Intervention in Syria: The Next Move, and a Game-Changer

Posted on September 6, 2013 by


The war in Syria has always been a conflict fought in the shadows of international powers. The blood spilt has been tremendous, and only made worse by the recent spate of chemical attacks targeting civilians. Global intervention has already been rife, however, it is this latest use of chemical weapons that has prompted the threat of direct intervention, a course of action for which the repercussions will be great.

Intervention thus far has depended entirely on either side’s interests in Syria’s future. Russia, Syria’s staunches ally in this affair, seeks to uphold the status quo: a pro-Russian government, complete with substantial arms sales, and security of Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base as well as their gas interests in the area. To achieve these ends, all that has been required is the continuous flow of high-grade weapons to the Assad regime. The West’s intentions, until recently, have been less clear. Their coalition of ex-imperial powers and regional cronies has until now defied all satire in their insistence that direct intervention seeks only to “punish and deter.” However, recent statements of overt support for the opposition make it clear that regime change in the Middle East is once again their primary goal.

Why this has changed so recently is quite clear. At the onset of the war, much like in Libya, it appeared the rebels would win a swift victory, their predestined track lightly oiled by small-scale arming of their forces by the West. In the past year, however, the Assad regime’s resilience has become evident, and in the past months the opposition has suffered a series of defeats and has lost a great deal of ground; it was looking likely that the regime might win.

A victory such as this would be great news for Russia. Beyond the specific significance that Syria holds for Russia it would serve as proof that not only will they  stand up to Western provocation in its “near abroad,” but also in more distant theatres. That the US will allow such a victory is now unlikely, having officially declared the desire to see Assad overthrown. The question of what they can actually do about this, however, is difficult to answer.

The matter of how to intervene, and for how long will determine the outcome of the Syrian civil war. It is clear the US has the force to overthrow Assad, to dispose of his chemical weapons, and to lead the rebels to victory; what they lack is not to be underestimated, for it has already vetoed British military involvement: the good will of the demos.

At present, the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee has approved a resolution that allows for 90 days of a “limited military mission” in Syria. The most popular means, presently, is missile bombardment, although exactly how this will achieve their objectives is questionable. With “boots on the ground” explicitly outlawed, it seems highly unlikely that the US will be able to sufficiently degrade Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities. Now more likely is the targeting of key military establishments and infrastructure—those facilities the rebels have least of, and least defence from—in their bid to usher in the opposition’s victory.

An opposition victory in Syria, as is increasingly likely now the US has expressed an clear desire to see Assad deposed, would set Russia on the back foot. Most importantly it would again drive home the fact that on the international stage, Russia will not compete militarily with other great powers. Early in the conflict Putin pre-emptively declared he would not go to war over Syria, but when the United States pledges cruise missile strikes, and all Russia has left to give are assurances that what is broken will be paid for, it makes for a reliable measure of each state’s capabilities.

For Syrians it is unclear which eventuality they should fear the most: the “more oppressive and more anarchic” Assad regime, heavily dependent on foreign powers (to which it owes a lot) and infected with an insurgency that could take many decades to overcome, or, Stephen Walt’s projection of Syria “the failed state,” where the “bitter struggle among competing ethnic, sectarian, and extremist groups” creates the “ideal breeding and training ground for jihadists.” There is no honest answer to this question, and in a country as diverse as Syria, neither is necessarily mutually exclusive; all that is certain is that there will be a great deal more bloodshed before either side will accept defeat.

CC image courtesy of  FreedomHouse, Flickr.