How many divisions does moral rectitude have?
With Russia and China standing firmly behind Assad’s regime in Syria, it appears increasingly likely that continued violence, and potentially a prolonged civil war, will be the future condition of a country where the opposition is not strong enough to overcome the core elements of the regime’s security forces, and foreign parties lack the willpower or capacity to overthrow the rulers in Damascus.
As Tony Karon explains, civil war is an accurate way to describe the ongoing descent into violence in Syria. The country’s ethnic composition and the regime’s divide-and-rule political strategy makes the specter of civil war an effective engine of consolidation for the regime’s supporters:
… the Assad regime presents itself as the guarantor of the interests not only of Allawites [12% of the population], but also Syria’s Christians (10%), Kurds (10%) and smaller communities of Druze, Yazidis, Ismailis and Circassians — against the specter of a vengeful sectarian Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. No surprise, then, that the regime has, through its own violent strategy, encouraged the rebellion against Assad’s rule onto the path of sectarian civil war.
Two thirds of the Iraqi refugees in Syria are Sunni Arabs, and a further 10% are Christian. The lesson for Syria’s minorities is stark: One in seven Christians who lived in Iraq in 2003 is now a refugee in Syria; those left behind are an increasingly embattled community, while even in newly democratic Egypt, the Christian minority is feeling increasingly put-upon by the now dominant Sunni Islamists.
As Karon further notes, the defection of Sunni conscripts to the Free Syrian Army further reinforces the perception that Syria is careening towards large-scale ethnic bloodletting. The Assad regime, like Hussein’s and many others before it, deliberately ensured its top-tier units and the ones closest to political power were less dependent on conscripts from the hostile ethnic majority. It is far less likely that there will be sympathetic defections from such units, which means that they will, in all likelihood, need to be actually defeated on the ground.
Safe zone: Benghazi, Misrata or Ibril?
Propositions for “safe zones” have so far remarkably elided the question of how they will be made safe:
Therefore, a multilateral intervention similar to Operation Provide Comfort and either led by NATO or by an Anglo-French-American-Turkish coalition would be the most feasible option for military intervention in Syria. At present, the most achievable option would be to establish a “safe area” in the country to provide refuge for embattled civilians from other cities and towns, a base of operations for the designated political leadership of the Syrian opposition as well as a military command centre — in other words, a Syrian Benghazi.
The risks associated with the most robust option — an aerial campaign matched by a small ground operation — are mitigated in part by the relative weakness of Assad’s regular forces and military assets.
Aerial campaigns and small ground operations are the robust option? Despite the frequent invocations of Operation Provide Comfort as a model for intervention, very few of the plans for intervention in Syria actually describe the most essential prerequisite to Provide Comfort: the defeat and destruction of huge amounts of Iraqi military capability in the first Persian Gulf War. Furthermore, as Micah Zenko recently explained in Foreign Affairs, the use of ground forces was important to the preservation of safe zones established in southern Iraq during the long containment of the country in the 1990s. Saddam’s ground forces largely ignored the no-fly zones imposed in Iraq, and the U.S. often had to conduct significant military mobilization just to reduce the intensity of his counterinsurgency campaigns. In Operation Vigilant Warrior, the U.S. was only able to dissuade Saddam from moving additional Republican Guard units to southern Iraq by mobilizing the logistical support element of I Marine Expeditionary Force (a clear sign of impending mobilizations to come) and the deployment of two brigades from the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division to Saudi Arabia (Britain, for its part, deployed two warships and brought its ground strength in Kuwait to 1,000 troops). Clinton understood that the only way to deter Saddam from accelerating his offensive against his own people was to threaten ground intervention – and even then, the Iraqi units in the south which predated the two Republican Guard divisions’ mobilization remained and continued to suppress their local population.
Essentially, even a vastly weakened Iraqi military still required a credible ground threat of thousands of soldiers and Marines just to dissuade Saddam from reinforcing his ongoing crackdown of the Iraqi Shia population. What reason do we have to think that Syria’s military, without a thorough shellacking such as the one Saddam’s military (already weakened by nearly a decade of war with Iran!) received in 1991, would fear a foreign-imposed safe zone enough not to challenge it?
