This isn't a conflict between a dictator and his people like every media outlet is trying to present it to be.
The architects of the Libyan disaster in France, the UK, the United States and Qatar have decided that Syria is the next step in replacing dictators with Muslim Brotherhood allied "democratic" parties. But no matter how eager they are to roll the Arab Spring forward with a month of bombing raids, this won't be a relative cakewalk like Libya.
Gaddafi isolated Libya through his own craziness and then his alliance with the West, which left him with no friends when Sarkozy, Cameron and Obama turned on him in the name of Arab democracy. Assad is often described as isolated because the Arab League has taken a firm stand against him, but he has a firm ally in Iran, which has few options and is likely to do whatever it takes to keep him in power.
Next up is Russia, which has lost most of its Middle Eastern allies and doesn't have that many options besides Syria, where it has a naval base and any number of secret and not so secret outposts. That will provide a pipeline of advanced technology, including the kind that can endanger NATO planes. While that isn't likely to lead to any serious casualties, an attack on Syria will allow Russia to test out some of its latest technology against our aircraft. Just as Iraq provided a testing ground for some advanced Russian technology.
And there's one more catch. The wildly unpopular Russian government might just be itching for a small scale conflict, especially one with the United States. A few planes lost on both sides and the Russians can claim victory. It wouldn't be a particularly smart move by Moscow from our point of view, but from the point of view of a government that only rules due to massive fraud and force, a heavy dose of patriotism for the motherland might be just what the spin doctor ordered. A direct confrontation between Russian and NATO planes would be a milestone for Russia's recovery and a way to wash away the shame of Yugoslavia and Pristina Airport.
Even if the Russians don't fly under their own colors, that doesn't mean they won't fly. The Israelis shot down plenty of Russian advisers who were flying as Syrians and Egyptians. Russia might be satisfied with counting coup and testing out some of their new hardware that way.
The Arab League may be backing us, but that just means the expensive and useless Gulf Arab armies run by the cousins and nephews of the ruling elites, who can't exactly be counted on to do much of the fighting. They can and will provide training and weapons to the so-called Free Syrian Army, as they did to the Libyan militias, but then again they have extensive experience arming and training terrorists.
The real determining factor is how much of the Syrian army still answers to Assad. If enough of it does, then Iran can supply Shiite militias and Revolutionary Guard troops as stopgaps for the defections. If it doesn't and Iranian thugs and Russian military advisers would have to occupy Syria in order to salvage it, then the opposition will have won.
The game plan for the Friends of Bombing Syria club will be a No Fly Zone, which neither Russia nor China is likely to vote for after the same maneuver was used for regime change in Libya. Unable to get a NFZ through the UN Security Council, NATO and the Arab League will likely have to go outside the UN to declare one. The sort of thing that would have touched off outrage during the Bush era will get cheers for decisiveness in bypassing Russian obstructionism.
If NATO and the Saudi League declare their own No Fly Zone, it will still be the United States and France doing the actual enforcing. Obama ducked out of Libya as quickly as he could, which mainly leaves the French. That was fine in Libya where the bombings were expensive but not very risky and there weren't even all that many targets to bomb. French jets and US drones eventually got the job done in Libya. Syria won't be quite that easy.
A No Fly Zone will create a safe space for the Free Syrian Army, whatever that might be, to arm and train, and then take over the rest of the country. But that assumes Assad and his backers have learned nothing from the fall of Gaddafi. The odds are very good that the Libyan civil war has been studied in detail and every possible lesson wrung from it in Moscow and Damascus.
Even without that, Libya was a cakewalk. Had Saddam been in Tripoli instead of the insane colonel, then there would have been some real atrocities. The key to understanding the future is to look at the past. For all the media hype, Gaddafi did not really have a history of mass murder. Assad Sr. did. Assad Jr. hasn't properly gotten the chance, but Syrian generals and nearsighted optometrist's backers in Tehran know how to shut down an uprising the hard way.
