Warning: Syria is much stronger than Libya
Syrian army special forces prepare for tomorrow's farewell ceremony at the Rayaq Lebanese military airport near the Syrian border 25 April 2005. (Getty Images)
September 7th, 2011
03:00 PM ET

Warning: Syria is much stronger than Libya

Editor’s Note: Shashank Joshi is a doctoral student at Harvard University and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

By Shashank Joshi – Special to CNN

In Syria, the Assad dynasty is teetering. Protests have breached the two largest cities, around 2,200 citizens have been killed, and oil and gas sanctions will soon cripple the public purse. Civil war isn’t guaranteed – there’s a slim chance that loyalists dump President Assad and cede a little power to widen their base – but, as Hussein Ibish writes in The Atlantic, ‘with the Libya model presenting itself … as an alternative stratagem, the drift towards conflict is starting to feel palpable’.

So palpable, in fact, that some – like Michael O’Hanlon on this site – have begun surveying the West’s military options. That is why it is important to be clear about why Syria differs from Libya in important ways.

For a start, the UN Security Council would be unlikely to pass a resolution authorising force. Russia, a veto-wielding member of the council, enjoys access to a Mediterranean naval base in the Syrian city of Tartus and is a major supplier of arms to the country. Russia has already lost $4 arms billion in foregone sales to Libya – no wonder Moscow is loath to see another customer vanish. Chinese arms sales to Syria have been equally buoyant, tripling between 2006 and 2009.

More broadly, Syria lies at the heart of the Arab world. Although protests and regime violence have already destabilised the country and sent refugees northward to Turkey, outside intervention would have unpredictable consequences for neighbours Israel, Iraq, and Lebanon. Although Saudi Arabia has criticised Assad and withdrawn its ambassador, it’s unlikely that the Arab League would repeat its endorsement of a no-fly zone.

It’s not inconceivable that these legal and diplomatic hurdles would be overcome. Barriers to intervention in Libya looked insurmountable until the last moment.

But Syria is an altogether different target in military terms, too.

First, it’s simply more powerful. Syria’s armed forces are four times the size of Libya’s, and its personnel per capita and total military spending are both one-third higher. President Assad can draw on thousands more tanks than could Colonel Gaddafi (including twice as many advanced T-72s) and a thousand more artillery pieces.

Although Syrian air defences are only slightly better than those of Libya, the country does probably have several hundred more portable, and hence elusive, shoulder-launched anti-aircraft weapons. NATO is technically capable of destroying fixed air defence sites, but how resource-intensive would that be? A single Tomahawk cruise missile costs around $1 million, meaning that the (largely American) effort to destroy Libya’s SAM sites cost up to a quarter of a billion dollars. That is a miniscule proportion of the US defense budget ($685 billion for 2010) but, in a time of shrinking European military spending, this and associate costs could make NATO’s second-tier members think twice about another humanitarian campaign within a year.

These calculations should also factor in retaliatory capacity. Whereas Colonel Gaddafi was forced to ineffectually lob Scud missiles at empty desert near the rebels, Syrian forces could hit out at Israel both with their own missiles and through the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Libya was unable or unwilling to mount terrorist attacks abroad, but Syria could be less reticent.

A second problem is that the Syrian opposition, despite its formation of a National Transitional Council along Libyan lines, remains deeply divided. This is a political problem because uncommitted Syrians and ambivalent regional powers (like Turkey) see little viable alternative to Assad.

But this is also a military problem.

Libyan rebels were divided by tribe, region, ideology and ethnicity. But Syria’s rebels are even more fractured. Lebanon’s prolonged civil war – in which the US, Syria and Israel all intervened – is a cautionary tale: backing one party to a multifaceted conflict is more complex, and possibly counterproductive, than working with a rebel alliance like Libya’s which is at least loosely held together by a political structure and lacking sectarian divisions.

In Libya, Benghazi served as a secure rear area for rebels and a base of operations for Western military and intelligence officers. Syria has no such safe havens, and its centers of protest span the entire country from north to south. Hama, a city that has comparable resilience to government assaults, is the site of daily killings and located far from accessible international borders or the coast.

Finally, it is worth thinking through the implications of a loyal army. Syria’s elite units and officer corps are dominated by the Alawi sect, to which the Assad dynasty belongs. They have neither disintegrated nor turned on Assad. In Libya, a very large portion of the army, particularly in the east, melted away at the beginning of the conflict. In Syria, defections are much more sporadic, and that’s despite months of severe violence against unarmed protesters. That means any armed rebellion would face far worse odds of success, and intervention in support of such a rebellion would involve a longer and more serious commitment.

None of this is guaranteed to avert war. If refugee flows reached unacceptable proportions, or a civil war began to seep outside the country, the US might judge that strategic – rather than simply humanitarian – interests were at stake. But we should be under no illusions that a war in Syria would look identical to the one being wrapped up in North Africa.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Shashank Joshi.

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Topics: Humanitarian intervention • Libya • Middle East • Military • Syria

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soundoff (93 Responses)
  1. schwlan

    if the "armed gangs" are doing the killings then why in the videos the peaceful protestors being slaughtered there is TANKS shooting at the protestors????? armed gangs do not have access to tanks and other military stuff. the 500 army/police officers that have been killed is because they refused to shoot their own people so they were killed. we are not stupid. stop saying its armed gangs when it is not.

    September 12, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
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