Professor Patrick Porter is the Chair of Strategic Studies at the University of Exeter, Academic Director of SSI and Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI. He is the author most recently of The Global Village Myth: Distance, War, and the Limits of Power.
It begins with decent, effective no-fly zones. How does it end?
Does it end with the progressive elimination of a despot and coming of a legitimate constitutional government?
Or does it end more darkly? Does intervention with air power from a remove lead to regime defiance, making ‘us’ (the US-led West) dissatisfied with the stalemate, followed by escalation of hostilities, leading to a vacuum of violence even more lethal than the regime it replaces?
Syria in 2015 is not Libya in 2011, or Iraq in 1991. Each context is different, each correlation of forces is different. But there is at least a strong possibility, suggested by recent experience, that once we step into the conflict, the reasons we enter are replaced by a new set of pressures.
We don’t know enough, satisfactorily, about beleaguered countries like Syria or its wildly complex war. But we do know a little about ourselves to anticipate how we might respond if intervention is met with defiance. And defiance we can reasonably expect, as we know that Assad is serious about his survival.
We know about our anxiety over credibility, our fear of humiliation, the ease with which, once engaged militarily, we would judge Assad’s survival as politically unacceptable. We know that states are not just driven by cold instrumental rationality when locked in conflict, that war aims tend to expand with the pulse of the battlefield, and that concern for ‘standing’ ‘face’ and even vengeance enter the equation. If this is true, we won’t stop until Assad, like Saddam and Gaddafi are dead and their order overthrown, with all of the problems this poses.
Bashar al-Assad isn’t just a ‘bad guy’, in the euphemistic terms that some on the anti-war left used to use about Saddam Hussein. He runs a homicidal bastard regime that murders children with chemical weapons. Amongst his array of opponents are Islamist forces with manners that are probably even worse.
There is a milder Syrian opposition. But it is hard to control and limit our external support, to ensure that weapons or aid does not flow into the wrong hands, or even to ‘vet’ their ideological credentials in advance.
In other words, Syria is not merely a humanitarian crisis, but a multi-polar war that resists the kind of external control and selective limited intervention that outside powers would like to assert. This is the political reality.
Consider the practicalities. A no-fly zone could well be an effective restraining measure in the narrow sense that it would make it far more difficult for Assad’s forces to terrorise civilians from the skies.
But more than Libya and Iraq, Syria has a thick air-defence network. An air force assessment in 2013 reported that the ‘Damascus-Homs-Aleppo corridor’ and the coast is protected by about 650 static air-defence sites. Since then, some reports suggest that the air defence network has weakened and been depleted by the diversion of resources, a lack of training and the loss of ground to rebels. Nevertheless, Syria could still activate its surface-to-air missiles and an air force that remains operable. To make the NFZ work, the US would need to commit to the extent that Assad would not risk his fighters or helicopters, or even to suppress or destroy the sites and military facilities that house missile systems. This would mean direct combat, and the West may take some non-trivial losses.
Next, consider the politics: if things went this way, the US and/or its allies would then have ‘skin in the game.’ Should Assad show defiance at a NFZ, presumably he would continue his war on the ground, and most of his civilian victims are slaughtered or maimed not by airpower, but by artillery and ground forces.
If Assad did so, we would surely find this humiliating. Pressure would mount to go beyond restraining Assad, and help rebels defeat him with a ‘no move zone’, attacking any movement of Syrian military forces. In this sense, Syria is a harder case than Libya, because intervention may lead to a more violent and costlier war for the intervener.
It is not hard to imagine that, once engaged in this way, we would assess Assad as a clear and present threat, especially given his history as an occasional sponsor of Islamist fighters, and his ties with Iran and Hezbollah. In this way, a decent effort to protect civilians could become an offensive military action to dislodge not just a criminal regime but a threat.
“The issue ultimately rests on a difference of judgement over the odds of success…”
There is, of course, a case for accepting and embracing war with Assad. Sharper proponents of NFZ know that this is the kind of scenario they are arguing for. In conjunction with no-fly zones, short of full-scale military involvement they advocate intensive training and preparation of a rebel army that would counter both Assad and the other Islamist forces in the region, as well as sustained engagement in assisting the transition to constitutional government.
This is not the place to counter that argument at length. The issue ultimately rests on a difference of judgement over the odds of success, over the choice between the arsenic of Assad and the cyanide of post-war chaos, and the chances of severe unintended consequences. Can we be confident that training up and preparing a shadow state and insurgent army would not prepare the ground for even worse atrocities to come? Syria’s Alawite and Christian minorities would have every reason to be as frightened as Assad’s victims are now.
Regardless, if we aren’t ready to accept the likelihood that limited intervention (like a no-fly zone) would probably escalate into all-out intervention, we should not do it. If we are to strike Assad, it should be a hard punch, not a punitive slap, accepting all that flows from it.
Whatever else happens, we do owe the victims of this war a duty of succour, and humanitarian generosity. But we also owe ourselves an honest confrontation with the question of what we are truly prepared to do.
If there is one intellectual and moral failure that has dogged the diplomacy of great powers from time to time, it is the illusion of control, when at best in conflict, we can only achieve an approximation of it.
When the hawkish French idealist Bernard Henry-Levi went to Washington to urge it into action over Libya, he reported that ‘Obama as usual was hesitating. But Hillary got it.’ She ‘got it’ over Iraq, too, when voting to authorise force there in 2002.
Consider now the force of both examples. Obama’s hesitation may flow from passivity or fecklessness, as his critics charge. But it could also come from a realisation that one cannot have intervention without war, and not only on one’s own terms.