Intervention in Syria: Opportunity and peril

Thursday, March 8, 2012

In recent days, key U.S. senators, including John McCain and Joe Lieberman, have called for airstrikes against the Syrian regime, as well as direct aid to opposition groups. This would replicate the tactics used to terminate the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi, an enticing prospect given the brutality of Bashar Assad, the regime's support for terrorism, and its alliances with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah -- a rogue's gallery of anti-Americanism.

Even so, the survival or collapse of the Syrian government is not a vital interest of the United States. It is only when Syrian's regional significance is considered that military intervention becomes attractive.

Syria is a majority Sunni Arab nation, but its government is in the hands of the members of the Alawite sect, more closely related to the Shia branch of Islam. As one consequence, Syria has aligned itself with Shia Iran, despite differences between the two states over culture and politics.

Officially, Syria is governed by the Ba'ath Party, a movement dedicated to Arab nationalism and socialism. Iran is a theocracy, ruling a diverse population of Persians, Azeris, Kurds, Arabs and others. Nonetheless, Syria and Iran have closely collaborated over sponsorship of Hamas and Hezbollah, opposing Israel and undermining the United States in the region, especially in Iraq.

As late as last year, it seemed as if the Syrian-Iranian axis was rising, with Israel on the defensive internationally, Hamas gaining support from Egypt, Hezbollah dominating Lebanese politics, the U.S. unnecessarily abandoning Iraq, and Iran marching inexorably toward developing and fielding its nuclear weapons.

With the acceleration of anti-regime protests in Syria in late 2011, however, the picture began to become far less favorable to Damascus. Not only did the government of Assad begin to face open rebellion, including defections from within its security forces, many Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, began calling for intervention, initially for humanitarian reasons, but more recently to overturn Syria's dictatorship.

While the Syrian government has managed to keep control over its largest cities and major military units, it is likely only one significant defeat away from seeing an acceleration of defections, and the creation of rebel-controlled zones.

In this context, an air campaign -- focused on elite military units and centers of gravity for the regime -- could enable the diverse opposition groups to attract sufficient internal support to topple the government.

A comprehensive air effort against Syria, however, would be far more complicated than was that against Libya. Unlike Qadhafi, Assad has a well-equipped system of air defenses, so there would be losses of American pilots and the special operations forces that would have to be inserted behind enemy lines to coordinate the air war.

The geography of Syria, and its distance from U.S. and allied bases, would also make an air campaign a challenge. Such an operation would depend heavily on naval aviation, reliant on aircraft carrier battle groups.

Should the Turks, who have called for a transfer of power, support a campaign against Syria, the U.S. base in Incirlik, Turkey could play a vital role. Unfortunately, the closest and best airfields -- in Israel -- would be unusable for obvious geopolitical reasons. Thanks to the failure of the Obama administration to negotiate a continued U.S. presence in Iraq, airfields there are no longer available to the U.S. Air Force.

NATO seems unlikely to involve itself in the same way as it did in Libya. Because of this, the U.S. will have to lead, even if key allies -- Britain and France, perhaps Saudi Arabia -- participate.

In some senses, the question is not whether the U.S. is capable of launching strikes that have the potential of toppling Iran's partner in terror and anti-Americanism. Instead, the question may be whether President Obama, who at best has been uncomfortable projecting U.S. power in our interests, would be willing to undertake an effort that would be of such clear benefit to the United States and its allies.

Ironically, beginning military action against Syria may be the best way to forestall having to engage in it against Iran. If the U.S. and its allies can help bring an end to the regime of Bashar Assad, Iran will be left without its most important partner. If Tehran sees that President Obama is willing to begin hostilities in Syria, which poses little threat to the United States, they might have a greater chance of believing that the U.S. still considers as viable the military option against Iran.

Indeed, the road to a negotiated settlement with Iran, by which they abandon their plans to build nuclear weapons, and submit to international, International Atomic Energy Agency and U.S. verification, might very well lead through Damascus.

Wayne H. Bowen, professor and chairman of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University, is also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

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