The fighting in Syria has been escalating. The U.N. peace effort is in shambles. And there’s no appetite right now for outside military intervention.
The Syrian crisis is prompting renewed calls for international action, and there have been plenty of dire warnings and lots of handwringing. But after a decade of fighting in the broader region, the United States and its Western allies have shown no interest in getting involved in another military adventure in a Muslim country.
Of course, there’s a wide range of possibilities between simply watching the Syrian fighting from afar and sending troops there.
So what kind of things are being talked about when it comes to Syria?
One notion is that countries opposed to President Bashar Assad’s regime could arm or train the rebels, who seem to be relying on existing weaponry inside Syria and some arms that are smuggled into the country.
But to date, the rebels do not seem to have access to a large, steady supply of imported weaponry, and no country has expressed a willingness to take on this role.
There has also been discussion of creating safe zones for regime opponents inside Syria. But that would seemingly require a sizable force to protect these zones, and there’s no such force on the horizon.
U.N. Monitors Suspend Work
The U.N. has about 300 monitors in Syria with a limited mandate to observe areas where there’s fighting. But they suspended the mission last Saturday after being blocked from visiting some sites, being attacked by pro-government demonstrators and coming under fire in some instances.
Some proposals have called for the establishment of no-fly zones, like the one established in Iraq in the 1990s, or targeted air strikes against the government forces, such as those in Libya.
But any such effort would presumably require Western air power, and neither the U.S. nor NATO has shown any real interest in such an effort.
The Syrian military, meanwhile, has been employing attack helicopters in its fight against the rebels, and Assad still has the support of the Russians, a long-time ally.
Whether they favor intervention or not, many analysts agree that the longer the fighting drags on, the more complicated a solution could be.
Analyst Robert Satloff says the opposition will become more radicalized over time, and that could create more opportunities for foreign jihadis to join the fight, and more potential for it to spill over into regional conflict.
Syrian Weapons Raise Concerns
There’s also more chance, he says, that Syria could lose control of its chemical and biological weapons, which could fall into the hands of terrorists.
“They have quite large, well-dispersed stocks,” says Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute, a think-tank that focuses on Mideast policy. “Some responsible actors in the Syrian Army are still maintaining effective control of chemical and biological weapons, but we can’t take this for granted.”
According to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, intervention could make matters worse for everyone.
In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Kissinger argued that toppling the Assad regime could just be the start of a long-burning conflagration.
“A new civil war could follow in the resulting vacuum, as armed groups contest the succession and outside countries choose different sides,” Kissinger wrote.
In broader terms, intervention in Syria could undermine the global system that respects the sovereignty of individual nations: “a world order that erodes borders and merges international and civil wars can never catch its breath,” he said.
Syria’s Sectarian Divide
Then there’s the specter of a potential sectarian war, says Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University.
Nasr says the international community needs to understand the tensions between the members of Syria’s ruling Alawite sect and the majority of the population, three-quarters of which is Sunni Muslim.
“Over the past year, Assad has become, not just a brutal dictator, but a defender of a segment of the population,” Nasr says. He says minorities in Syria, including Alawites and Christians, fear that they will face reprisal attacks, like the minorities in Iraq.
Nasr says that any foreign intervention in Syria will eventually have to deal with the transfer of power to the majority, and “it’s not voluntary and not peaceful.”
“Military intervention has to be prepared to stay on through the transfer of power, because the most vicious and bloody battles will take place in Syria after the cap is removed, just like in Iraq,” he says.
Given the risks of intervention, analysts say the international community is most likely to limit its efforts to diplomacy.
A Call For A Bigger U.N. Mission
Robert Malley, the Middle East and North Africa director for the International Crisis Group, says one hope for reducing the violence would be to beef up the now-stalled United Nations observer mission.
He says the mission needs a tougher mandate from the U.N., and a lot more boots on the ground.
“If you had significantly more [U.N. monitors], say 3,000 instead of 300,” they could reduce violence by witnessing and reporting on it,” he says. “I have heard from people that where the monitors are physically present, the violence has diminished.”
Malley notes that there would have been no independent confirmation of the massacre at Houla last month, if U.N. monitors had not investigated.
The U.N. blamed pro-government paramilitaries for most of the violence, in which 108 people were killed, nearly half of them children. The Syrian government denies that, saying the massacre was carried out by “armed terrorist groups.”
Malley also says the international community shouldn’t give up on diplomacy with Russia, but says it must be realistic about Russia’s reasons for its support of Syria.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has so far resisted any effort to sanction the Assad regime in the U.N.
Malley says Russia fears that the West will seize on the “responsibility to protect” civilians as a pretext for continuing interventions in countries around the world.
He also notes that Russia worries the Assad regime might be replaced by an Islamist one that could be friendly to the Islamist insurgencies on Russian territory, such as Chechnya.