As pressure mounts on foreign powers to consider intervening militarily in Syria, analogies are being drawn between what NATO accomplished in Libya and whether something comparable may be possible in Syria. Military intervention would perhaps make the West feel better -- knowing that it attempted to do something concrete to end the bloodshed -- but it is unlikely to be successful for several reasons.
An air and sea campaign against Syria would likely prove more difficult than in Libya. The Syrian military -- which numbers more than 500,000 men (including reservists) -- is more formidable than Gadhafi's forces and would prove more challenging to impact by air. Syria possesses more than 10,000 armored fighting vehicles, 4,000 surface-to-air missile launchers, and a formidable array of anti-aircraft systems. Moreover, unlikely in Syria, the opposition Free Syria Army (FSA) has not established territorial control over any discernable part of the country, which makes it very difficult to defend the FSA's positions. Any military campaign would likely result in numerous instances of mistaken identity and civilian casualties. We have to ask ourselves just what would a military campaign be supporting at this time?
As an alternative to an air and sea campaign, some have advocated funneling arms to the FSA, but this too, has dangers -- the most obvious of which is that it could lead to blowback, just as was the case in Afghanistan. This is particularly worrisome because there are now reports that Al-Qaeda is playing a significant role against President Assad. Another danger is that there is little reliable information on the FSA, or how much control it exerts over its subordinate units. As a result, there is no guarantee that weapons would not be channeled to terrorists, criminals, sectarians, and other unsavory groups. Indeed, there is considerable fear that the fall of the Assad regime could lead to period of sectarian bloodletting similar to that of Iraq, following the U.S. invasion in 2003. Are Europe and Syria's neighbors prepared for that? Would it be smart to induce that at a time when conflict between Israel and Iran appears imminent?
Some observers believe that it is foolhardy for the U.S. to consider engaging itself in the Syrian uprising in any way. To date the Arab Spring has delivered far less than hoped, has not generated a single liberal Arab democracy, and has produced far more radical pro-Islamic governments and political movements than the West anticipated, or wanted. On the contrary, the changes of government in North Africa over the past year have empowered political Islamists who have no loyalty to democratic governance, and are already playing games with political history. In Egypt, the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood-led government has said that it will nullify the Egypt/Israel peace treaty if the U.S. cuts off funding for the country in response to the recent crackdown on pro-democracy movements and the barring of 19 American citizens from leaving the country.
The truth is that military intervention by the West is highly unlikely to result in a satisfactory conclusion. The likelier result is that it will be sucked into a long-term conflict for which there is no exit plan -- which was indeed a concern in Libya, as well. There is no reason to even consider a "no fly" zone in Syria at the present time, as the Syrian air force has not to date been involved in the conflict. Moreover, Syrian troops have largely been loyal to Mr. Assad, and at this point in time, it does not appear reasonable to assume that the tide may shift in due course. If that were going to occur, it would presumably have occurred already.
Unlike in Libya, the major powers are not in unison about what to do. Part of the reason for this is that they have seen the net result of the Libyan assault -- which remains a question mark. Lawlessness and the absence of security have been the result, and it is more likely than not that yet another pro-Islamist regime will be born once elections occur in Libya. Unlike in Libya, the geopolitical dynamics are very different. Syria is a client state of Russia, and will be able to continue to rely on its military and diplomatic support. Just last month Russia sold Syria more than $500 million worth of jet fighters, and China and Russia both vetoed the UN resolution condemning human rights violations in Syria. China sees the need to stress the dangers of intervention and "state making" by the West, given its obvious limitations.
Surely, the West knows by now it cannot simply wave a magic wand and expect everything to fall into place. Experience shows that decisions made when a humanitarian crisis is developing are usually driven by emotion, the press, and popular sentiment. Starry-eyed notions of what "can be" are just that. What is needed now is a good dose of realism and caution. The stakes are higher than ever before. There may come a time when the West may feel it has no choice but to intervene militarily in Syria -- but now is not that time.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk management consulting firm based in Connecticut (USA), Director of Global Strategy with the PRS Group, and author of the just published book Managing Country Risk. Michael Doyle is a research analyst with CRS.