While Srebrenica was supposed to be a mutual (albeit poorly or deliberately unenforced, in the case of the Bosniak forces) demilitarization, Serbian forces completely ignored Resolution 819 and surrounded the area with heavy weaponry, and later went on to overwhelm and massacre its inhabitants. While some of the proposed safe areas are in relatively mountainous terrain, it is quite probable that Syria would attempt to kettle or even assault the safe area. Who, exactly, would defend it? The Free Syrian Army? If they were actually capable of holding and defending such a safe zone on their own, there would be no need for a safe zone. The addition of foreign special forces would help, but not by much if the Syrian government chose to mount a sustained assault.
Concentrating FSA and Syrian opposition forces and infrastructure in a safe area would actually give the regime an enormous incentive to strike. Consolidating the FSA, which so far is an extremely loose network of commanders with no real chain of command, and SNC governing officials in a single area would tell Damascus exactly where to strike, and knowing such a location would be the heart of foreign support and nascent “Syrian Benghazi” would provide a huge incentive to destroy it or reduce it through sustained siege. Additionally, guerrilla units could be deployed to harass or destroy supply corridors even after the successful establishment of a safe zone and the suppression nearby of Syrian forces. Even with the addition of Turkish conventional troops, would they be willing to defend an area with their lives against a Syrian military assault or a sustained guerrilla campaign? Even with close air support and airstrikes, it is unlikely that without a sustained offensive that such a safe area could actually provide a viable base of support for an opposition movement. Defending a Syrian safe area would likely devolve into a massive aerial campaign and a significant ground campaign (consider that Turkey’s cross-border incursions just to rout out PKK fighters during the 1990s involved 15,000-35,000 troops), not a mere suppression of air defenses and local forces with a small training contingent of special forces. It is hard to see how a limited action to create a safe area could succeed without ground forces and air forces capable of resisting and repulsing a military with armored formations, artillery, and air support would fare – and it is hard to see how relieving this pressure would occur without an offensive, as in Operation Storm, to permanently secure a safe area.
A dangerous – and perhaps more likely proposition – would be a Syrian Misrata. It took nearly two months after NATO air strikes began for Misratans to finish recapturing their own city, and even then Gaddafi’s forces were able to temporarily deny use of the port through artillery fire. Jisr al-Shughur, the report’s suggested safe zone area, is even more isolated than Misrata. It is, of course, not a coastal city. There are not even significant roads to Turkey without winding through mountain passes that guerrilla groups would be able to harass and temporarily close. It took Misratan forces, with NATO air support and resupply opportunities from the sea and air, months to capture Zliten, just 40 miles away. There is no major airport in Jisr al-Shughur. Aerial reinforcement would have to come either through airborne drops or helicopters. Anyone who has ever read military history – let alone anyone who has had to deploy to a combat zone in such a manner – is probably feeling somewhat nervous right now. Leave aside man portable air defense missiles, even machine guns of sufficiently heavy caliber could make aerial reinforcement or resupply of such a safe zone a very risky prospect. In all likelihood, thousands of Turkish regular troops would probably be necessary just to secure Jisr al-Shughur. Even then, the possibility of Syrian counter-attacks from Latakia would probably require additional major military actions. Why mobilize thousands of troops and risk dozens or hundreds of casualties just to carve out a minor safe area which, if we look at its counterparts in Kurdistan during the 1990s, is probably not going to become a war-winning base of support?
The Damning Merits of Invasion
Ahmad Al Attar and William J Moloney in The National outlined the most provocative plan for foreign intervention so far – and one that probably has the most realistic assessment of Syrian and FSA military capabilities. Their remedy is a massive joint operation, involving a Turkish offensive to cut off (and presumably kettle) minority populations from Damascus, concurrently with a Jordanian and Gulf Cooperation Council offensive to seize Damascus. This would occur under the aegis of NATO air and intelligence support.
