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    Middle East
     Jun 13, 2012


Syrian violence invites foreign intervention
By Victor Kotsev

In her book On Violence, celebrated political theorist and philosopher Hanna Arendt wrote, "The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All." According to her - and others - power is based on consensus (however that is achieved), while violence, especially in its more extreme forms, rips through the fabric of a society. Later in the book, she added, "Every decrease in power is an open invitation to violence."

This is an apt description of what is happening in Syria. As relentless, and ever-more lethal, foreign-sponsored guerrilla warfare exposes the military weaknesses of the regime, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces are responding with desperate violence. The two sides trade accusations about the almost daily massacres, and credible reports claim that neither is innocent; still, the government has clearly abandoned hope of propping up its

 

legitimacy with the majority Sunni Muslim Syrian population (around 75%, according to most estimates).

Assad can hardly even hope for the kind of political power that grows out of the barrel of the gun (to quote China's famous communist leader Mao Zedong). His attempts to mimic statesmanship - for example, by appointing a new prime minister a few days ago [1] - ring hollow as his isolation grows. Even his core constituency, which is expected to stick with him for lack of alternatives, is showing signs of unease with his methods, according to The New York Times [2]. It is increasingly becoming a fight of, if not one against all, a few against most.

If this trend continues, given the broader geopolitical standoff in the region, the risk of an overt foreign intervention in Syria will grow as well. The regime's diplomatic isolation is increasing, and though significant obstacles remain, a military operation could theoretically take place as soon as a few weeks from now.

The scenes of the past days - including helicopter assaults on opposition areas near the city of Homs (confirmed by United Nations monitors), indiscriminate artillery bombardment of civilian areas (including alleged attacks on the unarmed UN observers themselves), rebels reportedly capturing a missile base, and heavy fighting spreading even in the capital Damascus - recall various stages of the civil war in Libya last year.

The Syrian army has absorbed hundreds of fatalities within a couple of weeks - with perhaps thousands wounded, defected and captured - and its ability to exert control over much of the country has been degraded further. The use of helicopters suggests that even the movement of tanks and artillery has become more difficult.

According to several reports, new anti-tank missiles transferred to the rebels from abroad have destroyed or damaged "dozens" of tanks and armored vehicles just this month [3]. The rebels have become better organized, both politically and militarily. Reportedly, they have boosted significantly their arms procurement network, including by trading with corrupt officers from the regime army, smuggling more from abroad and manufacturing their own explosive devices and lightly armored vehicles [4]. They even claim to have made plans for securing Syriaís weapons of mass destruction once the regime collapses.

On the political front, the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, picked a new leader on Sunday. Abdelbaset Sieda, a Kurdish dissident and professor of Arabic, ran unopposed and promised after his election to "expand and extend the base of the council ... so it will take on its role as an umbrella under which all the opposition will seek shade."

In this context, it would not be surprising to hear renewed calls for a resolution authorizing a "no-fly zone" in Syria, similar to the one used to topple Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, at the United Nations in the near future. Whether or not such an initiative can gain momentum will depend very much on the developments on the ground in the next days, as well as on various external developments such as the progress of the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West.

The bargaining between the US, Russia and the European powers (as well regional powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) continues. A few days ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that his country would not oppose Assad's departure. The viability of the so-called "Yemen option" (replacing Assad with somebody else from his regime), however, is questionable.

Not only did it fail to stop the violence in Yemen, but Syria is also a very different case: the sectarian violence there has advanced very far, and there is hardly anybody to step in after Assad (who is not expected to leave easily).

For now - given that the regime possesses sophisticated air defenses and missiles tipped with chemical weapons - the viability of a Western intervention is uncertain as well. According to most estimates, such a campaign would be several times more costly and dangerous than the one in Libya last year, which ran in the billions of dollars and produced dubious results.

On the other hand, if the civil war escalates further and becomes a protracted one, this could turn into a disaster for the entire region, as well for the American administration. US President Obama, who is in the middle of a re-election campaign, will likely face severe criticism at home for his inaction should the massacres continue unabated.

Moreover, American policy in the Middle East could suffer a major setback. In an article titled "Why a Syrian Civil War Would Be a Disaster For US National Security," for example, Robert Satloff outlines several plausible nightmare scenarios (including regional war and the falling of weapons of mass destruction in terrorist hands).

He argues that a form of intervention, broadly along the lines of the operation in Libya, is necessary:
[A] mix of cyber-warfare, to interfere with Syrian government communications efforts; unmanned drones, to target key installations and weapons depots; air power, to establish and defend safe zones; and a manned element based in neighboring states, to execute a train and equip mission to support rebel forces. At the same time, it is essential that the United States, teamed with Arab, Turkish and other allies, inject urgency and energy into the task of upgrading the cohesion and message of the Syrian political opposition, so that there is a clear answer to the important question of what comes in the wake of Assad's demise. [5]
Elements of such a campaign are already visible on the ground. The big question in this respect is how quickly the Syrian regime can be brought to its knees to the point where an air campaign is more palatable. In Libya, where the use of air power preceded other tactics, the foreign effort to prop up the rebels and to subvert the army eventually worked - Gaddafi's control over the western part of the country imploded - but it took months. In Syria, covert campaign has been underway for months, and signs of chaos in Assad's forces are growing, but the regime still controls much greater might than Gaddafi ever did.

Other considerations may also interfere in the calculations of the great powers. The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West, for example, are intimately linked to the crisis in Syria, since Assad is Iran's closest Arab ally, and Syria is a key link in the Iranian system of military deterrence.

According to a recent analysis in Foreign Policy Magazine (among other sources), a successful military operation against Assad could push Israel's timetable for an attack against Iran further into the future, and thus postpone an even more violent and dangerous regional conflict [6]. Per this logic, if an intervention in Syria down the road is unavoidable anyway for the Americans, a negative outcome in the talks with Iran in Moscow in a week could bring its execution forward.

An interesting, if speculative, scenario would involve the assassination of Assad and his close circle, as a way of decapitating the regime. A similar attempt, involving the poisoning of several top officials, was reportedly carried out by the rebels last month, and may have contributed to the violence unleashed by pro-government forces. In part as a result of Assadís efforts to prevent a Yemen-style solution, most of the power in the regime is reportedly concentrated in a relatively few people; the presidentís growing indispensability and isolation, however, constitute also a great liability for his camp.

Notes
1. Assad names new Syrian PM, army battles rebels, Reuters, June 6, 2012,
2. Assadís Response to Syria Unrest Leaves His Own Sect Divided, The New York Times, June 9, 2012.
3. See, for example, UN observers confirm Syria aerial attacks, al-Jazeera, June 12 2012.
4. Inside Syria: Who Arms the Rebels?, PBS, June 7, 2012.
5. Why a Syrian Civil War Would Be a Disaster For U.S. National Security, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 8, 2012.
6. The Real Reason to Intervene in Syria, Foreign Policy, June 4, 2012.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)





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