstep. But the rebels can only go so far. “If no one helps us, we can hit the regime painfully but we can’t topple it, not [when it has] jets and tanks,” Alaa al-Sheikh, the spokesman for the Khaled Bin Waleed Brigade in Rastan, told me.
This is a fair precis of the current situation in the nearly year-long Syrian uprising, in which the Assad regime has killed 7,000 people and dispossessed and imprisoned tens of thousands more. The rebels are waging a guerrilla war of attrition designed to exhaust Assad’s army and security forces rather than defeat them: They hope that if and when external help comes, they can make quick work of whatever regime elements remain. In that way, it would be a mistake to describe the crisis in Syria simply as a humanitarian catastrophe. It is also a military stalemate—one that the West can decisively break in favor of anti-Assad forces by offering them military assistance.
Going to war is a dangerous and risky business, and critics of Western intervention in Syria have understandably focused on three main hazards: the proliferation of jihadist groups, regional destabilization, and the rise of sectarianism (particularly between the Sunni majority and the Christian and Alawite minorities). But the worst fears of what might happen following an intervention have already come to pass and only threaten to grow worse with continued inaction.
For example, the regional destabilization has already begun: There are currently around 10,000 Syrian refugees living in tents, in the dead of winter, on the Turkish side of the Syrian-Turkish border—the victims of a regime massacre perpetrated last June in Jisr al-Shughour, a rustic city in the northwest province of Idleb. Rumors of abuse and mistreatment in these refugee camps at the hands of Turkish authorities are rampant. Meanwhile, thousands more have fled to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Libya to escape subsequent Assadist atrocities, while Internally Displaced Persons within Syria now likely number in the hundreds of thousands.
The sectarianism that people fear also already exists, thanks to a deliberate strategy of divide and rule which has been pursued by the regime since the start of the uprising. The Syrian security forces and their shabbiha (“ghosts”) mercenaries, which are overwhelmingly manned by Alawites, have been waging a brutal campaign of mass murder in the country, conducting the kind of homicidal house-to-house raids that Muammar Gaddafi only threatened to do in Libya. In some areas, Sunnis have been targeted not as demonstrators but as Sunnis. In the coastal city of Latakia, where Assad’s father is buried and where the regime’s loyalist hardcore may relocate if Damascus falls, protestors have been herded into detention facilities and sports stadiums, or stuffed into shipping containers for transfer via the Mediterranean to other prison sites. In August, the Syrian Navy bombarded the coastal port city of Latakia, displacing countless civilians as well as 5,000 Palestinians who went “missing” from a refugee camp—an event which sent UNRWA into a temporary panic.
Furthermore, activists say that the regime has been arming predominantly Alawite villages for a future sectarian confrontation that might well rival the carnage of Rwanda. Amer al-Sadeq, a member of the Syrian Revolution General Union, told me last night that what transpired in Jisr al-Shughour amounted to a policy of ethnic cleansing: “After the massacre took place, we know that many Alawites from the neighboring village of Shtabraq came to occupy the homes of the Sunnis who had fled.” Amer says he fears that rebels’ response, which has so far been limited to attacking the Syrian Army and security forces, will eventually include reprisal incursions into pro-Assad Alawite villages. “If there is external intervention that allows the army defectors to have the upper hand very quickly, I believe this will be the safest scenario to protect the lives of all Syrian people from any unjustified killings.”
Refraining from picking a side in the Syrian conflict is neither a morally, nor a strategically, palatable option. It’s past time that we consider how we implement an intervention on the side of the opposition, which also needs Western help in coalescing around a united strategy for toppling the Assad regime. In December, I published a blueprint to that effect: It included both a no-fly zone and the creation of a safe area in Jisr al-Shughour.
Strategically, this is the most advantageous location on which to focus a military intervention. Sandwiched between two mountain ranges, and currently in rebel hands, the city is hard to get to by land and it’s close enough to Turkey that a corridor of aid, backed by an accompaniment of ground troops, would therefore be easy enough to establish. Moreover, anti-Assad sentiment is very high in this area for reasons explained above.