Syria has an extensive WMD program; it has nerve gas and if things get bad, it may be willing to deploy chemical weapons against its enemies, the way its fellow Baath Party did across the border in Iraq. Those programs will be the first targets of NATO strikes, regardless of whatever the official statement about the No Fly Zone will be, but if the other side aren't idiots, then finding those weapons will be as hard as it was in Iraq.
And that's the other shoe. Saddam developed and executed a plan to deal with an American invasion that involved building an insurgency and hiding away his deadlier toys. His partners in that plan were in Syria. The people suppressing the insurgency in Syria are the same ones who oversaw the insurgency against NATO in Iraq. There are mutual grudges on both sides, but the Syrians know how to play the other side of the board.
Finally there's one more explosive element. This isn't the conflict between a dictator and his people that every media outlet is trying to present it as. This is a religious civil war between Alawites and Sunnis. The Alawites have slaughtered plenty of Sunnis and if the Sunnis win then the butcher's bill will come due. As repugnant as the Syrian elite may be, they are not only fighting for power, but for the lives and futures of their families. And they may be willing to do things that the Libyan forces would be unprepared to do.
The likely scenario is still a No Fly Zone aiming at the destruction of the Syrian air force and much of the heavy stuff on the ground. This should be doable, but it will be more expensive than we envision. Even Libya managed to outlast Obama's initial assessment by several months. Syria may take even longer unless a great deal of firepower is committed to the task.
That could mean another indefinite conflict that ends in another Saddam scenario complete with sanctions and a permanent No Fly Zone. That could have been the outcome in Libya; it still might be the outcome in Syria with Sunni Islamists operating in a limited territory under our protection. If the Democrats screw up that badly and create their own Iraq, then they really will have come full circle.
But assuming that Syria's capabilities are significantly degraded, and that NATO aircraft safely prowl the sky taking out any remaining command and control centers and armor, then the conflict boils down to a straight civil war in which bands of insurgents on both sides do their best to butcher each other. Syria has some rather nasty special forces and its Baath elites have experience running insurgency operations against which NATO airpower will be mostly useless.
That breaks down into Iraq, complete with both sides carrying out the kind of Sunni-Shiite terror that sent the country spiraling down into hell. And it's hardly an implausible scenario. The basic elements of religious fanaticism, guerrilla experience and trainers on both sides are available. With NATO and Qatar providing training and strategy on one side, and Russia and Iran doing the same on the other, this could end up being worse than Iraq, except that American troops probably won't be in the middle of it.
That raises the question of whose troops will be. The Arab League wants a joint UN Peacekeeping Force. That isn't likely to happen except as a completely useless paperweight. A UN force would prevent NATO from implementing regime change and prevent the Assad regime from butchering its enemies, thereby serving no one's purposes. More likely though the UN force would be absolutely useless at both these things and would stand and watch, while providing occasional targets for either or both sides.
Turkey's Islamist AKP thugs are raring to go, but a Turkish deployment might be too much even for the Arab League, which is on the same Islamist page as the AKP, but still might feel uncomfortable about what might look like a Turkish conquest of Syria. Sarkozy might be dumb enough to commit French ground troops, but that would end up carrying its own price. Some joint Friends of Invading Syria force might be able to throw together the Turks, the French and the Saudis for a comic version of the Coalition of the Willing, to secure Free Syrian Army territory and dispense humanitarian aid. And on the other side of the line would be the Baathists who have some experience fighting occupation armies. The end result might not be very pretty at all.
There is still an alternate scenario in which the Russians manage to trump NATO with some coalition of top Baathists and the Islamist opposition, while sidelining Western-backed leaders, but that's not too likely. For one thing the Russians aren't really any better at this than us. They showed that in Afghanistan. For another this isn't just about Russia, it's about Iran and its own religious solidarity. The Alawites are useful for a number of reasons, most of them having to do with being an isolated minority. End the isolation and suddenly Syria wouldn't make quite as good a pawn.
That brings us to the showdown. NATO has become the arsenal of the Arab Spring, much as Al Jazeera has become its propaganda arm. But this time around the scenario is much more complex than a loony colonel with an army that couldn't beat African militias. And there is no telling who will win or what the cost will be.
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