Ineffective solutions to the wrong problem
John Kerry’s renewed advocacy of safe zones and possible arming of the Syrian opposition provokes me to repeat what I’ve said before: these are ineffective solutions to the wrong problem. If you want to protect civilians, the worst thing you can do for them is to concentrate them in one place where Bashar al Assad can be sure he will be killing his opposition. And if you want to bring Bashar down, an armed opposition is one of the slowest and least effective ways to do it.
First, safe areas, corridors, or whatever you want to call them. They will not be safe because the UN Security Council declares them safe. Remember the safe areas in Bosnia and the UN protected areas in Croatia. They were target-rich environments, because that is where the enemies are. To make areas safe, you have to destroy the Syrian army’s capability to attack them, in particular with aircraft (including helicopters), missiles, artillery and armor.
In order to do that, you have to take down the air defenses. Think Libya times five or maybe ten, because Syrian capabilities are significantly greater. Libya was impossible without the jump start the U.S. gave the operation. And there is someone out there who thinks Jordan and Turkey will do Syria on their own? The EU and the U.S. are simply not going to engage in this effort–they have too much else on their minds, and the Americans want to keep the Russians on side for the nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Second, arming the opposition. This is already happening to some extent–small arms circulate widely in the Middle East. But small arms aren’t going to stop armor, artillery and aircraft, or even mass arrests and torture. An assassin could of course get lucky, but armed rebellion has little prospect for overthrowing Bashar, whose army and other security services have remained cohesive. We can of course feed an insurgency in Syria, but that is no quick solution. Insurgencies typically take decades to succeed, and they more often don’t.
These propositions are not only ineffective. They would take things in the wrong direction. Safe areas would attract mainly Sunni Syrians, thus increasing the sectarian segregation that the civil war has already begun. Arming the opposition would also drive away from its ranks the relatively few Alawites, Christians, Druze and others who have joined its ranks.
Sectarian warfare comparable to what happened in Iraq in 2006-7 is just about the worst outcome imaginable in Syria from the American perspective. Odds are it would overflow to Lebanon, Iraq and maybe even Turkey and Jordan.
If you want to intervene militarily in Syria, the United States should lead the effort and target the command and control of the Syrian armed forces, including Bashar al Assad himself. Talking about half measures that won’t work but instead make things worse is not helpful.
The consequences of a serious military strike on the regime are unpredictable. Would Bashar be killed? Who would take over? Would it intensify the civil war? How will Iran react? This too is a solution that could make things worse.
The Annan plan, even not 100% effective, starts looking like a reasonable proposition when you take a good look at the alternatives. We should stop talking smack about it and do our best to support it.