May 30th, 2012
03:53 PM ET

Syria: The risks of intervention

By Tim Lister, CNN

Amid growing outrage over civilian casualties in Syria, there are ever more urgent calls to aid or at least protect the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. But so far, the international community's response has been limited.

There has been diplomatic censure, with envoys withdrawn or "recalled for consultations." Syrian diplomats have been expelled from numerous countries, including much of the European Union, Turkey, the United States and several Arab states.

A growing raft of sanctions is draining the Syrian regime's coffers but only gradually sapping its strength. This is not a country that has relied on international trade for its survival.

A United Nations mission was formed to monitor a cease-fire agreement made in April, but violence has persisted.

Nothing has made the al-Assad regime buckle, especially as the regime perceives both internal opposition and the international community as divided.

Compare the situation to that in Libya last year. As Moammar Gadhafi was about to unleash his forces on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the world came together in the shape of the U.N. Security Council to authorize international intervention and prevent a bloodbath.

The French and British were prime movers behind U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973; the United States an enthusiastic supporter. Russia abstained, but at the time its ambassador noted that many questions remained "unanswered, including how it would be enforced and by whom, and what the limits of engagement would be." Russia later complained that a humanitarian mandate had become a blank check in support of the rebels.

Perhaps in part because of the bad blood over Libya, the world body has reached no similar consensus over Syria. Rather, the opposite, with some of the harshest diplomatic language traded for years.

Both Russia and China are wary of any international action supporting protest against authoritarian rule. And Syria has been first the Soviet Union's and now Russia's  key ally in the region after Egypt “defected” in the 1970s. As it has for decades, Russia still supplies the Syrian government with weapons. One Russian analyst, Ruslan Pukhov, told CNN: "Once the Assad regime vanishes, we have zero influence in the region."

It remains to be seen whether the recent massacre in Houla will force Russia into a corner. But even if it does, what can be done? In Bosnia, the international community declared "safe havens" for Muslims but failed to protect them. The result in July 1995 was Srebrenica, the worst massacre in Europe since 1945, when some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians were killed by Serb forces. Havens are only safe when protected against superior forces.

Syria, Sarajevo and Srebrenica: When outrage isn't enough

Analysts say that even setting aside the lack of international will, successful intervention in Syria would pose problems not present in Libya:

Geography: Most regime targets in Libya were close to the Mediterranean coast and within easy reach of NATO air bases in Italy. Even so, NATO warplanes flew some 21,000 missions over nearly six months to enforce the no-fly zone, suppress air defenses and destroy command centers and armor. Military analysts say that, while no match for the best NATO members could summon, Syrian armed forces are better equipped and coordinated than anything Gadhafi could muster.

Neighboring states: Few of Syria's neighbors would likely allow their territory to be used to pre-position supplies or military units. Certainly neither Iraq nor Lebanon, both countries with their own volatile sectarian mixes. The Hezbollah militia, strongly allied with Syria, remains powerful within Lebanon.

The presence of foreign troops on Jordanian soil might have repercussions for a monarchy that already has plenty of problems domestically. Using Israeli territory would send the wrong message altogether.

That leaves Turkey, a NATO member that has run out of patience with al-Assad. Earlier this year, the Turkish foreign minister compared the Syrian president with former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned al-Assad  pointedly in Arabic  "What goes around, comes around."

Turkey has military bases (Incirlik, Diyarbakir) close to the border that, theoretically, could serve as staging posts for intervention. But even for the Turks, there would be risks, including a flood of refugees and possible retaliation by Damascus supporting the Kurdish terrorist group active in Turkey, the PKK.

Topography: Libya was flat desert; there was little cover for regime forces and most of the fighting was along a narrow coastal strip. "Target acquisition" was relatively simple. Syria's physical geography is more challenging; and much of its northern border with Turkey and Lebanon is mountainous, with few major roads. Getting aid into any safe havens within Syria would be a logistical nightmare.

The opposition: The Libyan rebels, for all their military shortcomings, quickly grabbed a swathe of eastern Libya and major air and seaports in Benghazi and Tobruk that became their resupply hubs. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) controls a few neighborhoods and some rural areas in the north of the country  but no major population center. It is vastly outgunned by the Syrian army.

