In a perfect world, we would all live free, in some kind of ideal democracy. We’re not there. But what we and the rest of the developed world have is a hell of a lot better than what the people of Syria have: despotic rule by the murderous son of their former murderous despot. The Syrians are trying to overthrow their tyrant, should the world help?
At first principles, I would hold that it is abhorrent for any human being to live in the conditions that Syrians live in and it is even worse for a government to suppress dissent against its rule with the violence used by Bashir al-Assad’s gang of criminals. If we were living under those conditions and we were trying to fight for our freedom, we would want help from the people whose freedoms we were trying to emulate. The golden rule says we should help others likewise.
The pre-Westphalian concept that a prince’s right to rule could be forfeit if they treated their people too badly has recently been revived by the UN as the ‘responsiblity to protect’. When Syrians are being murdered in peaceful protests and in their own homes by Assad’s heavily armed thugs, don’t those that can have the responsiblity to protect them?
The Syrian people, having initially said they wanted to win their freedom themselves, are now crying out for NATO air power to protect them from the heavy weapons of the Syrian army that are pummeling rebel towns and killing people by the dozens. They are asking international forces not for occupation or boots on the ground, but for a reprise of the successful assistance that allowed Libyans to free themselves of Gaddafi (what’s that you say? Libya’s not yet the land of milk and honey? Get over it. Check out any country 6 months after a democratic revolution, it’s not a one-step process)
So, ideally, the world would come to the Syrian people’s aid, but realpolitik is complicated.
The geopolitical context:
Don’t give me any BS about any intervention in Syria being just another ‘war for oil’. Yup, powers do use military power to secure supplies of strategic resources. They don’t stay powers long if they don’t.That’s not a justification, just stating the obvious. But Syria’s no target for the oil hungry. Its net exports are just 100,000 barrels a day. That’s like New Zealand’s net imports. Nothing. Anyway, its much easier to get your oil contracts from tame dictators than tempestuous new democracies – why do you think the US was so unwilling to get involved in Libya? Gaddafi had been very cooperative in recent years.
The geopolitical considerations here are really about Islamic sects. Syria is majority Sunni but ruled by the minority Alawites, a small Shi’ite sect that is considered not to be truly Muslim by many, particularly the Sunni Wahhabists that rule Saudi Arabia. Iran’s Shi’ite rulers, on the other hand, are strong allies of Assad. The Shi’ite dominated government in Iraq is warmly disposed towards them (Assad and Saddam were enemies, even though both Baathists), while the Sunni minority in Iraq shares tribal links, and now weapons, with Syria’s rebellious Sunni majority.
Israel, of course, has a long-standing animosity with Syria – they bombed its partially-constructed nuclear reactor in 2007. Russia is a long-standing friend of Libya. China would rather keep Assad in power, estranged from the West and in need of a powerful ally (which would all go towards strengthening China’s bond with Iran, too). Libya, for what its worth, is very supportive of the rebels, hoping the Syrians can emulate their own success in defeating their despot. Turkey is old problems with Syria (including territorial claims) and is currently playing host to some of the opposition movements.
A complicated picture. No wonder the West has been so hesitant about getting involved.
The internal politics:
Assad is Alawite but so is most of the professional army – something like 70% of the soldiers and 80% of the officers, while the vast majority of the conscripts (all males are compelled to undertake military service) are Sunnis. The last uprising, against Assad’s father, was led by Sunni Islamists, and he crushed it brutally – something not forgotten by anyone in Syria.
The current rebellion is concentrated in Sunni cities and most of the Free Syrian Army seems to be Sunni conscripts.
So, any intervention is going to be effectively taking sides in a sectarian dispute but, then, this is a country where a ruling family has built and maintained its power base by systematically favouring its own sect and repressing others – the Assad dictatorship has made the Alawites a privileged elite with the military power to protect that privilege.
Syria is no Libya. In many ways, Libya was tailor-made for a a successful rebellion with outside air support: little air force or air defence, a one-dimensional fight along the coastal road with the rebellion, initially, geographically concentrated. Just establish air superiority and then blow up any armour or artillery pointing in the wrong direction.
Syria’s air defences are much more extensive and advanced than Libya’s – probably even more after visits from Russian and Iranian warships, which will have been carrying examples of those respective countries’ newest anti-aircraft systems (and anti-ship missiles?) for fielding testing. Syria has a lot more armour – 5,000 tanks! Yes, some of them 50 years old but they still work to blow up neighbourhoods and would strain the capacity of enemy air forces to destroy – and artillery, some of which is now held by the Free Syrian Army. Syria also has Scuds, which could put any neighbours off supporting an intervention unless they get supplied with anti-missile protection.
The geography is more complicated than Libya with few areas outright held by the rebels but rebel actions and protests occurring in all major cities.
It would be a very complicated fight. The US and other NATO countries could bring enough air power to bear to control Syrian airspace and whittle away at the Syrian army’s ability to massacre its own people, but could it do it in time and at a cost that the politicians would be willing to bear? Libya cost about $3.5 billion US for the international forces – the biggest chunk the UK – and heavily depleted some of the countries’ stocks of cruise missiles and anti-armour missiles. Syria would be an order of magnitude greater and the US, in particular, would be wary of running down its forces in the Middle East when the situation with Iran could boil over some time in the next six months (more on that later).
So, in an ideal world, the free (for certain values of ‘free’) people of the world would help people who want to be free to overthrow the despot that is murdering them. But its easier said than done, there are complex international, internal, and military factors at play. Still, I hope that those that can act do – by using airpower to neutralise the regime’s advantage in heavy weapons. Because the alternative is that the Syrian freedom fighters will be crushed under Assad’s tanks.