While their assessment of the inadequacy of Syrian rebel forces is accurate, their remedy may not be politically sustainable. Any hopes of a quick repeat of Operation Iraqi Freedom would likely be bogged down by the significantly lower disparity between regional ground forces and Syria’s own. There would be significant casualties for invading forces, and the invasion would likely take significantly longer than the one which ultimately felled Saddam Hussein. Would Turkish and particularly, Jordanian and GCC countries be willing to bear the military costs of a sustained assault? Would the Gulf monarchies be willing to devote military resources away from their own countries when the more immediate threats of local uprisings and conflict with Iran?
Additionally, from a humanitarian perspective, one must consider the extended period of military mobilization and logistical pre-positioning for such an operation to take place. In the meantime, it is quite likely that Syrian forces would accelerate their killing of groups which could aid the impending invasion. As Daniel Larison pointed out, the two interventionist objectives of hastening Assad’s downfall and limiting the slaughter he inflicts on Syria are not always compatible.
So, if creating a safe zone is militarily ill-advised, and an Iraq style invasion seems neither forthcoming nor a particularly good use of resources, the most likely result of the intensifying internal fighting in Syria is a drawn out civil war – probably one increasingly fueled by outsiders. Already, many are calling for the United States to begin supporting the arming of FSA forces, in addition to providing them with air support. But these measures – even if combined with an aerially-enforced “no fly” or “no drive” zone, are likely to result in protracted civil war so long as the inexperienced and disorganized FSA tries to gain strength, resist Syrian assaults, and eventually launch offensives against the Syrian security forces – another likely outcome that Larison noted in his column at The Week.
Iranian Illusion: The Illogic of Intervention
Morally, there is no easy solution in Syria. Of course, Syrian intervention is not just justified on moral terms, it’s also argued as a strategic boon to the United States and its allies. The most prominent argument is that overthrowing Assad will undermine Iran’s influence in the Middle East. This is true, but it is important to remember that although Iran is an American adversary, not everything Iran does a direct threat to United States interests (Hezbollah is undoubtedly a threat to Israel, but its impact on U.S. security is also undoubtedly less significant). Now that the United States military has vastly reduced its Iraqi footprint, Syria is no longer a significant direct threat to U.S. personnel. Diverting resources – particularly ones from CENTCOM – to Syria would in fact give Iran more breathing room to pressure American forces in Afghanistan and the Gulf. Overthrowing Assad could also draw Iraq closer to Tehran. It would also likely intensify Iran’s drive towards a nuclear program, as a third Western regime change in Iran’s close neighborhood – and one directed against an Iranian partner – would hardly make Iran less suspicious of Western and Arab intentions. In other words, the geopolitical and strategic consequences of a war in Syria need to be thought through, even from the superficially obvious lens of U.S.-Iranian tensions.
Additionally, there are also significant potential strategic pitfalls to toppling Assad. Firstly, Syria, particularly under a Sunni or Muslim Brotherhood-led regime, could potentially become a new staging area for jihadist organizations (and an exodus of jihadists from Syrian prisons might also affect this trend). It could also, like Iraq and Afghanistan, become a new theater for Iran to bleed its adversaries’ resources. As in Lebanon’s civil war, Iran would almost certainly move in to set up friendly paramilitaries to attack intervening troops, Western or Sunni Arab interests, and undermine the new Syrian government. Even limited numbers of U.S. troops would be potential targets for Iran, and other countries participating in the effort might find themselves fighting off Iranian proxy forces.
Unlike in Iraq, where the Shias likely to cooperate with Iran were in the majority, there would likely not be as much infighting between the ethnic groups which might produce Iran-friendly militias in Syria. Faced with a Sunni majority and the prospect of severe retributive violence, militias, insurgents, and terrorists eager for Iranian support would probably not be hard to find. Denying Iran’s ability to muster such support would be extremely difficult. Even with active U.S. military forces in Iraq, it took massive and sustained efforts by American forces, including JSOC, to put Qods force and the Special Groups on the backfoot. Even then, they survived enough that when the tempo of operations was reduced by the Bush Status of Forces Agreement that they were able to begin reconstituting themselves. It would take a large and persistent foreign security presence to eliminate Iranian backed groups from Syria, and what reason do we have to believe they will not prove even half as resilient as Iran’s proxies in Lebanon and Iraq?