Crucially, the regime retains control of Syria's frontiers, and its armed forces appear cohesive, according to analysts in the region. There have been military defections, mainly of low-rank conscripts, but not of entire units with their armor.

Against all this and the political risks of western military action in yet another Muslim country, some argue there is a moral imperative  as there was in Libya and Kosovo (done), Rwanda (ignored) and Bosnia (eventually).

Writing in The Atlantic earlier this year, Steven Cook argued that "if there is no intervention and political will to stop Assad's crimes remains absent, the world will once again have to answer for standing on the sidelines of a mass murder."

Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, asked: "At what point in the body count is international intervention deemed to be an acceptably worthwhile option that can have a positive effect on the situation? After Assad has killed 6,000 people? 7,000? 10,000? 20,000?"

By most accounts, we have passed the second of those benchmarks.

Some argue that, despite the price, there would also eventually be a strategic gain: a post-al-Assad Syria would unlikely be as close to Iran as is the current regime and might also deprive Hezbollah of critical regional support.

Others see the risks of international intervention as outweighing any benefits, with the danger that civil war would inevitably spill into Lebanon.

A version of this analysis first appeared in February.

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Topics: Syria

soundoff (95 Responses)
  1. mw

    History was showing that West side was wrong
    1) US supported Taliban as a freedom fighters against Soviet invasion... then US proclaimed a war against Al Kaida in Afganistan
    2) In Libya, it was almost life in Paradise but freedom fighters from Al Kaida wanted to turned this back to the Muslim Impire... we see what happened.... now Libya is on the verge of the civil war
    3) in Serbia – was the same set up with killing ppl on the plaza. Then it was intervention.... then all of the sudden KOSOVO, the province of Serbia proclaimed independence and WEST supported this....
    4) In Folkland Islands, Argentina have full rights to that islands but Great Britain does not want to give the rights of native Folkland ppl to join Argentina.
    3) In Al Hula, Syria, freedom fighters or just Al Kaida bandits made a set up with killing kids. Army will never do such things against their own ppl, especially kids. It is clear set up. If you dont believe yourself, go verify what CNN told you and ask citizens of Al Hula, and you will see that CNN is a big LIAR.

    It is all pro West view.... Imagine, Soviet Union with Stalin – these events would never happened.
    Soviet Union stopped Mr. Kennedy for his plans to invade Cuba..... Nice analogy to stop the BLOODBATH, right?

    May 31, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Reply
  2. mw

    and to complete the picture.... remember the massacre near Wounded Knee... when US Army, blue jackets were killing
    unarmed ppl, including, kids and elderly native indians.....

    Why nobody bombed US for this act of atrocity?

    May 31, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Reply
  3. mw

    By the time it was over, at least 150 men, women, and children of the Lakota Sioux had been killed and 51 wounded (4 men, 47 women and children, some of whom died later); some estimates placed the number of dead at 300.

    THe question is – WHen the United Nation approve the intervention for this massacre. It will be interesting to see the responses on this forum.

    May 31, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Reply
  4. mw

    US soldiers who were involved of killing kids were honored by Medals Of Honor.... WOW

    The Army awarded twenty Medals of Honor, its highest award, for the action. Native American activists have urged the medals be withdrawn, as they say they were "Medals of Dishonor". According to Lakota tribesman William Thunder Hawk, "The Medal of Honor is meant to reward soldiers who act heroically. But at Wounded Knee, they didn't show heroism; they showed cruelty." I

    May 31, 2012 at 9:40 pm | Reply
    • MakingSense

      Well said MW.

      June 1, 2012 at 4:21 am | Reply
  5. mw

    yeah, send more bombs and missiles to kill more kids like you did in Wounded Knee long time ago

    May 31, 2012 at 11:32 pm | Reply
  6. John Dough

    Whenever a bunch of rotten "Rags" off each other, it's GOOD NEWS!

    June 1, 2012 at 12:47 am | Reply
  7. JOsh

    Where is Executive Out comes when you need them

    June 1, 2012 at 9:48 am | Reply
  8. Sam A

    Didn't the USA actual protect the muslims in Bosnia from genocide at the hands of the Serbs? Get your history straight! Your're clueless obviously mis-informed!

