The Logic of Limited Intervention in Syria

I’ve been reading with interest many of the critiques of recommendations for an intervention in Syria. The critiques are compelling and be summarized thusly: Syria has a large and capable military, so limited interventions are not likely to be effective in swinging the situation on the ground against the regime; and large scale interventions are both politically and militarily unrealistic given how heavily they would rely on significant conventional contributions from Syria’s neighbors. I agree, btw, with the latter critique. Plans to involve a major armored thrust by Turkish forces strike me as unlikely.

But I am more interested in the first argument, which revolves are the argument that the Syrian military is large and capable. This argument has been bolstered by crude bean counting arguments, reported breathlessly: “They have thousands of main battle tanks!”; and by unexplored claims of the reliability of Syrian forces: “Assad has coup-proofed the army.”

I am skeptical of the capability and reliability of Syrian forces, particularly if put under pressure from air power. The reliability issue is the key one, I think. I accept the consensus among Syria specialist that the regime has effectively coup-proofed the army. But while that implies that the army won’t turn against the regime, it does not necessarily imply it will  remain combat effective when put under pressure. And it strikes me that a limited intervention that (a) punishes the regime for its actions by attriting its military capacity and (b) tests the resilience of Syrian forces is a workable course of action.

Hence my proposal for a limited intervention consisting of air strikes against military targets. The goal is to force the Syrian army to remain in its barracks while reducing the regime’s military capacity by attacking military logistics and command and control.

Worst case scenario, we punish Syria and increase pressure on the regime to find a political solutionrather than rely on repression.  Best case (and unlikely I admit) the Syrian army collapses through desertion and defections under pressure.

Note, I am not positing that this sort of intervention guarantees victory whether repression an end to the violence of regime change. But if the we can live with a short-term goal of punishment that also increases coercive leverage and opens up the possibility of even better outcomes then I think this is a workable course of action.

Now, just to be clear, this is not the totality of the recommendation. If we were to step up violence, we’d need to do more planning about handling refugees, building capacity to move quickly if the regime does falter, and so on.

But, at this point, an air campaign to punish the regime and test the resilience of Syrian forces is, I think, an appropriate incremental response.

 

3 comments to The Logic of Limited Intervention in Syria

  • Syria has a large and capable military, so limited interventions are not likely to be effective in swinging the situation on the ground against the regime

    The obvious answer to to enable to opposition to prosecute a war of the flea, aka guerrilla warfare. And that course of action would be a lot better for us than airstrikes. We don’t need to go to war against another Islamic country in yet another Quixotic attempt to promote our supposed values through the barrel of a gun.

  • Hence my proposal for a limited intervention consisting of air strikes against military targets. The goal is to force the Syrian army to remain in its barracks while reducing the regime’s military capacity by attacking military logistics and command and control.

    Worst case scenario, we punish Syria and increase pressure on the regime to find a political solutionrather than rely on repression. Best case (and unlikely I admit) the Syrian army collapses through desertion and defections under pressure.

    You find it impossible to believe that the Syrian military would respond in precisely the same way the Libyan military did just a year ago? What happens if they drop their uniforms, leave their combat vehicles at home, and disperse among the population on foot and in civilian vehicles? What if they park their vehicles and barrack their troops in urban areas, in hospitals and mosques and apartment buildings? What about the fact that we would first have to wage a counter-air-defense campaign before we could safely undertake the sort of air campaign you’ve recommended (which suddenly looks considerably less “limited”)?

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