Given the current political climate in the United States and Europe, if a military intervention in Syria were to materialize it would probably be a limited “no-fly plus” aerial bombing campaign similar to NATO’s Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya. The overall record for such suppressive bombing campaigns has been positive, with examples that include the Balkans, pre-invasion Afghanistan, and Iraqi Kurdistan. A determinant factor in the success or failure of these campaigns has been the existence of an approximate parity between the military power of the targeted regime and the insurgent forces engaging it. “Boots on the ground” need not always be of the same nationality as the aircraft conducting strikes, but absent a capable ground opposition prospects for eroding a hostile regime and forcing its capitulation are slim. The Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) survival against Assad’s military offensives thus far seems to indicate its capability to rout regime forces if aided by international airstrikes, suggesting that the impact of hypothetical aerial intervention would be significant.
Though the prospects for such an aerial bombardment campaign to depose Assad are moderately good, the outlook for stability in Syria once the bombing stops is unpromising. The dominant influence in the Syrian government and military the Syrian Alawite minority stands to lose if Assad were deposed gives it strong incentive to support the Assad regime and prevent anticipated Sunni retribution for historical grievances. This type of sectarian-tinged conflict forecasts open-ended violence that would demand long-term counterinsurgency and peacekeeping forces before stability could be restored. Further, jihadist radicals who have aligned with the FSA against the Syrian military will be unwilling to relinquish territory and influence gained from their efforts there, and such organizations have proven adept at hijacking such revolts and marginalizing moderate voices from the political discourse. Gains thus made against Assad by the FSA could translate into expanded influence for radical terrorist elements, and a closure of the war between Assad and the FSA would only mark the beginning of a successor conflict between the FSA and its former jihadist allies. Additional factors such as the ambiguity of a new Syrian foreign policy after Assad has been replaced make the long-term benefits of such a power transition unclear, especially given the state’s border with traditional adversary Israel.
These observations suggest that if the United States and its allies wanted to affect the outcome of the Syrian crisis without the commitment of ground forces, the opportune window for such intervention has passed. An earlier intervention would have had greater chances of successfully swaying the ground war in favor of the FSA before sectarian atrocities could dictate its image in the minds of common Syrians. The further solicitation of radical terrorist elements by both sides for needed military assistance has only worsened the chances for a lasting resolution. Now that unfavorable jihadist elements have infiltrated the conflict, any credible mission to enforce stability in Syria would have to include the presence of armed peace-keeping forces to suppress the influence of extremist insurgent holdouts. Even if such an intervention had been undertaken before these radical elements had been introduced, the outlook for sectarian violence between the various factions of Syrian society may have demanded the deployment of foreign ground troops to avert the collapse of the Syrian state into anarchy.
The Syrian crisis has endured now for two and half violent years. The March 15, 2011 protests which evolved into the present armed struggle between Assad regime loyalists and a coalition of rebel groups has claimed, by UN estimates, over 120,000 lives and displaced millions more. The war has seen both the use of weapons of mass destruction as well as the implementation of terrorist attacks against civilian targets, and has drawn in regional powers both diplomatically and militarily. Yet despite both the extent of the destruction and the length of time the war has continued, the war in Syria remains a difficult event to examine and understand given the complexity of Syria’s society, the composition of the factions involved, and the mixed record of international peacekeeping interventions in foreign conflicts.This paper’s objective is to explain these complex factors and assist those with a limited understanding of the event better inform their own analysis and conclusions about it, in particular regarding the decision by Western nations to militarily intervene in order to support Syrian rebel forces. This paper will not, however, make any effort to build a normative or moral argument for or against such an intervention – all analysis provided will instead consider the potential strategic and diplomatic benefits or consequences, leaving moral judgments aside for the reader. The focus will remain on the two key questions a policymaker must ask when making this strategic decision: would a military intervention to end the conflict be successful, and if so, what is to be gained by such an intervention? Analysis of the Syrian crisis itself is provided, along with comparisons of similar instructive cases.
Would a military intervention in Syria be successful?
