Syria on the Brink: Using Smart Power to Reduce the Risk of Sectarian Warfare (October 2012)

On March 2011, when Qaddafi gained dangerous ground over the rebels and was about to annihilate Benghazi, the UNSC agreed to a NATO-enforced no-fly zone. However, NATO soon went beyond its stated intentions, performing missions on Qaddafi’s forces on the ground and arming the rebels. In the months after Qaddafi was deposed and executed in October, these unaccountable arms became a major headache: programs for voluntary disarmament faltered, and arms were smuggled into neighboring Mali, causing considerable violence there. Meanwhile, tribal tensions increased, and even the original rebel leader was killed in the clash.

There is much to learn from NATO’s experience in Libya. For one, any military intervention in Syria is grounded in wishful thinking. The population density, sectarian diversity, and the relative irrelevance of Syrian air defenses mean that five military options are highly counterproductive:

  • A conventional no-fly zone would not significantly change the situation on the ground.
  • Similarly, a “humanitarian corridor” would have limited effectiveness because it is a logistical nightmare.
  • An interventionist “no-fly zone,” as seen in Libya, would result in significant casualties. The CSIS believes that even precise airstikes around major urban centers would cause at least 5,000 casualties (the number reported to be killed during December 2011).
  • A full-scale invasion would lead to the sectarian bloodbath seen in Iraq.
  • Arming the militias will bring down Assad faster, but will exacerbate sectarian tensions.

A lesson we force have taken from Libya and Afghanistan is that allowing “anti-tyranny” rebels to overthrow a government by force merely replaces one evil with another. In Syria’s case, it is strongly implied that the FSA and other militias will need substantial arms to take out Al-Assad. What happens afterward? More arms mean that sectarian warfare will get worse because the non-violent, democratic opposition has yet to be unified and will likely turn sectarian themselves.

Here’s what the U.S. and the international community should do:

  • Stop arming both sides of the conflict, which only escalates sectarian tensions.The U.S. and EU should get as many countries as possible on board to threaten Russia in some way if it does not stop arming Assad. Possible examples include kicking Russia out of the WTO, suspending it of its UNSC membership, or enacting targeted sanctions on Putin, his cronies, and Russia’s arms industry until it yields.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia and Qatar need to stop arming the militias too. Both have nakedly geopolitical motivations for helping Syria, and their actions are counterproductive to the future peace and prosperity of Syria and prospects for a long-term alignment away from Iran and towards a balanced relationship with Turkey, China, the EU, and the U.S.

  • Accelerate the unification of the non-violent opposition. The silver lining in Libya was that recognizing Libya’s Transitional Council gave it much-needed legitimacy. Right now, Syria’s opposition is highly fragmented: new opposition groups are announcing themselves every day. There are two major coalitions: the Syrian National Council (SNC), which includes the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Bloc (elite secularists), and the National Coordination Body (NCB) for Democratic Change, a coalition of leftist parties.

The U.S., in partnership with the EU, Turkey, and again as many other countries as possible, should encourage disparate political groups to these two coalitions: more conservative factions would join the SNC, while liberal secular groups would join the NCB. More extremist parties should be cut off from help unless they moderate themselves; of course, sovereignty must also be respected.

At the same time, the political opposition should be trained. The U.S. can provide the service of its National Democratic Institute or International Republican Institute; it can also provide multilateral support to public interest non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These opposition groups could send representatives to neighboring Turkey or attend sessions on the Internet to be taught accountable governance.

Two further notes: first, neither coalition should be allowed to endorse sectarian undertones. This is especially important to encourage getting the Christian minorities on board, who currently reluctantly support Assad because they fear the alternative. Second, the international community should be lukewarm towards the armed opposition, which has grown increasingly extremist over the months.

Until both the lion’s share of the political opposition and a strong majority of Syrians support a NATO no-fly zone and/or Turkey’s soft partitions, any military intervention would reek of imperialism.

  • Support the implosion of the Assad regime. One way, as advocated by Richard Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations, is to indict Assad’s inner circle and large parts of the government with war crimes if they don’t withdraw support from Assad by, say, one month after the declaration. Supporters are currently deterred from defecting because Assad’s wrath would be severe; this would help balance the incentives.

Meanwhile, anyone who does defect should be given a guarantee (optimally from all of the recognized opposition coalitions) to be given a say in the new government. While it is certainly true that such a balance of power would be delicate and it would be excruciatingly difficult to find the proper balance, it would give them increased incentives to leave Assad, especially the Christian minority.

After Assad falls, the international community should encourage the formation of a technocratic, non-sectarian government and seek to have elections as soon as possible. This transitional government should strictly enforce the systematic dismantling of the militias and account for the alarming circulation of weapons.

These solutions are not infallible. Unifying the opposition could take months. The international community has sat on its hands for so long that there is no optimal resolution regardless of the action taken. The only hope is that things don’t get dramatically worse.