Overthrowing Assad would provide a setback to Iran, but not a fatal one, particularly with regard to its interests against the United States. It would in fact open new opportunities for Iran to drain the resources of its Western and Sunni Arab foes – and as in Iraq and Lebanon, efforts to combat Iranian influence in Syria would again likely demand more effort from the intervening forces than from Iran itself. Giving Iran the opportunity to wage yet another proxy war is hardly good strategic sense for Washington – even if it does relieve pressure on Tel Aviv.
Pushing Iran into a corner by removing its partner in Syria would almost certainly increase its interest in a nuclear deterrent and – even if it did lead to the withering of Hezbollah – lead Iran to intensify the efforts of the IRGC/QF in preparing the battlefield for a war or proxy war with the United States and its allies in the Gulf and beyond. Resources diverted from Hezbollah could well end up supporting new Iranian capabilities elsewhere, perhaps in regions and against interests far more critical to America than the Levant.
All that said, there is no denying that without foreign intervention, Syria is headed for further violence and civil war. Even if pro-Assad and relatively neutral efforts to broker a peace deal with Assad’s government are genuine, they are unlikely to succeed. Assad is probably not interested in any kind of reforms that do not leave him in power, and the opposition is probably not interested in any concessions that do. Protracted civil war will not be without consequences. More refugees will flow outside of Syria. Additionally, regional rivals of Iran and foes of Assad will likely begin arming the FSA, leaving the region more awash in arms and unaccountable paramilitaries.
There are, however, sensible options for dealing with such a contingency. One of them is almost certainly not arming the rebel groups. While enforcing an arms embargo is not going to do the United States any favors, the arguments against U.S. weapons sales or gifts to Libyan rebels hold even more true for Syria. And, as in the case of Libya, there will likely be other powers willing to supply the Syrian rebels anyway – and of course training and organizational competency, not arms, are going to be the real prerequisites for triumphing against the elite and upper-tier Syrian security forces.
What the United States does have a strong interest in doing is conducting an assessment of the changing political terrain in Syria. It was likely quite ill-advised that the United States held off a serious expansion of its efforts to vet the Libyan rebels until it actually began the air campaign to support them. Whatever comes out of the Syrian civil war, the United States ought to avoid being blindsided. The purported release of Abu Musab al-Suri, if true, would be a portent of a potential influx of jihadists from Syrian prisons into the open, and the Sunni-led struggle against Assad may yet attract other jihadist groups. Whether the release of jihadists is a deliberate Syrian ploy to dissuade American intervention, or results from the capture and liberation of prisons by opposition forces, the Arab Spring has led to some unwelcome homecomings for jihadists and Syria is not likely to be an exception.
Gaining an accurate picture of the motivations of FSA and opposition members, the composition of the sundry armed militias and unarmed political groups under the broader banners of the FSA and opposition, are all of serious concern to the United States. This task would, as in Libya, be primarily accomplished through the CIA. Particularly due to the ongoing civil war and the nature of the mission, would likely involve its paramilitary officers. Identifying rebel leaders, potential threats, and making initial contact with Syrian opposition and rebel forces would fall primarily under this aegis. These, of course, would neither require nor have a particularly large operational footprint. If necessary, aerial assets supporting these missions could be operated not just from the base at Incirlik, but smaller airfields at Gaziantep and Hatay in Turkey. Such covert efforts would also pave the way for the eventual purchasing or destruction of potentially dangerous arms in Syria, such as surface to air missiles or anti-tank missiles, which might otherwise be used to fuel conflicts elsewhere.