Model of the military operation
The answer to this first question depends largely on the type of military action the UN, the US, or its allies would decide to employ. President Obama’s August 30th statement that there would be “no boots on the ground” in any proposed military action in Syria was a reflection of the concerns American citizens and their leaders have after two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have cooled any American enthusiasm for the use of ground troops. And while there has been vocal support among America’s European allies for a US-sponsored action, none of these allies has voiced any willingness to contribute substantial ground forces in such a volatile and unpredictable conflict. Given this lack of resolve, any intervention in Syria which did materialize would probably resemble NATO’s Operations Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector which successfully contributed to a resolution of the Libyan civil war in 2011 – naval and air bombardments designed to weaken regime infrastructure, destroy heavy weapons, and enforce a no-fly zone over the conflict area to shift the balance of the conflict in favor of local insurgent forces.Such a “no-fly plus” military action was very successful in Libya, and a similar strategy of suppressive bombardments in support of indigenous soldiers has likewise been successful in Bosnia during Operation Deliberate Force, in Kosovo during Operation Allied Force/Noble Anvil, in 2001 Afghanistan, and in 2003 Iraqi Kurdistan. In each of these cases, coordinated bombing against hard military targets was able to weaken an aggressor regime to the point where active military operations became less favorable to it than peace agreements (as in both Bosnia and Kosovo), or to break a military stalemate and shift battlefield momentum in favor of more poorly-equipped militaries (as in Libya, Iraqi Kurdistan, and northern Afghanistan). These cases would suggest that a UN, NATO, or US-led bombing campaign would benefit Free Syrian Army forces which, in the words of their own commanders, remain sorely disadvantaged without access to the heavy weapons and the air support Syrian loyalists employ against them.
An examination of suppressive bombing campaigns
Interventionist bombing campaigns are a relatively new strategy which has only gained traction since the end of the Cold War and the development of precision munitions. In each notable instance of their use, sustained bombardments have proven capable of shifting the course of a given conflict in favor of insurgent rebel groups assuming those armed rebel militaries (or peacekeeping ground forces) have had the capacity to seize territory as opposing military targets were uprooted or destroyed. In other words, the factions intended to benefit from an aerial campaign must represent a credible armed force and have achieved an approximate parity with their opposition.
The intervention by NATO in the 1994 Siege of Sarajevo provides one such example of the successful use of airstrikes in support of local insurgent forces. Early in the conflict, outnumbered but qualitatively superior Yugoslav and Bosnian Serb forces were able to rout the Bosnian Army and take up artillery positions around Sarajevo despite the objection of the international community and the presence of UN peacekeepers enforcing mandated safe zones. Though poorly-armed in comparison to the besieging Serbians, Bosnian defenders on multiple occasions had succeeded in defeating Serbian attempts to seize the city entirely, leading to a stalemate that would last over five years. Once NATO airstrikes materialized in force and began bombarding Serbian emplacements, however, Bosnian Army units were successful in retaking the surrounding high ground and eventually pressuring the Yugoslav army to withdraw. Despite the fact that these strikes inflicted a relatively minor number of military casualties on Serbian units, and that they were executed without the use of more modern precision munitions, their objective of dislodging the Serbian artillery from the area around Sarajevo was achieved and allied Bosnian troops and Croat forces made significant gains thereafter.
The Bosnian case is not unique. Similar results were achieved in 2011 when NATO airstrikes were launched in response to a Libyan offensive by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi against rebel-controlled Benghazi, which reversed the course of the war and allowed rebels to march on Tripoli. In addition, both the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq featured the use of suppressive bombing and close air support to empower Northern Alliance and Kurdish fighters, respectively, to overrun previously stagnant battle lines and evict defenders which had maintained the territory for many years.
No historical event can be claimed as a perfect model of a future one, but if previous applications of the no-fly plus to similar conflict scenarios provide any guidance, they suggest that such an aerial intervention would have significant impact so long as Free Syrian Army forces remained coherent and capable enough to rout Syrian loyalist forces once they were placed under the pressure of bombing. This depends largely on the relative strength of the rebel factions compared to that of the Syrian regular military, which is difficult to measure with the information available. However, the fact that Assad’s forces have for two years been unable to regain control of many FSA strongholds and that major cities such as Aleppo, Homs, and suburbs of Damascus are still contested provides persuasive evidence that neither side has sufficient strength to dislodge the other. Given that the conflict between Northern Alliance forces and the Taliban in early 2001 as well as between Bosnian and Serbian forces around Sarajevo in 1994 were both stalemates broken by the application of an aerial bombardment, it seems likely that such a use of force would yield significant results in Syria, as well. Therefore, president Obama’s avowed refusal to commit American ground forces to the Syrian conflict does not necessarily disqualify a successful no-fly plus air campaign.
What is to be gained from a successful intervention?
Wide schisms among Syrian groups
Assuming that a no-fly plus strategy was both viable and capable of eroding Assad’s hold on power, the next question to consider is what the results of such a successful action would be. What would Syria look like if the rebel coalition was victorious and Assad was deposed? This depends largely on the relative strengths of the various factions which have taken up arms against Assad’s forces, as well as their willingness to compromise with each other on a political endgame. The stronger and more resilient factions would be most favored to prevail in the ensuing power struggle, while the weaker, more exhausted ones would be swept aside as the spoils were divided and a new government was formed to take Assad’s place.
