The stench of death hangs over Syria one year into a popular uprising that is threatening to become an all-out regional war.
With more than 7,500 dead, Syria’s hopes of reaping the benefits of an Arab Spring have been annihilated. The city of Homs lies shattered and helpless from a month-long tank and artillery assault; videos of violence perpetrated by Syrian security forces on unarmed civilians dominate the Internet and thousands of refugees are stumbling across the border into Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan with tales of torture, fear and despair.
“Syria is like a dam with fissures in it,” Simon Collis, Britain’s ambassador to Syria, said this week. “The pressure is building up and one quite probable scenario is that, when it breaks, it will do so very quickly.”
Calls for international intervention are escalating as the death toll increases and frustration and outrage at Syria’s agony grows. People, desperate to do something — anything — are demanding steps be taken to end the killing.
But the options, military and diplomatic, are almost as complex and uncertain as the conflict itself.
U.S. Senator John McCain has called for U.S. air strikes to protect population centres and create safe havens for Syrian refugees.
“A whole lot of people are going to die if we allow the status quo to prevail and the slaughter to continue,” he said, insisting the United States has a moral and strategic obligation to end Syria’s trauma.
Others are calling for medical and military assistance for Syria’s opposition groups; providing weapons and intelligence to the Free Syrian Army (FSA); establishing a country-wide no-fly zone; creating a World War Two-style armed resistance movement and inserting foreign troops to carve out humanitarian corridors to protect refugees along Syria’s borders or around threatened cities.
Despite a year of dithering diplomacy, repeatedly demolished by Russian and Chinese vetoes, the United Nations continues to seek a negotiated settlement.
UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos was finally able to get into Syria and toured war-ravaged Homs for 45 minutes Wednesday.
Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, recently appointed special envoy on Syria by both the UN and the Arab League, arrived in Damascus Saturday to seek a ceasefire to start a “new political process” in Syria. But Syria’s main opposition group has rejected Mr. Annan’s overtures, saying it is pointless to hold talks with a regime that is killing its own people.
China’s former ambassador to Syria, Li Huaxin, spent two days in Damascus this week promoting a six-point plan to resolve the crisis and apparently got nowhere. Friday, China announced it will send an assistant foreign minister to the Middle East and Europe next week to discuss possible diplomatic solutions.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov flies to Cairo Saturday to meet members of the Arab League.
Still the killing goes on. And politicians, policy makers and advocacy groups struggle to find a solution.
On Wednesday, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. President Barack Obama has asked for a preliminary list of potential military options in Syria.
One option is a no-fly zone over Syria, Gen. Dempsey said. Another is an operation designed to get humanitarian supplies to besieged civilians. Pentagon planners are also looking at “limited air strikes” against Syrian government targets as well as examining the possibilities of a naval blockade.
But U.S. officials made it clear they are reluctant to get involved militarily in Syria and would rather focus on diplomatic and political solutions.
“This terrible situation has no simple answers,” U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told the Senate committee. He may well have remembered former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ warning when he retired last year that, “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.”
“Military force is unlikely to improve conditions in Syria and instead threatens to make them worse,” said political scientist Marc Lynch in a report for the Center for a New American Security.
“Though advocates of military intervention claim it is the moral choice, it is not,” he said. “Military intervention will allow Americans to feel they are doing something. But unleashing even more violence without a realistic prospect of changing the regime’s behaviour or improving security is neither just nor wise.”
Any military intervention may alter, but not end, the dynamics of what promises to be a long conflict, Mr. Lynch said.
“If the peaceful Syrian uprising transforms into an insurgency backed and armed by outside powers against a ruthless but still viable regime, Syria could replicate Lebanon of the 1980s — on steroids,” he said.
Still, the urge to act remains. Syria is a crucial geopolitical hinge in the Middle East that touches the interests of dozens of states.
“Simply arming the opposition, in many ways the easiest option, would bring about exactly the scenario the world should fear most: a proxy war that would spill into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan and fracture Syria along sectarian lines,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton University politics professor and former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department.
“It could also allow al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups to gain a foothold in Syria and perhaps gain access to chemical and biological weapons.”
If anything, the international community may want to intervene in Syria simply to protect itself, if — or when — the regime of President Bashar al-Assad falls.
Syria is believed to have one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, with vast supplies of mustard gas, sarin nerve agent and cyanide.
There are serious concerns in Washington and elsewhere that in a free-for-all civil war, Syrian opposition groups with links to al-Qaeda or Syria’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, might get their hands on weapons of mass destruction.
“If left unsecured, it would be, potentially, a very serious threat,” Admiral William McRaven, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command told a U.S. congressional committee this week. “I think that is going to take an international effort when Assad falls — and he will fall — in order to secure these weapons.”
A multi-national special forces operation may already be underway in Syria.
Last month, when the WikiLeaks website published some of five million emails stolen from Stratfor, a Texas-based global intelligence company, one of the documents was a memo written by an analyst who met with four U.S., British and French air force lieutenant-colonels in the Pentagon last December.
“After a couple hours of talking, they said without saying that SOF (Special Operations Forces) teams, presumably from the U.S., U.K., France, Jordan and Turkey, are already on the ground focused on recce missions and training opposition forces,” the memo says.
“I kept pressing on the question of what these SOF teams would be working toward, and whether this would lead to an eventual air campaign to give a Syrian rebel group cover,” the report continues. “They pretty quickly distanced themselves from that idea, saying that the idea ‘hypothetically’ is to commit guerrilla attacks, assassination campaigns, try to break the back of the Alawite forces, elicit collapse from within.
“There wouldn’t be a need for air cover, and they wouldn’t expect these Syrian rebels to be marching in columns anyway.”
There are good reasons for avoiding direct military intervention in Syria, argues Jeffrey White, a defence analyst with the Washington Institute on Near East Policy.
Syria has a significant, well-armed, military that has the ability to hit back; the Syrian opposition is disorganized; there are fears of radical Islamist and possibly terrorist influences; any escalation will exacerbate the violence. There is also a general lack of political will internationally.
“Indirect intervention — that is, the provision of military and political assistance to the regime’s armed and unarmed opponents — offers an alternative option that could yield success with less risk and cost,” Mr. White said.
“This type of intervention would require a campaign, either overt or covert, to provide the Syrian opposition with the means to resist the regime, disrupt its military operations, weaken its will to fight, and hinder the state’s ability to function,” he said. “Methods aimed at these ends were used to great effect against Libya under Muammar Gaddafi, in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and against German occupation forces and their collaborators during World War II.”