Talk of intervention in Syria resurfaces whenever a new massacre of civilians by Syrian government forces hits the world headlines, but there’s little appetite in Western capitals for the huge risks involved in a direct military intervention in the Syrian conflict.
Several other options are still on the table, including an enforcement of a no-fly zone, establishment of humanitarian corridors, and support for Syria’s armed opposition, although none of them promises a quick end to the Syrian tragedy.
1. Ground Troop Intervention
- Breaking Syria-Iran alliance: Syria is Iran’s chief Arab ally, conduit for weapons that flow from the regime in Tehran to the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, and sponsor of various radical Palestinian groups. It’s difficult to overstate the impact that the fall of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad would have on the region.
- Humanitarian concerns: Violence by Syrian government forces has provoked genuine revulsion in Western capitals and among Syria’s neighbors. Governments behind the regional push against Assad, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have staked their reputation on pushing through Assad’s departure.
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- Lack of UN mandate: Direct intervention will not win an authorization in the UN Security Council, given Russia and China’s intense opposition to any form of interference in Syria.
- Ghosts of Iraq: US has little taste for sending soldiers into another Arab country, after the calamity in Iraq. Turkey is likewise wary of getting bogged down in Syria’s civil war, which would risk a direct confrontation with Iran, or possibly rally the Syrian population behind Assad against a foreign army.
- Who could replace Assad: There’s no credible, cohesive political body that could assume transitory authority and prevent a descent to chaos. Syria’s opposition is divided and has little influence on the events on the ground.
- Regional destabilization: A full-scale war could spark clashes in Lebanon, which is polarized between Hezbollah-led pro-Assad camp and political parties backed by Saudi Arabia and the West.
2. No-fly Zone
- Libyan model: Proponents of some form of intervention argue that not doing anything will not prevent a civil war or stop the violence from spilling over to Lebanon. Rather than a ground invasion, US legislators such as Senator John McCain argue for intensive bombardment of Syrian military installations that would disable the Syrian Air Force, similar to NATO-led intervention in Libya.
- Weaken regime’s morale: Bombardment could encourage further defections from the military, goes the argument, and with air-cover whole army units could desert together with heavy weaponry. Balance of power would tilt toward the opposition and precipitate the meltdown of the regime.
- International tension: Russia will of course never consent to bombardment of its sole Arab ally. Moscow would step up arms shipments to Syria, although it's unlikely it would actually choose to confront US planes for Assad's sake.
- Rebels’ weakness: Libya’s lessons show bombardment alone will not break the regime unless there’s a capable, centrally-led rebel force that can take on Assad’s ground forces. Syria's armed opposition, represented by the Free Syrian Army, is a long way from reaching that stage.
3. Safe Zones
- Limited risk: This is probably the least well defined option. Some governments, particularly Turkey and France, have argued for the establishment of “safe zones” inside Syrian territory, along with corridors for delivery of aid. One idea was for Turkey to secure a buffer zone across its border with Syria, creating a safe haven for civilians, while stopping short of direct military intervention.
- Armed confrontation: How would safe zones be enforced and protected from Assad’s forces? Wouldn't that amount to occupation of parts of Syrian territory? It’s difficult to imagine this scenario not provoking clashes with the Syrian military or pro-government militias, with similar implications as with other intervention scenarios.
4. Support for Syria’s Rebels
- Playing it safe: This is a scenario already in play: provision of logistical support and arms for Syrian rebel groups to avoid the pitfalls of more direct forms of intervention, while presumably giving foreign powers a degree of control over the conflict. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have spearheaded the calls for arming the Free Syrian Army.
- Who do you arm: Syria’s armed opposition has no effective central leadership, and an influx of foreign money and weapons could make the matters worse by proliferating the number of poorly coordinated and poorly trained armed groups. There are fears that some of the money would end up in the hands of militant Islamists, such as the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front.
- Unclear outcome:Unless senior commanders of the Syrian army started deserting Assad, Syria would still be looking at a prolonged conflict, including the risk of growing violence between the Sunni majority and Alawite minority and tensions in Lebanon.