The Libyan civil war shares notable similarities with the one in Syria, as it was also waged by a hastily- organized and equipped alliance of disparate armed groups. The National Transitional Council (NTC), foreseeing the problems that would arise if it didn’t invite all parties into its camp, made great strides to be an inclusive umbrella group representative of the Libyan tribal population and its competing interests. Yet even despite this effort to transcend internal factions, the security situation in post- conflict Libya remained precarious as armed tribal militias resisted calls to disband and integrate into the new Libyan army. These militias are widely believed responsible for the September 11, 2012 attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi which killed four Americans including US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. Only after an outpouring of public resentment and mass protests against armed militias following the attack were these groups largely disarmed.
Syria, which hosts a far more heterogeneous society than that of Libya both ethnically and religiously, is at even greater risk of lingering instability even following the implementation of a formal ceasefire. Syrian Alawis have enjoyed a disproportionally favored place in Syrian politics and military representation comparable to the status quo enjoyed by Sunnis under the rule of the Baath Party in Hussein’s Iraq. The cleavages between majority Sunnis, which practice orthodox Sunni Islam, and minority Alawis, which are a distant branch of Shiite Islam, are therefore political, military, economic, ethnic, and religious in nature, making them immensely difficult to reconcile.
The observation that most of the rebel groups which have formed in both Libya and Syria have organized along ethnic, religious, or tribal lines adds weight to this concern. Sunni, Alawite, and Kurdish groups have been the primary centers of gravity around which these factions have coalesced in Syria, just as ethnic groups became the primary identities of insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. Reports of organized violence against civilians committed by both the government and the nominally Sunni opposition are frequent, and have evidently driven the population towards their ethnic identities for security, widening sectarian divides and further diminishing chances of future reconciliation. Whereas Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya were able to recover from their respective social upheavals and assemble new legitimate governments, the heterogeneous nature of Syria’s population and the allegiance of much of the military to the Assad regime makes Syria’s prospects for a return to stability quite dismal. So long as ethnic rivalries and the fear of political disenfranchisement or retribution remain, so too will the motive for perpetuating conflict.
Dominance of radicals, marginalization of moderates
The entrance of foreign jihadist militias into the Syrian Civil War has even more severely complicated the conflict and diminished the possibility of stability. The Al Qaeda-sponsored Al Nusra Front has provided the FSA with an influx of hardened fighters, but at the expense of ownership of the conflict and its political direction. Fears of a Syrian Islamist state have only rallied more of the Alawite community to the regime’s side, and a besieged Bashar al-Assad has permitted Hezbollah militants from neighboring Lebanon to enter the conflict, as well. While in the short-term tactically beneficial to the FSA and Assad both, recent events have shown the addition of these extremist groups to the political landscape will ultimately have a deleterious effect on the war’s outcome.
The 1991-2002 Algerian Civil War, which like Syria also constituted an uprising of a wide segment of the population against the government and a loyalist military, was similarly characterized by a fragmented coalition of insurgents. Rather than succeeding in capturing a broad base of power as the NTC would do in Libya, a constellation of opportunistic and rival factions sprung into the political vacuum that followed the government’s crackdown on Islamist national parties. These groups all shared the goal of overthrowing the government, but differed severely in their views of what a post-war Algeria should look like and what means were acceptable for attaining it. Over the course of the decade the war was fought, the more moderate Islamic Salvation Army (AIS) and Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) resistance found themselves in conflict not only with the Algerian military which had terminated elections, but also the foreign mujahedeen insurgents which had infiltrated the country and claimed the leadership of the more radical Armed Islamic Group (GIA), as well. After years of turmoil when negotiations between the Islamic Salvation Front and the military began to hold promise, the radical, foreign-led GIA declared war on the moderates and began an indiscriminate campaign of massacres that targeted all sides indiscriminately. Such radical views of the political endgame simply do not tolerate competition, and as successive massacres of civilians and combatants alike polarized the Algerian population, little room was left for the FIS to distinguish itself from the more volatile insurgents.
In 2012, the international community witnessed this same phenomenon in Mali as militant terrorist organizations in the Sahel allied themselves with the rebellious Azawad Tauregs against the regime in Bamako. Lacking military experience and arms, the Taureg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) reached out to such groups as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), Ansar Dine, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) for assistance in overthrowing the secular government and its professional, uniformed military. The jihadists agreed, but as victories were won and the northern city of Gao fell to rebel control, the coalition immediately fell apart over completely predictable fault lines – the MNLA desired an independent but moderate Azawad state, and their jihadist allies envisioned the creation of a fundamentalist theocracy patterned on Sharia law and administered by themselves. Within hours, violence had erupted in Gao as Ansar Dine and their fellow travelers turned on their Taureg allies and imposed the beginnings of a Taliban-like proto-state in their captured territory.