Of course, any collection of human intelligence is going to involve some give and take. One relatively low-risk way of providing support would be selectively providing intelligence to gain the confidence of rebel leaders. In any case, stepping up signals intelligence and geospatial intelligence gathering in Syria is an important mission anyway, particularly as the civil war drags on. As in the case of Operation Cedar Sweep over Lebanon, the United States could fly signals intelligence missions skirting (but not penetrating) the Syrian border either from British airbases in Cyprus (if Britain is willing to permit it) or those in Incirlik. Actual missions to penetrate Syrian airspace would likely require the use of – let’s not get too excitable, now – unmanned aerial vehicles, based out of the existing drone station at Incirlik. These are expendable and avoid the need for significantly suppressing Syrian air defenses. And since the Iranians have apparently already captured an RQ-170 anyway, the costs of a potential drone downing have already largely been born out. Moving forward with drone sales to Turkey, especially surveillance drones, would also be a wise step for enhancing U.S. intelligence gathering capabilities in Syria. As a precondition, the United States could also press Turkey to share intelligence gathered with the United States, as it did with Turkey when America was running surveillance flights over Kurdistan. Besides, recovering capacity for intelligence gathering in Kurdistan, where a variety of terrorist groups have taken refuge before, is likely another wise move in the long term. Additionally, having a Turkish drone fleet actually adds an element of plausible deniability for other American drone operations in the region. Though sales would be unlikely to affect intelligence gathering if the Syrian civil war is relatively brief, if conflict there – or a U.S. need to gather intelligence on potential threats – persists longer, it could be a wise long term move, and likely be a necessary favor for us to intensify U.S. missions out of Incirlik.
Another important question in the event of a drawn civil war in Syria, and indeed, one still vital should Assad fall, would be counter-proliferation operations to secure or destroy Syrian chemical, biological, or nuclear assets. Unlike in Libya, where Gaddafi’s covert stockpiles of mustard gas and chemical weapons were located in the desert, many Syrian WMD facilities are located nearby major population centers. Take, for example, the case of the Syrian chemical weapons depot near Aleppo. In 2007, Syrian officials claimed that extremely high temperatures cooked off munitions and resulted in a major blast. However, since the blast occurred early in the morning, there was a great deal of suspicion about the veracity of this explanation, and Jane’s Defense Weekly claimed it had sources attributing the detonation to a mishap during attempts to arm Scud missiles with chemical warheads (Ehud Olmert also claimed that Syria readied chemically armed missiles in response to Operation Orchard, the 2007 strike on a North Korean-assisted Syrian nuclear reactor).
Known or potential Syrian chemical or biological weapons sites are located at, in addition to Aleppo, Al Safir (near Homs), Homs itself, Hama, Palmyra, Latakia, and Cerin (possibly the site of a biological weapons program) – in other words, mostly cities in Western Syria, in some cases quite near the coast or Turkey. These sites are not nearly as isolated as Gaddafi’s secret stockpiles in the desert were, and even if vigorous air support were approved, it would be difficult to prevent Assad’s forces from accessing them by denying roadways. Accordingly, the deployment of SAD and – potentially – JSOC’s “render safe” capable units would be necessary. At the very least, “render safe” capable special mission units would likely need to be mobilized at Incirlik or afloat. Because counter-proliferation and associated operations fall under Title 50, these operations would be covertly conducted. Support for such an operation would likely involve the use of U.S. forces assisted from Turkey and from Souda Bay, in Crete. Maritime support could entail the diversion of assets from the 6th Fleet to the creation of a Joint Task Force-Lebanon styled maritime force. Tracking the activities of personnel and matériel associated with the Syrian WMD program, and, if necessary, interception, would be likely missions. For air support to even be a viable policy option, JSOC units, supported by SAD, would probably be necessary on the ground, as they were for the Israeli strike on Syria’s nuclear program. While such strikes are by no means automatically necessary, they would be far more militarily feasible and strategically sensible than an open-ended aerial commitment to liberating Syria – but without adequate intelligence, the proximity of these depots to Syrian forces would make time sensitivity a severe issue.
