Support the
Henry Jackson
Society

Our work is only possible through the generosity of private philanthropy. Find out how you can support our mission and can contribute to our work.

Members' log in
Article
December 20, 2011

Intervention in Syria? An Assessment of Legality, Logistics and Hazards

by
Michael Weiss

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Preconditions for intervention

◊ The SNC must formally accept foreign military intervention as a viable strategy for hastening the end of the Assad regime; it currently rejects this option in its National Consensus Charter;

◊ The SNC must also secure international recognition, particularly by European and Arab powers, as a government-in-exile and the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people before it can persuasively argue for foreign military intervention;

◊ The SNC should unite with the FSA, as well as with independent rebel “brigades,” and bring all anti Assad military operations under civilian control with a clearly designated chain of command

The Legal Case for Intervention

◊ The likelihood of securing a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria is remote given Russian and Chinese recalcitrance to support the Syrian revolution;

◊ UNSC deadlock could potentially be circumvented by invoking the “Uniting for Peace” resolution (377 A), which was used to authorize the “use of armed force” in Korea as a way of evading UNSC obstructionism by the then-Soviet Union. Given the General Assembly’sstrong support for the Arab-sponsored resolution condemning Assad for violence in Syria, “Uniting for Peace” may be feasible for licensing intervention in the Syrian case as well;

◊ Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which stipulates a member state’s right to self-defense, may be invoked either by Turkey, which has experienced attacks upon  its embassy in Damascus and its consulates in Aleppo and Lattakia by regimesponsored mobs, or by the SNC itself, pending its recognition as the Syrian government-in-exile. In the latter case, the SNC can petition for international assistance to contain a civil war and defeat an “invading” army – namely, the Assad regime forces.

A Syrian Safe Area

◊ A multilateral intervention led by NATO or an AngloFrench-American-Turkish coalition is necessary to establish a “safe area” – or a protected zone. The Turkish threat to unilaterally impose a “buffer zone” is unlikely to manifest as unilateral action;

◊ The best geographical location for a safe area is in the northwest province of Idleb, headquartered in Jisr al-Shughour, where anti-Assad sentiments are high and where ground incursions would be difficult given the two mountain ranges that sandwich the area;

◊ The main ground supply line that runs north-south through Syria is the M1 highway. An intervening force would have to establish total control over that highway in order to impede the regime’s ability to transport personnel and weapons;

◊ This safe area should not only be used as a base for homegrown rebel military operations but as a political and communications hub for the Syrian opposition. Its role should be tantamount to the one played by Benghazi in helping the Libyan Transitional National Council topple the Gaddafi  regime;

◊ Prior to establishing a safe area, the Assad regime’s air defense systems will have be neutralized through precision bombing raids and advanced radar and satellite-jamming technology similar to that used by the Israeli Air Force when it destroyed the Assad regime’s nuclear weapons facility in Deir Ezzor in 2007;

◊ The NATO-leased Incirlik Air Base in Adana, Turkey would, in principle, be well-placed as a  command central for coordinating personnel and aircraft needed for preemptive strikes on the regime’s airdefense systems; the US Sixth Fleet, stationed in Bahrain, and the UK’s Sovereign Air Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus could also be utilizedas secondary support bases.

Regime Military Capabilities

◊ The Syrian Army has an estimated 304,000 personnel on active duty, with a reserve force of 450,500. However, there is credible evidence that the regime has been unable to call back more than 60 percent of its reserves, and that regular army units deployed to suppress the protest movement have faced largescale defections;

◊ Syrian reservists are ill-trained, ill-disciplined and not subject to the rigors of reservists in other conventional militaries;

◊ Credible accounts estimate the total number of Syrian ground troops to be no higher than 100,000;

◊ Demoralization and exhaustion in the ranks of the Syrian army is high and would likely increase in the event of foreign military intervention;

◊ Most of the regime’s weapons are Soviet-designed and out-dated;

