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.