Proxies and Protracted Civil War
But what if Syria’s conflict persists? Prolonged civil war would likely generate stronger calls for intervention, either because of mounting humanitarian costs or growing anger over the inability or unwillingness of Syria’s remaining friends to pressure the Assad regime into an adequate solution for the problem. Even if major regime figures departed or defected, sectarian fears would, at the very least, likely still leave significant portions of the security services intact. One potential scenario would be a potential Syrian “Salò.” While the degree of support from and dependency on Syria’s foreign patrons is likely to be much lower, so too is the threat the regime is likely to face from foreign intervention (or local opposition). That said, arguments that protracted civil war or a failure to overthrow Assad will only make him more subservient to and dependent on Iran have significant merit. Where many assessments err, though, is in identifying this as a reason to bring about Assad’s speedy demise. No, not quite.
For a decade, Iran has bled the resources of America its allies by taking advantage of their invasions of or interventions in foreign states. When America invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s Qods Force came to support militants against its soldiers. When Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006, Iran’s preferred client in Lebanon, Hezbollah, inflicted serious pain on Israeli forces. Should the West or Arab states intervene in Syria, policymakers should automatically assume a similar modus operandi. In fact, since Syria would be a much more permissive environment than either post-war Iraq or Afghanistan (i.e., without U.S. occupation forces, and ruled by a friendly, if embattled, government), Iran would not have much trouble flooding Syria with weapons and personnel capable of inflicting significant harm on Iran’s enemies.
But what if, in the course of a protracted fight against rebel Syrians, Iran decided it needed to begin more directly propping up Assad? Syria would become a festering sore in the Iranian strategic map, and the stabilization or recovery of a pro-Iranian regime there could potentially divert significant resources from Iranian campaigns elsewhere. Given Hezbollah’s benefits from a Syrian logistical supply line, they too might contribute resources and volunteers (but probably not major combat formations) to supporting Damascus. The Assad regime could rapidly become an expensive commitment for an increasingly isolated Iranian regime. Toppling that regime quickly, however, while a significant blow, would bring about a reversion to the standard IRGC/QF model of operating with a light, inexpensive footprint to extract maximum costs from Iran’s enemies. On the other hand, an embattled but still salvageable pro-Tehran regime could force an increasing commitment of Iranian treasure – and probably even Iranian personnel – to preserve Iran’s regional power projection.
Protracted civil war would present the opportunity for Iran’s enemies to bleed the country as Iran bled them in previous conflicts. This could be facilitated without direct U.S. involvement in the conflict. As the U.S. did in the battle of Maaten al-Sarra between Libya and Chad, intelligence collected by unique U.S. platforms could direct FSA or other potential rebel groups’ attacks – and, potentially, the United States could direct them towards Iranian assets in Syria. In any case, observing and tracking IRGC/QF activities in Syria would be an important and useful task for U.S. covert assets. The diversion of the IRGC and QF’s resources to the country would relieve pressure on U.S. forces in other areas and likely be a setback to IRGC/QF efforts to expand their network outside of Iran’s immediate neighborhood. Critically, however, this opportunity to divert IRGC/QF resources into an area of relative low threat to the United States would be lost with an immediate fall of Assad – at that point, IRGC/QF activities would shift from spending large amounts time, effort, and money propping up a debilitated regime to a light footprint mission focused on waging proxy warfare against Iran’s enemies. Overthrowing Assad forces Iran to cut its losses and puts it in comfortable territory. With a civil war raging, however, Iran will find itself in the unfamiliar position of trying to keep a foreign regime in power rather than overthrow it.
