January 20, 2012 — President Barack Obama surprised many in Washington last year when he ordered the U.S. military to lead a NATO operation to prevent Moammar Gadhafi's forces from slaughtering Libyan citizens. While the U.S. military eventually took a backseat to NATO and the Arab League, some military officials and analysts quickly called the Libya operation a model for future American missions in the Middle East and across the globe.
As the rebellious energy of the Arab Spring spread to Syria last March, strongman Bashar al-Assad began a brutal crackdown on protesters that is still active. Assad's actionshave already killed more than 5,000 Syrian citizens, according to the United Nations. As the death toll grows, so do calls for the U.S., along with other Western powers and the Arab League to intervene and force Assad to step aside.
But a U.S.-led military operation in Syria would be tactically challenging, and would open a Pandora's Box full of political risks similar to those that hampered George W. Bush's efforts in Iraq. Obama likely will seek other measures, like tough Assad-targeted sanctions, eagerly avoiding the missteps of Iraq during his re-election campaign. Here are four reasons the U.S. is unlikely to intervene militarily in Syria:
All politics is local. Obama chose to act militarily in Libya with not only the backing of the Arab League, but the behest of some members. Gadhafi had few friends among Arab League leaders. That's not the case with Assad.
"The Assad regime has some powerful allies," according to Stewart Patrick and Isabella Bennett of the Council on Foreign Relations. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution put it more succinctly: "Everyone thought Gadhafi was a nut." That made it "relatively easy to get the Arab League to call for an end to Moammar Gadhafi," O'Hanlon said.
Several experts told U.S. News & World Report that there is, as O'Hanlon put it, "nowhere near that kind of support to act against Assad." The Syrian leader, however, has some powerful friends outside the region. For months, his allies in Moscow and Beijing have used their veto power on the U.N. Security Council to block tough sanctions, including an arms embargo. They almost certainly would do the same to any U.N. resolution backing a Western military operation against Assad and his loyalist forces. Obama is most likely to continue his current course of using sanctions and rhetoric to pressure the regime, while leaving the heavy lifting to Washington's allies in Assad's backyard.
"We are leaving the matter in Turkish hands; a hazardous, but necessary, course of action," said retired Army Col. Doug Macgregor, a former military planner-turned-consultant.
The alternative is unclear. If Obama, his French and British counterparts and the Arab League opted to use force to remove Assad from power, who would rule Syria? That question stumps even regional experts. The conventional wisdom goes something like this: Despite the ongoing conflict within his own borders, Assad is not a major destabilizing force in the region. A new regime in Damascus might be far more anti-American and anti-Western than the current leader.
Obama is unlikely to gamble that a strict Islamist regime would take root in Damascus in the midst of his own re-election bid back home. That would give his eventual Republican opponent a powerful political weapon to bludgeon him with. Obama has some impressive national security and foreign policy victories on his resume. After all, he is the president who killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, along with a long list of that organization's leaders and the unpredictable Gadhafi.
"If we undermine the status quo on Syria, we are likely to end up with a Sunni Islamist regime that will be far more hostile to the West than the secular Assad regime," said Macgregor.
"You don't have the right military options." That's how Iraq war veteran and frequent Pentagon adviser Andrew Exum describes factors like geography and the location of Syria's population. In Libya, there were "clear battle lines" between Gadhafi's fighters and opposition forces that have yet to appear in Syria, said Exum, a senior analyst at Washington's Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
U.S., NATO and Arab League war planes were used for most of the intervention mission in Libya. But such aerial bombing campaigns work better in a nation like Libya, where major city areas are spread out. That's not the case in Syria. What's more, Syria has a larger and more advanced arsenal of anti-aircraft weaponry, Exum said, that would have to be taken out before a sustained bombing campaign could even begin. "That in itself would be a major undertaking," he said.
Syria is located in one of the most tense parts of the world, with Lebanon and Israel to the south and Turkey and Iraq to its north and east. That would put U.S. and NATO forces and aircraft in potentially deadly situations the president and other Western leaders want to avoid.
Intervention could spawn a sectarian civil war. If American and NATO forces were to oust Assad, "that could make things worse, and lead to a civil war" among Syria's religious groups, O'Hanlon said. That would mean "a long operation" for American troops-just as the Iraq war-which stretched on and on due largely to fighting between religious sects. Some experts, like Patrick and Bennett, have predicted a Syrian civil war might "boil over" and send ripple waves across the already volatile region. "If the unrest in Syria boils over, the consequences would be significant," the CFR scholars wrote. "The nation borders Israel, Iraq and Jordan, NATO ally Turkey, and finally Lebanon, which could see its precarious stability threatened by civil war in Syria." Obama and his national security advisers surely are aware of this likely outcome, and will seek to avoid placing American troops on the ground, only to be caught up in a deadly sectarian struggle.
"It's not true that Syria hasn't had a history of sectarian tensions," Exum said. "A lot of things that should have worried us about Iraq should worry us about a military intervention into Syria."Related: