January 17, 2012

Potential Spectrum of Syrian Intervention

As the dominant powers in a regional asymmetric movement, Western and Gulf nations are inherently allergic to the concept of revolution. Their officials go to great lengths to avoid the word itself, and have fallen back on a guerrilla tactic to protect their interests: false negotiations. Unlike its necessary function in genuine democracy, “dialogue” becomes a kiss of death to revolutionaries rising up against a dictator and his foreign allies. Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans forced their rulers out of power through direct action, not negotiations, while internationally-sponsored “initiatives” are prolonging Yemen, Bahrain and Syria’s uprisings.

Believing that their present situation couldn’t deteriorate any further, many Syrian protesters and local activists were the first to approve an international aid corridor and corresponding no-fly zone. Grassroots support within the Syrian National Council (SNC) gave Riad al-Asaad, de facto commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), enough confidence to threaten a large-scale campaign amid the Arab League’s drifting mission. Western capitals are suspected of planning a no-fly zone - or ground intervention - with Turkey, whose southeastern Anatolia region now serves as the FSA’s rear base. Behind this possibility lurks a regional war with Bashar al-Assad’s allies.

Qatar’s Prime Minister, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, took another step towards war on Sunday when he declared his support for intervention during CBS’s “60 Minutes.” Asked whether he favors Arab nations intervening in Syria, Sheik Hamad said that "for such a situation to stop the killing some troops should go to stop the killing." His statements predictably triggered a new verbal barrage from al-Assad’s regime, which has taken shots at Qatar throughout the League’s negotiations and observer mission. Barring a dramatic change of behavior from al-Assad, the opposition movement and foreign powers, Syria is trending towards an organized conflict with geopolitical impact.

The outcome appears to break down into three scenarios that will be explored over time.

Semi-conventional Assault

Foreign capitals challenging al-Assad to resign face a strategic dilemma that hasn’t been encountered by Western powers in decades - the risk of defeat. Washington in particular has expected victory in every war since World War II, heightening the shock of political stalemate and military losses on the battlefield. External powers rightfully fear Syria’s multiple scenarios and potential impact on regional stability, but the revolution demands a commitment to direct or indirect strategies. This dilemma is generating significant friction and hesitation between al-Assad’s international opponents.

"We haven't been looking at a no-fly zone," William Hague, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, told Sky News. "There is no serious prospect certainly at the moment of the United Nations Security Council agreeing any resolution at the moment, let alone agreeing a resolution comparable to anything that happened in Libya."

Hague presents several military observations to buttress his claim, arguing that “the Syrian regime had not been relying on air power to repress protests.” The intense urban nature of Syria’s conflict also reduces the effectiveness of air superiority below Libya’s level. These points aside, intervention will require air cover to shield oppositional fighters and international peacekeepers, and to protect humanitarian corridors and convoys. Any foreign operation, whether military or non-military, will create the need for air support.

In the event that ground troops are approved - this possibility is more realistic than Western officials publicly concede - the region’s strategic orientation points to an international task force masked by select Muslim states. This spear-tip would theoretically include Qatar, Pakistan and Turkey, along with any satellites that Riyadh could bring on board (Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Morocco). Israel might also increase its clandestine activities against al-Assad, or a full-fledged UN peacekeeping mission could be approved.

"The Arab League and their monitors failed in their mission and though we respect and appreciate our Arab brothers for their efforts, we think they are incapable of improving conditions in Syria or resisting this regime," al-Asaad told Reuters. "For that reason we call on them to turn the issue over to the U.N. Security Council and we ask that the international community intervene because they are more capable of protecting Syrians at this stage than our Arab brothers.”

Infantry is essential to warfare regardless of the technological innovations designed to replace them, and foreign powers must decide if they believe Syria’s revolutionaries can fill the job. This question is admittedly challenging because the same military defectors and armed civilians will face a more determined enemy than Muammar Gaddafi’s hollow force. Another problem is the lack of Arab manpower against al-Assad and his remaining allies: Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq. Any of these states could decide to support a counter-operation in his favor, while Egypt’s heavyweight army is liable to remain neutral.

With China likely to maintain its life-line to al-Assad through soft power, the greatest danger appears to stem from the possibility of overt Russian and Iranian intervention. Moscow didn’t sacrifice Gaddafi without reason, but to save its bullets for the younger, useful al-Assad. Tehran is similarly connected to his Shia regime and its nerve system to Hezbollah and Hamas, and one Quds official just pledged material support beyond Iran’s current level. This contingency is keeping Western and Gulf powers at bay, wishing to fight Iran on their terms rather than Syria’s unpredictable battleground.

Sustained Insurgency

The FSA experienced a leadership transition over the last two weeks after Brigadier General Mustafa Ahmad Al Shaikh defected to FSA headquarters in Turkey. As a regional commander in northern Syria, Al Shaikh fled the country after witnessing what he called “the regime's ruthlessness and the killings.” His first order of business is establishing a military council to oversee operations against al-Assad’s regime, starting with the gradual conscription of 30,000 new fighters. His media adviser, Fahd Al Masri, specified, "It will also help organize defections within the army and will be in contact with officers in the regular army to encourage large-scale rather than individual defections.”

The second task after organizing Syria’s diverse revolutionaries is establishing lines of communication with supportive international powers, a relatively simple task so long as military command is established on the ground. Next comes the decision whether to directly arm or finance the opposition’s arsenal. The FSA’s ranks are estimated between 15,000-30,000, with thousands of civilians theoretically willing to fight for the revolution.

General Al Shaikh publicly expects the opposition’s struggle to take “at least a year, possibly a year and a half to topple the Syrian dictator.” His general plan appears to be sound from an insurgent’s point of view: organize all armed elements (civil and martial) and “deploy them in small six to seven person squadrons” to “employ tactics of a war of attrition.” Oppositional force ratios will be increased over time as they absorb recruits and technology from the West and sympathetic Arab states, until a presence is established across the country and around Damascus.

An insurgency-infused civil war is normal for revolutionary situations, and thus seems to be the most plausible scenario for Syria’s future. Low-intensity conflict requires the least amount of effort from international powers and limits the risk of conventional warfare, which could decimate Syria beyond the revolution’s objectives. Unfortunately for the opposition, foreign actors and Syrians caught behind the regime, waging an insurgency against al-Assad’s regime is likely to protract for multiple years. Syria’s army contains several hundred thousand troops who, unlike Gaddafi’s regulars, weren’t intentionally weakened out of fear. They operate thousands of tanks and field pieces, and don’t rely on tribal or nomadic mercenaries to fight their battles. Syria’s air force, navy and special forces are equally advanced compared to Gaddafi’s forces.

The unfortunate reality is that al-Assad may launch an efficient guerrilla campaign of his own; a full-scale unconventional war will yield a bloody spectacle in its own right, capable of lasting 5-10 years and damaging a significant portion of the country. This type of war still leaves the door wide open for those proxy agents that will flood Syria from all directions. Whether conventional or asymmetric, the possibility of extended warfare and mass casualties is too real for Western and Arab powers to currently stomach.


The final military option trades victory for defeat. Given the lengthy time-line of either course, oppositional elements and international powers may review the possibility of assassination by ground or air. This option could be attempted before open hostilities are initiated - possibly as a precursor since al-Assad will react aggressively either way - or as a desperation move deeper into the war. However the expediency of assassination could represent the most chaotic option available, lacking the popular buildup that culminates a successful revolution. Even a decapitation strike across al-Assad’s leadership could leave a resilient force defended by a strong-willed minority.

Foreign powers will likely phase across the spectrum from unconventional to conventional operations, a sound approach in light of Syria’s complex circumstances. However risk cannot be separated from warfare, and a failure to commit the appropriate forces could result in the need for greater action in the long-term.


  1. O said today that Assad should step down.
    Sound familiar?

  2. WH is thinking just like the AL - wants al-Assad out at the lowest possible cost. Syria is definitely not going to repeat Libya's time-line, and military doctrine advises any actor not to fight a war they aren't reasonably confident of winning. That said, the WH is pursing an errant policy in Syria, relying too much on backroom AL and Russian "diplomacy." These measures are building up the scale of conflict.

  3. Assad has been painted into a corner with no options but to hold tight, imo. He doesn't want to follow Gadaffi's fate but can't, and shouldn't, capitulate to the US/Israeli agenda. As ever, the ordinary population are the ones being shot down in the street.