    June 1, 2012 at 10:41 am | Reply
  9. Tony

    Go U.S Go . We want new regime in Syria " friend to West " Live in peace with Israel. It's time to drive Russia and China from the Middle East .

    June 1, 2012 at 11:26 am | Reply
  10. alfonds

    One reason and one reason only the world has not come to the aid of the Rebels- :Russia.- As long as Russia continues to support the Syrian Regime, we have to be careful where we locate our Testicles, if we have any.

    June 1, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Reply
  11. Welled

    See they also run the risk they can't "fool" the people in revolt into thinking the UN are actually friends. They are stroking them very hard I must admit they haven't blamed a single thing on the people that a revolting. Being very careful not to incite the very people they are trying to quell. Tihs is all bad for the members of the UN wolfpack considering the assets at stake pipleines etc. They don't want to lose Syria possibly to people who are revolting that might just put who and what they want in their and not what the UN wolfpack wants. They are very sneaky of course. US "warhammer invading Iraq. Then the UN members slither into Iraq to guard the pipelines and oil wells for their respective nations. Invasion is usually about goods and lands at least it used to be. Except now we live in a world with 3 billion people that have to be fooled into thinking its all a humanitrian effort. So they don't rip the snorkels off the invading nations for being invaders.

    June 1, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Reply
  12. Welled

    Question is who is the UN to tell anyone what they want and don't want. Syria has been around for centuries. I guess Syrians don't know anything about Syria and the UN does. Iraqs don't know anything about Iraq. All they know is they have a "Democratic" puppet in there. Then again in the United States blacks for the most part have never been elected outside there Districts. Its almost a reason to start believing in Jesus of course. Cause well now you have a minority in there. Dosen't make any sense but then again you have to have a little faith. Or be a real believer in "Democracy". I know all the really angry arabs in the middle east thing Hussien Obama is a swell guy. He showed up at a time when arabs were really, really upset about being invaded. Yep we showed them people what "Democracy" is all about. Now they appear to have quieted down in some respects in other way the whole idea just didn't work out at all.

    June 1, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Reply
  13. karim farag

    i know that ... intervention means risk but without it we will lose more innocent people and i don't know really what we can do ... if we interfere we will lose soldiers too. but we have to use the option what will put an end for this brutalities...

    June 1, 2012 at 9:56 pm | Reply
  14. david

    Why nobody is talking about Iran who is main supporter of killer in the world. Russia is always Russia as long as you make them satisfied economically they will no longer support Syria, but Iran is biggest problem in the region, taken together if there will be a military action it should definitely cover Iran, otherwise there will be no success.

    June 2, 2012 at 11:00 am | Reply
  15. Wim

    I beg to disagree with much of the article:
    "As Moammar Gadhafi was about to unleash his forces on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the world came together in the shape of the U.N. Security Council to authorize international intervention and prevent a bloodbath."
    Until then Gaddafi's troops had behaved quite well in the areas they reconquered. Gaddafi's threatening talk was directed against the rebel fighters and very similar to the talk that the rebels used. So the chances that there would a bloodbath were very small. The world would have done better to organize an orderly surrender of the rebels in exchange for amnesty and some democratization.

    "It remains to be seen whether the recent massacre in Houla will force Russia into a corner."
    We still don't know the facts about Houla.The rebels are selling s one lie after the other and we are simply buying it and imposing sanctions. First the casualties were supposed to have been caused by shelling by the Syrian army. Then it appeared that only 20 of the casualties had died due to shelling, that the shelling had happened during a heavy rebel attack and that many of those 20 were very probably rebel fighters. But instead of reconsidering our information and sanctions we switched to believing the next assumption – that they all had been killed by government related militia. It looks like we aren't interested in facts – except when they justify more sanctions.

    "One Russian analyst, Ruslan Pukhov, told CNN: Once the Assad regime vanishes, we have zero influence in the region"
    You are confusing cause and effect. It is the US government that wants to get rid of Assad and is prepared to violate international law for that because he is a friend of Russia. Russia, China, India and all the many other countries that are against intervention are just upholding international law.

    "After Assad has killed 6,000 people? 7,000? "
    You get that figure only when you include fallen rebel fighters.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:46 am | Reply
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