The situation in Syria is a flash point of opportunity, a rare intersection between humanitarian and strategic interests. First and foremost, it is a dire humanitarian crisis in need of aid. This is the time and place for NGOs and especially the UN to step up and create aid zones for fleeing refugees.
There needs to be strong, unified pressure on the Assad regime to allow aid groups to enter the country and access civilians that are cut off from any sort of aid. Though Russia and China shamefully stand as immovable barriers in the way of a Security Council resolution, the General Assembly has taken matters into its own hands and issued a non-binding resolution calling for the cessation of violence and for Assad to step down from power. Though it is non-binding and thus does not carry the same weight as a Security Council resolution, it does not mean that no action can be taken. It just means there is no legal requirement to do so.
Thus the global community has offered legitimacy to any parties that are willing and able to aid the Syrian people and accelerate the transfer of power from Assad to a new government. However, the biggest difficulty lies in creating motivation for a state or a group of states to intervene. As recent history has painfully shown us, i.e. Rwanda, Bosnia, a humanitarian crisis does not provide sufficient motivation–there must be interests involved. More often than not, humanitarian crises do not coincide with the national interests of states. However, in this regard, Syria drastically stands out.
There are three primary actors in this drama who stand to gain from the toppling of the Assad regime: the United States and Europe, the Sunni middle east led by Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.
The Assad regime is Iran’s best friend in the region. It openly supports the likes of Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy terrorist group in southern Lebanon; it pursued nuclear weapons until Israeli jets bombed the reactors in 2007; it has actively supported all sorts of hostility against US civilians and government personnel; and finally Assad is a Alawi’ite Shi’ia ruling over a Sunni majority state. Toppling the Assad regime would remove a major financier of international terrorism and restore rule to the Sunni’s and thus remove the country from Iran’s sphere. It would be a devastating strategic blow to Iran. Turkey, a Sunni majority country, is competing for dominance in the Middle East against Iran.
Toppling the Assad regime, which was for many years a supporter of the PKK Kurdish terrorist group in Turkey would not only remove a major security worry, but also be a crucial step in taking a leadership position in the region.
So what is stopping us? Fouad Ajami, a Hoover Fellow, recently proposed in the Wall Street Journal that the US and NATO launch a Kosovo-style campaign: establishment of a no-fly zone and continuous bombing of Assad regime assets and military targets. With so many interests at stake, why are there no bombs falling from the sky and onto rampaging Syrian military and security personnel?
Ajami’s proposition of a no-fly zone would be meaningless since Syria does not have an air force and has not used air power against its civilians. Instead of an air force, Syria has an Air Defense Force however their capability is questionable given the fact that Israel used non-stealth aircraft in their strike against Syria’s nuclear reactors. Not a single Israeli aircraft was shot down or damaged. In fact, by some reports, they were not even fired upon.
So what about a bombing campaign? As has been said by many commentators, Syria is no Libya. I would add that Syria is no Kosovo, either. Libya was essentially friendless in the region–a pariah is probably a more apt term to describe Gaddahfi’s regime. Nobody rose to Libya’s defense. Rather the Arab League approved and participated in the bombing campaign of Gaddhafi strongholds and military targets.
Though the Arab League is united in favor of regime change in Syria, Assad has several factors in his favor. First and foremost is a mostly loyal, large and relatively well trained military and security apparatus supporting him. It has become grimly clear that regime change cannot happen without breaking the Syrian military–a feat that would require a great deal of exertion and sustained commitment by whoever takes up the bloody task.
Second, and of most consequence to the Arab League, is Iran. No one is really sure how Iran would react to a military campaign against Syria. If Assad is gone, Iran would be isolated in its own region and its hopes for hegemony would be dashed. Thus one unintended consequence of intervening in Syria is that Iran would make its pursuit of a nuclear weapon much more desperate. Losing Assad would be an enormous strategic blow to Iran- one so big that going to war may be worth it for the Ayatollah.
Third, and of most consequence to the West, is Assad’s non-state, militant terrorist proxy in Hezbollah. Since Israel’s campaign in Lebanon against Hezbollah in 2006, it has been mostly quietly rearming, retraining and growing in strength with direct aid from Syria and Iran. Again, no one is sure how Hezbollah would react to an intervention in Syria. They could enter the fray and join Assad’s troops. Or worse yet, they could launch a “second front” in Israel or Lebanon to draw focus away from Syria.
These are just some the nightmarish scenarios that are most likely being agonized over in the Pentagon and the White House. As much as the United States, its European allies and the Arab League want to see Assad go, there lies a real risk in sparking a major regional war–and that is a price that nobody wants to pay.
Therefore, the current best (or least bad) option lies in the Free Syrian Army. To illustrate their importance, it is valuable to look back at the tragedy in Bosnia during the 1990s. One of the main catalysts in the ability of the Serbs to inflict so much death and destruction on the helpless Bosnian Muslims with impunity was the imposition of an arms embargo to the region. It had the intention of freezing the fighting. The tragic result was that it froze the dynamic with the Serbs owning all the guns and military hardware and the Bosnian Muslims having nothing for which to defend themselves.
So let’s even the playing field in Syria. Let’s change the dynamic on the streets of Homs. Let’s transform a one-sided humanitarian disaster into a pitched civil war- and root for the good guys. It already is a civil war. All that’s missing is the guns and the training, something that can be done along the Turkish-Syrian border at relatively low cost–at least compared to a full scale military intervention.
An internal uprising would make intervention much less attractive to the Iranians. They do not want to get dragged into an internal struggle where they cannot inflict any damage against its actual enemies. Hezbollah would have nothing to react to. Indeed, they could still join the ranks of the Syrian army but that would just make them targets for FSA guerillas.
And if the FSA succeeds, and Assad falls, who replaces him would be hard to determine or foresee. A free Syria, assuredly Sunni dominated, may not align itself with American interests–but they sure as heck would not align themselves with Iran.
Arming the FSA would save lives at the hands of the murderous Assad regime and have great potential in toppling a dictatorship that has been a promoter of terror and actively seeking to harm our interests and that of our friends. This is a rare opportunity- humanitarian, moral and strategic interests are aligned. Let’s take it.
Joshua Alvarez is a senior International Relations major and president of the Alexander Hamilton Society. He is currently working on a thesis “Turkey’s Grand Strategy” for the CISAC undergraduate honors program. Please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or comments.