◊ Estimates of the Syrian Air Forces’ combat/reconnaissance/operational conversion unit aircraft – numbered between 357 and 611 – as well as estimates of its rotary wing aircraft – numbered between 70 and 84 – are likely exaggerated;

◊ The Air Force lacks regular maintenance of its materiel or trained personnel to operate its equipment;

◊ Rampant mismanagement in the command structure, which consists primarily of Assad family members or loyalists, furthers suggests a debilitated fighting capability;

◊ The Syrian Navy is limited in size and scope, with approximately 29 vessels, most of them Soviet-era missile boats. The Navy has no aircraft carriers, destroyers or submarines and its coastal defense system is antiquated.

Hazards of Intervention

◊ Hezbollah’s reported activity inside Syria (as rooftop snipers shooting soldiers who refuse to fire on unarmed civilians and as smugglers of Lebanese mercenaries) carries the risk that a foreign engagement with Assad’s forces could transform into a regional conflict that affects Lebanon. For this reason, the Lebanon-Syria border must be sealed and guarded, preferably by the FSA;

◊ US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford estimates that Salafist-Jihadists in Syria number in the tens, not the hundreds. Even still, the possibility of further infiltration of Al Qaeda-affliates or the Assad-created Ansar al-Islam group from Iraq requires the sealing of the Iraq-Syria border.  The threat of Assad trying to foment terrorists attacks inside Syria in a manner reminiscent of Saddam Hussein after the US-led invasion of Iraq is all too real;

◊ Iraq must also forestall a Sunni-Shi’ite conflict to be exacerbated in Syria by preventing the Shi’ite militias from crossing the border. Already there are indications that the “Anbar Faction” in Iraq’s Anbar province, which has shown solidarity with the Syrian revolution, has successfully blocked such militias from entering Syria.

◊ Criminal elements – murderers, rapists, thieves, smugglers and drug dealers – may also be unleashed in Syria (as was the case in Iraq) in the event of intervention or if the regime senses its collapse;

◊ Iran has been funding and facilitating the Assad regime’s crackdown since the early months of the uprising, and there is a strong likelihood that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC) will escalate attacks if Western troops or personnel maintain any physical presence in Syria. It may also try to attack Western targets outside of Syria;

◊ Russia has dispatched a naval flotilla to the Russianoperated naval port at Tartous to both offload materiel to the Assad regime and to symbolize Russian opposition to any Western intervention. However, Russia’s recent political turmoil and its obstructionist role in similar interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq suggest that diplomatic pressure can be wielded to induce the Kremlin to back down;

◊ The regime’s chemical weapons caches pose a direct threat both to an ongoing military intervention and to the security of post-Assad Syria and must therefore be neutralized;

◊ The launching positions of the regime’s land-to-land missiles are known by Western military intelligence and are unlikely to pose a severe threat to an interventionist air force;

◊ Due to the regime’s demonstrated willingness to destabilize the Golan Heights and incite a conflict with Israel, it is likely that the regime would try similar tactics again, or even launch missiles into Israel, as a way to turn a domestic crisis into a regional one. Any interventionist force must therefore persuade Israel not to retaliate in the event that it is attacked. Such forbearance proved successful during the First Gulf War, and it can be argued that it is in Israel’s strategic interest to assist in the removal of the Assad regime.

Read the full report here.

Michael Weiss

About Michael Weiss

A widely published journalist, Weiss has expertise in the Israel-Palestine conflict and human rights in the Middle East. He recently wrote HJS's Media Briefing: "Fatah-Hamas Reconciliation: A Preliminary Assessment". Weiss has been published in Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Daily Telegraph, The New Criterion, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Prospect, Standpoint, Democratiya and The New Republic. He keeps a regular blog on foreign policy and the Middle East for the Daily Telegraph and one on culture for The New Criterion.

Full profile  |  See all of Michael Weiss's work