Recently the Syrian conflict has been escalated with the assistance of international muscle that it had previously not possessed. The EU decision to lift the arms embargo on the Syrian rebels and the recent Russian decisions to press on with deliveries of relatively advanced anti-ship and anti-air missiles to Assad’s regime both indicate that Syria is really becoming a serious issue for the world’s major powers. The move-countermove escalation occurring between the EU and Russia has sparked accusations of a proxy war, and importantly is nowhere close to being diplomatically settled. Whether a favourable political solution to either side will be reached, no one knows (EU – wishes to see Assad leave power, Russia wishes to see him keep it) just yet. All we can say is that the interim peace talks scheduled for the end of this month and July have been called off.
The Western Stance
Ideally, the US, NATO and the EU, or in other words, the Western world, would like a negotiated political solution to the conflict and a lack of bloodshed. However, with Assad fighting for his political life, he has shown with over 80,000 dead in just two years,he will not go from power without a very bloody fight. The Western insistence upon a ‘post-Assad’ state as their endpoint has pinned Western hopes for success at the negotiating table on the Syrian rebels and some of their supporters like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. While this approach has kept the conflict going on for some two years, it has not come close to deciding it. The rebels, even with safe havens in Turkey, have not been able to decisively concentrate their forces against Assad’s regime; their resistance is strong but still fractured. Importantly, it is becoming increasingly apparent that given a continuation of the conflict, the rebels will not win.
Thus, Western policy with regards to Syria finds itself at a crossroads. There are three options for the West. Firstly, they could negotiate with Assad and let him keep power in some sort of agreement, which would be a fairly significant, although not absolute, reversal of direction. Secondly, they could continue with their political goal of a ‘ democratic, inclusive, and unified post-Assad’ Syria and do what is necessary to achieve that outcome – of which arming the Syrian rebels would be the first of many steps. By no means is this all that will be necessary to achieve our goals, although, as I will explain, excessively risky options may not be necessary. Thirdly, we could continue to do as we are currently doing, which is to say, fruitlessly wish for our political goals while making no effort to try and coerce Assad into compliance with them. The results of such a failure now would be especially dramatic as Russia and China could conceivably be secure in the knowledge that they could derail virtually any Western political objective outside the immediate spheres of influence of Western nations with modest military and political support for their allies.
Arming the Rebels
The arming of the rebels has the potential to escalate the political stakes for the anti-Assad West, and also change the military balance between the rebels and Assad’s regime. Both of these outcomes will, as has been accused of them, probably prolong the war, and probably prolong the killing. However, both of these outcomes bring us closer to getting rid of Assad as a dictator, and giving forces we are sympathetic to the ability to resist the killing and stabilize the situation. While commentators look upon the situation is Syria as one in which we, as the West should be nonpartisan and assume a peacebroker stance, we already have staked our claim to partisanship by calling for Assad’s fall. Given our partisanship, and the dire straits of the rebels, taking action to assist the rebels is the only real option that we can take to bring the conflict to a suitable end.
However, there are still big, unresolved issues with following down the path of escalation and arming the rebels. Many commentators argue that arming the rebels is a halfway house, a terrible compromise that encompasses the worst of both worlds, bringing increased bloodshed while entailing political commitment that we as Westerners, cannot hope to sustain. In addition, there are very legitimate concerns about who’s hands the weapons will fall into. However, while arming the rebels may be blunt and imprecise, at least arming the rebels will act as part of a quasi-coherent strategy; the other two options will not remove Assad in any sense. While these commentators are right to point out flaws involved in arming the rebels, they are incorrect in characterizing the decision to arm the rebels as counterproductive if a political solution, one without Bashir al-Assad, is to be found.
Will there be stopping blocks upon which we will not be able to escalate further?
The Weinberger Doctrine would argue that escalating conflicts isn’t worth it if the West wants to satisfactorily see it through to its completion. However, the Weinberger Doctrine was formulated at the second peak of the Cold War, in 1984, a very different time internationally, and from balance of power politics. It fails to take into account the situation that the US and its allies occupy currently specifically that of a unipole, in terms of conventional military strength.
As a result the West does not need to escalate conflicts extensively to win them. Undoubtedly Assad is more politically committed than we are. But look at the military difference between the two sides: In 2011, NATO spent 70% of all the defence dollars spent in the entire world, some $1 trillion. Syria spent $1.8 billion or 0.12%.
Even with Russian, Iranian and Chinese support, Assad could not hope to hold out indefinitely against a Western-supported coalition. While Russia and China uphold the principle of sovereignty in the international sphere by supporting Assad, they will only do so to a point. Because of this great disparity in strength, excessive escalation on our side is just not necessary to bring about the defeat of Assad.
What options are possible, given the course of escalation?
Firstly, arming the rebels with high-tech equipment. This could range from tanks to aircraft, but the most likely candidates for arming the rebels, given the political affiliation of arming some of them, will be MANPADS and perhaps more specifically ground-based surface-to-air missiles. Training will be necessary to carry out these roles, however, given rebel bases in Turkey, these could be used as training grounds. Contesting Assad’s dominance in the air will go a long way towards helping the rebels fight him – and more importantly, they do not increase the capabilities of the rebels in ground combat directly, a concern when worried about reprisals the largely Sunni rebels could take against the Alawites and Christians supportive of Assad.
Secondly, a ‘no-fly-zone’ transitioning into a ‘no-fly-zone plus’ as was used in the skies over Libya could go a long way towards assisting the rebels in defeating Assad. While the operation would most likely be longer than the Libyan operation, due to Russian support, friendly control of the skies would be a huge boon to Syrian rebels, negating Assad’s greatest advantage over them currently. What the ‘no-fly-zone’ would not do is directly coerce Assad into leaving power, as was attempted in 1999 against Milosevic, but it would coerce him through direct military support to the rebels, arguably, according the Robert Pape, the only really effective way to use airpower. In addition, a no-fly-zone would give the West more leverage over the actions of the rebels themselves in the organizing of the political solution to the crisis.
In spite of what some commentators have said, Russia’s supplying of S-300 missiles will not pose much more of a risk to Western air forces, and the Russian supply of surface-to-surface and surface-to-sea missiles will make it more difficult for the Western air forces to utilize non-stealthy standoff capabilities on H-Hour, but in the overall scheme of things, Western air forces will prevail – and with few casualties as Libya showed.
Risks of escalation for Assad
Escalation of the conflict poses two real risks for Assad: it would probably fracture Assad’s domestic support further, through his use of even-harsher measures and it could conceivably push him into a overreaction, as Milosevic did in launching Operation Horseshoe. However, Assad could still resist, but, like Saddam before him, his legitimacy rests on economic strength and ethnic ties and these are far from unshakable strengths. Undoubtedly, more soldiers and innocents will die. But their sacrifice will conceivably be towards the purpose of a democratic and unified Syrian state, which, if Western support is not given, has virtually no chance of occurring. The arming of the rebels and a no-fly-zone, if it happens to be necessary, are therefore the best of the bad choices our policy-makers have to choose from, as flawed as they indeed are.