JSOC has long been the U.S. government’s weapon of choice in dealing with the IRGC/QF. As Marc Ambinder noted, “JSOC has fought a silent but successful proxy war against Iran’s Revolutionary Guards—even, National Journal has learned, engaging directly with its soldiers in at least three countries” [Two of which are almost certainly Iraq and Afghanistan, the third possibly Iran itself, since cross-border "hot pursuit" was a possible element of a Presidential Finding leading up to the surge]. A Title 50 operation authorized by a Presidential Finding could lead to the potential deployment of JSOC or other covert assets in attacking Iranian assets in Syria. Operating from potential bases in Turkey, U.S. naval vessels, or – if it could be secretly arranged – Jordanian military facilities – the preparation of some JSOC assets (in addition to “render safe” teams) for raids against high-value targets in Syria would be another potential policy option. Such preparation would probably be likely anyway in order to fend against potential Syrian or Iranian covert or proxy attacks on countries seeking the downfall of Assad. Additionally, forces monitoring IRGC/QF detachments, and embedded with potential proxies or partnered paramilitaries engaging them could also encourage the interception of IRGC/QF logistical trains before they reach their intended destinations – which could have a variety of potentially useful applications.
In the very long run, if civil war in Syria persists as long as, say, Kurdistan’s (and if the Provide Comfort analogy is accurate, it would be years), the U.S. ultimately might consider the deployment of Special Forces (as it did in Kurdistan) as a way to supplement preferred proxy forces for dealing with jihadist groups that form or take up residence on Syrian soil. Operation Viking Hammer is instructive in this regard, in which the 10th Special Forces Group, aided by U.S. air support, along with large groups of Kurdish peshmerga, were able to attack and destroy an Ansar al-Islam camp in northern Iraq with minimal expenditure of U.S. resources.
Of course, a case such as Viking Hammer is as instructive in its limits as in its opportunities. Firstly, despite the hype surrounding Special Forces and Special Operations Forces, these units are not a panacea. American policymakers should have no illusion that their introduction into Syria would significantly hasten the fall of Assad, any more than Task Force Viking’s SF/SOF elements would have brought about Saddam’s fall without the massive conventional action in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Secondly, such operations are extremely risky, and the threshold of threat or opportunity for their deployment should be extremely high. Unless a jihadist organization emerges which is likely to be a significant threat to U.S. interests in the region or beyond, such an undertaking ought not be attempted. Thirdly, Viking Hammer required a large and relatively cohesive proxy force, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) peshmerga. By early 2003, many members of the ODAs involved in Viking Hammer had already had experience in previous operations in Kurdistan, and the PUK had already had a significant – if not always satisfactory – relationship with American intelligence.
Essentially, for even limited U.S. military options in Syria to be sensible, the U.S. would first need to begin seriously cultivating relationships with Syrian militant groups. However, what objectives the U.S. is seeking would greatly impact the sort of support it offers. In Kurdistan, it was sufficient for U.S. interests for the U.S. to have proxies it could use to pursue relatively limited interests – the peshmerga were used to fight detachments of Iraqi troops and extremist or jihadist groups in Kurdistan itself, but the PUK was not going to be bringing down Baghdad. That said, there may also be advantages to cultivating relationships with armed groups at a more granular level rather than a largely fictitious national level of the rebellion. One of the lasting lessons from Libya is that even in victory, the actual enforcement of NTC rule over the country is in the hands of various armed groups without a truly binding chain of command. The Free Syrian Army has a nominal chain of command, but since they cannot – and rarely have tried to – hold territory, it is likely that, as in Libya, divides and politicking will become more frequent as they gain further responsibility and political influence and control. If the U.S. is merely aiming for having potential partners for pursuing pertinent, limited U.S. objectives in the Syrian battleground, building relationships at a more granular level within the Syrian rebellion might ultimately be a more viable effort than trying to muster the FSA into a cohesive fighting force.