Though Syria is its own unique case, the parallels in with the conflicts in both Mali and Algeria are striking: a moderate revolutionary movement becomes embattled with a conventionally superior state- sponsored military, and eventually decides to ally itself with radical jihadist foreigners to fight a common enemy. In both other instances, it was the radical Islamists which prevailed over their former allies once dogmatic schisms became too wide to bridge. Already, even with the limited information available, there is evidence that these foreign jihadists are staking out their own claims in the now lawless disputed territories of Syria. The Al-Nusra Front has declared itself independent from the command structure of the Free Syrian Army, as have numerous other jihadist militias. In the territories these radical elements have wrested from government security forces, there are reports that strict Sharia law has been imposed on the population irrespective of the wishes of FSA commanders.
Foreign policy implications
A long-term view of what a change of government in Syria would mean for regional stability (specifically, regarding Israel) also needs to be considered when weighing the consequences of intervention. Would a new Syrian government be more or less belligerent than Assad has been? It is worth noting, for example, that while Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria was diplomatically antagonistic to both the United States and Israel, it had made no significant efforts to harass Israel from their shared border while he was in power. Despite Syria’s unabashed support for Hezbollah during Israeli military operations in Lebanon, the Assad regime had agreed to enter muted peace discussions with the Israelis on numerous occasions. These peace talks remained unsuccessful, but actors willing to even come to the negotiating table with Israel should not be discounted lightly.
On the other hand, Assad’s foreign policy was also unfavorable to the United States in numerous ways. In conjunction with Iran, Syria has been a party to the supply of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, widely regarded as a proxy militant group for Iran which routinely stages attacks on Israeli citizens. The shelling of Damascus suburbs with nerve gas has convinced the majority of the international community that Assad had maintained (and potentially still does maintain) a cache of chemical weapons. Additionally, Israeli intelligence that Assad had been storing nuclear material for the potential production of a nuclear device was strong enough to compel the Israeli air force to bomb a suspected nuclear complex within Syria in 2007.
Given these observations, it is difficult to definitively determine if the removal of Assad is a good or bad thing for the stability of the region and the interests of the United States, especially given how uncertain the nature of the regime which would replace him would be. While openly antagonistic to the US and now confirmed to have pursued the acquisition of chemical weapons, Assad has also been a stable and largely predictable player in the region for many years. The FSA, on the other hand, is full of voices which are both disparate and contradictory, sometimes promising a normalization of relations with Israel and at other times declaring it “an enemy country” that collaborates with Hezbollah. Until it becomes more clear which factions in Syria would dictate Syrian policy, there is cause for concern that a change of power could be more destabilizing than allowing Assad to remain in control.
While the effectiveness of a potential military intervention in Syria is optimistic, the anticipated condition of the state once the conflict ends is ambiguous at best and pessimistic at worst. While a no- fly plus suppressive bombing campaign could shift the momentum of the conflict into the FSA’s favor and significantly undermine his regime, a stable Syria no longer seems possible without the deployment of peacekeeping ground troops now that the war has become a sectarian one in nature.
The presence and relative influence of radical jihadist groups in the conflict is alarming and dims the prospects for the political endgame in Syria. Radical militants have a proven track record of hijacking armed rebellions, and initial evidence as it exists seems to confirm that the radical elements hold a disproportionate amount of influence over the FSA and the territory they have seized. In addition, there seems to be no coherent voice coming from moderate rebels which offers a foreign policy more favorable than Assad’s even if they were to prevail over radical Islamist factions which have entered the country.
All this analysis taken together seems to suggest that if there ever was an opportune time for the West to intervene in Syria without committing ground troops, it has already passed. The introduction of radical jihadist voices to the political dialogue undermines prospects for a stable and peaceful new Syrian government, and atrocities against civilians committed by both sides of the conflict have further polarized Syrians into rival sectarian factions that will be exceedingly difficult to reconcile. It is possible that even if such an intervention had occurred early in the conflict’s onset further violence could regardless have broken out as ethnic security concerns festered under a transition of power.
Perhaps if the more moderate Free Syrian Army had prevailed early in the conflict, there may have been cause to be more optimistic about the future of foreign relations with the state of Syria. Now that groups like Al Nusra seem to be eclipsing the FSA in influence, however, it seems more probable that a failed state such as Somalia, a fragile one such as Iraq, or a largely ungoverned territory such as Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) would take Assad’s place instead. Whether or not this improves or undermines American security and interests depends on one’s own analysis of the risks a stable Assad regime posed three years ago and the risks a collapsed state would pose in their place.
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Kenneth Bloomquist writes on matters of foreign policy and national security and was invited by Frontiers of Freedom to prepare this study and analysis of drones.