A no-fly zone would be necessary to even the military odds. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the regime has in fact used its aircraft against both protestors and armed rebels. In Idleb province, for instance, it deployed helicopter gunships, according to eyewitnesses cited in the UN Human Rights Council’s September report on Syria. Grassroots activists and rebels I’ve spoken to more recently also say the regime is flying military planes at low-altitudes, mostly at night, to perform reconnaissance, transport personnel, and attack insurgent strongholds; these claims are substantiated by numerous videos from Homs and elsewhere that have been posted to YouTube. NATO, or a coalition of U.S., British and French forces, should take the lead in knocking out the regime’s air defense systems and preventing the Syrian Air Force from continuing to conduct its own aerial campaign. Turkey currently houses a NATO air base at Incirlik and an air station at Izmir. Moreover, the U.S. Sixth Fleet stationed in Naples maintains 175 of its own additional aircraft.
This type of plan could decisively tip the scales in Syria. A fortified safe zone would both offer refuge to the besieged civilian population as well as provide a much-needed base of operations and communications hub for the Syrian opposition—in effect, carve out a Levantine Benghazi. As it stands, the opposition consists of various grassroots coordination committees, independent rebel brigades staffed mainly by armed civilians (“farmers and workers,” as CBS’ Clarissa Ward described one unit she encountered), and the more media-touted Free Syrian Army of military defectors, whose senior commanders are currently headquartered in Antakya, Turkey, making them incapable of planning or ordering operations on the ground in Syria. (Rebels use the FSA designation very loosely, though there is no top-down chain of command, as such; regional commanders make their own decisions vis-a-vis tactics and strategy.) Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council (SNC), which draws from both exiles and domestic activists, seeks international recognition as a government-in-exile, but it is currently based in Istanbul, with regional offices in Paris. Out of step with the Syrian “street,” plagued by controversy, and dominated by a disproportionately high number of Islamists in its senior echelons (thanks to Turkish government oversight), the SNC has so far failed to persuade Syria’s indispensable minority population—particularly the Kurds—that a post-Assad state will be an inclusive and fairly representative democracy. Part of the problem has been conducting negotiations overseas at various conferences and foreign ministries. But after 11 months of division and factionalism, can the opposition really afford to go without an in-country headquarters from which to close ranks and develop a coherent strategy?
The psychological effect of intervention would also be immensely helpful. Rebels who maintain constant contact with members of the regular army insist there would be more defections from Assad’s rank-and-file but for the regime’s vows to punish soldiers’ families. Damascus doesn’t trust its own troops to let them witness the protest movement first-hand, which is why 75 percent of the army is confined to barracks. An estimated two-thirds of army reservists have failed to report for call-up duty, leaving a military of 550,000 with a fighting capability of just 300,000. Many army battalions, the rebels say, are waiting for an intervention to defect en masse.
If we don’t act, we are leaving Syria’s fate to a more lethal coalition of the willing that is already intervening in Syria’s internal affairs: Iran and Hezbollah. According to one of Syria’s highest-level political defectors—Mahmoud Haj Hamad, the former head financial auditor at the Syrian Defense Ministry—the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah have dispatched thousands of “military consultants” into Syria to enlist as snipers with the regime’s military intelligence units. Hamad told the Times of London that a slush fund has been created to finance these imported mercenaries, and is regularly replenished by Iran. Rebels say they’ve caught and killed Hezbollah agents trying to remove weapons from storehouses in Zabadani. Hezbollah has also been attacking Syrian rebels in retaliation for the capture of seven Iranian nationals late last month. Tehran insists that these men are all “engineers” who were “kidnapped” on their way to work at a power plant; the FSA insists that five of them are in fact IRGC agents. There have also been reports of Iran smuggling weapons into Syria via civilian airplanes.
Assad may be the dimmest of his father’s children but he knows how to wreck a country in spectacular fashion. Reprisal killings and social fragmentation will increase the longer he clings to power, and there’s an excellent chance that the current humanitarian crisis will escalate into a full-blown catastrophe. “Learn to predict a fire with unerring precision,” wrote Czeslaw Milosz. “Then burn the house down to fulfill the prediction.” Analysts who warn of the perils of intervention now risk inviting one in the future, and at much greater expense than they realize.
Michael Weiss is the Communications Director of the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based foreign policy think tank.