The United States does not have a compelling strategic interest in rapidly hastening the downfall of Assad commensurate with the risks and resources that would entail. The local Syrian forces are, in all reasonable likelihood, unable to hold enough ground to make even holding a safe zone a feasible option without major foreign ground support. In addition to making the safe zone a far more risky proposition than it has been previously advertised as, it also seriously calls into question the ability of a safe zone to hasten the downfall of Assad, or, for that matter, significantly protect Syrian civilians living outside the safe zone. If Assad’s security forces fall, it will ultimately be because of major and sustained ground combat directed against a military force significantly more competent than Gaddafi’s, led by a regime with significantly more indulgent and powerful foreign friends than Libya’s regime enjoyed in its last days. The costs of that sustained combat, or even the provision of air support to it, would be open-ended, and it is difficult to see how foreign intervention would not result in an Iranian proxy war being waged against the intervening forces or even their home countries as Tehran tries to ameliorate the loss of a critical partner and logistical conduit for regional operations.
The much more unpleasant strategic reality is that, whether foreign forces intervene or not, the U.S. receives little reward from hastening Assad’s downfall. An embattled Assad imposes just the same limitations on Syrian and Iranian threats to U.S. interests. Resources will have to be diverted from the proxies Iran supports through Syria to Syria itself as Iran tries to maintain its host’s viability. The loss of Assad’s regime would mean a rapid retrenchment in Iranian support, for sure, but this would likely be replaced by a proxy campaign against Syria’s new government and its foreign backers, or a redeployment of IRGC/QF assets to other theaters, probably against the U.S (if not both). Given that rapidly overthrowing Assad without major overt military action from a broad coalition of forces is a pipe dream anyway, the United States should consider contingency plans in which it works through, rather than against, the specter of protracted civil war. To be able to bleed Iran in Syria would, relative to the risks involved, be a far more significant strategic opportunity against Iranian power relative to the investment and risk than would be a major overt campaign to overthrow Assad outright. The more blood and treasure Iran loses in Syria – even if Assad stays in power longer – the weaker Iran will be.
The consequences of a protracted civil war in Syria are likely to be enormously costly, especially in humanitarian terms. However, it is unclear what, short of a miraculous agreement between the opposition and its butchers in Damascus, would deliver a worthwhile humanitarian outcome. Ultimately, many of the potential pitfalls and horrors of prolonged civil war – and even prolonged civil war itself – could still be the outcome of an intervention to topple Assad. As in Iraq, the massacre and displacement of Shias and Kurds could be replaced or supplemented by the massacre and displacement of Sunnis and Christians. The much feared refugee outflows could still occur in the aftermath of a successful overflow of Assad, again, with perhaps a different ethnic composition. Syria’s neighbors could still likely be drawn into the power vacuum that would occur were the inchoate Syrian opposition forces to nominally assume responsibility for the country. Whether through civil war or through total overthrow of the regime, the erosion of Syria’s intelligence and security forces is likely to prompt jihadi activity within its borders. All that said, the defining criteria for U.S. military involvement must be U.S. interests, and a vague notion of trying to stabilize the region with intervention simply will not do. Because the U.S. ability to influence actual events on the ground will be incredibly limited, it is a mug’s game to pretend the mere act of overthrowing Assad will give us substantial power in foreseeing and avoiding the worst consequences of conflict. If the U.S. interest in Syria, as in the broader Middle East, includes counter-proliferation, undermining IRGC/QF activities and the actions of jihadists, there are potential contingencies for these scenarios. Ultimately, however, the U.S. must distinguish its interests from the various and disjointed goals advocated by most plans for intervention. The options I sketch out will strike many as merely sitting on the sidelines and peripheral to the cause of bringing down Assad – which is fair, and also the point. If Syria is to have a civil war, the U.S. ought, for the most part, be sitting it out. There are constant exhortations that aid in a civil war, even when it leads to extreme gratitude, is easily transferable into geopolitical gratitude later on. But there is no guarantee “our” Syrians would win power without unacceptable degrees of cost or risk, and even if they did, the government they form is likely, like Libya’s, to be so weak as to be a potential liability rather than an international boon – and all this assumes our preferred faction wins the jockeying during or after the fall of Assad that determines which opposition faction gets to run the country anyway. When faced with the choice between assuming unacceptable risk or making a grand scheme dependent on events largely out of our control, nothing beyond limited means for limited ends is an responsible use of U.S. power.