Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Whither Syria - a personal reflection on the likelihood of intervention.

The recent bloodshed in Syria, caused by a revolution against the long standing Assad regime have thrown into sharp contrast the willingness of the West to intervene in Libya, compared with a seemingly deep reluctance to consider the employment of military force as means of conflict resolution.

This has caused discomfort in the West, with many observers being deeply dismayed at the apparent reluctance of the West to consider intervening in support of what is commonly being seen as a massacre, of security forces willingly slaughtering thousands of civilians in direct contravention of international law, and the norms of civilised behaviour. This stands against the willingness of the West to participate in operations in Libya in an effort to overthrow the deeply unpopular Qhadaffi regime, despite wider opposition to such a move.

Today, the author wishes to provide his own strictly personal perspective, based on his own academic, and not professional background, as to why this reluctance is so visible, and to ask what could be done in this appalling situation. It is important to emphasise that this is purely a very personal view, based on reading of the worlds media, and websites.

The sharp reality is that Syria does not present a credible scenario for intervention by external forces. There is no meaningful opposition to the regime, which can present itself as a Government in waiting, and that some discretely applied missiles will enable it to occupy Damascus and become deliver a new era of benevolent leadership. In reality, the opposition appears to be comprised of small, near factionalised groups lacking a common leader or vision as to what they wish Syria to become. It is hard to justify intervention when you don’t have a clear succession plan in place – as management gurus note, never enter a period of major strategic change without a vision of what you want the organisation to look like at the end. Right now, it's not remotely clear what the vision for change is, nor what the end result would look like.

This may sound incredibly callous, applying basic change management techniques to a human catastrophe, but the reality is that if one wishes to see the application of force, essentially justifying an armed conflict with a sovereign nation state, then it is helpful to have a clearly articulated end state. Saying that intervention is justified because people are dying is a dangerous precedent – it can then be cited by others, seeking intervention in any manner of countries – should the West intervene in Africa, or Pakistan, or China, as a result of massacres conducted by state sanctioned forces?

It is critical to note the lack of willingness for major international engagement in the region. The West (particularly NATO and the EU) managed to remain in loose concord over the operations in Libya – and this was where a fairly clear split was emerging which provided a clear faction to ally oneself too, and a clear territory to defend. Even then, the Alliance was tested, and the lack of willingness for material commitment was noticeable from some member states.

In reality, there is no clearly defined ‘government in waiting’ occupying a tangible swathe of Syrian territory. It is hard to spot a battle being fought for new Syria, particularly as unlike in Libya where defence of one or two key cities was crucial to supporting the new regime, there is no easily defined line on the map. Instead, a range of cities, often hugely isolated from each other are rising up in isolated and uncoordinated protest – how does one protect cities which can be easily encircled by armed forces loyal to the Government? No matter how powerful airpower is, it cannot prevent an encirclement by the military without an exceptionally lax set of rules of engagement being imposed, and sufficient munitions being available to defeat such a move.

This is a critical challenge in Syria – it appears that the bulk of the Army have remained loyal (or at least not in open revolt) and willing to at least make the effort to try to follow the regimes orders. Unlike in Libya where the armed forces appeared to split, the opposition (such as it is) lacks a credible armed force to defend it. Any Western intervention is going to have to take on the might of a relatively potent power, which is still loyal to its Government.

The Syrian armed forces are not an inept bunch of individuals. Libya was a classic case of an oil rich regime with far more money than men, and where many of the individuals in the forces were reportedly mercenaries. It was relatively easy to take out the working equipment, and to intervene in support of those military elements loyal to the opposition. In Syria the military are relatively well equipped by regional standards, and at least right now, have no open conflict of loyalties. Any airstrikes would need to tackle the armed forces as a whole, which currently do not appear to have crumbling morale, nor a reliance on foreign fighters.

To achieve the goal of preventing further massacres, any intervention would need to consider how to deliver sufficient effect by airpower so as to prevent widespread attacks by the Syrian military across a number of areas. This would require a significant commitment of resources, more than the West is likely to have readily available, and risks major escalation of the situation. To stop the attacks, a series of prolonged airstrikes would be required – this needs precision weapons, a large number of ISTAR assets, and a potential willingness to put troops on the ground as forward air controllers. It is hard to imagine many countries being willing to do this, at least not now.

While it is illogical to argue that the West is no longer capable of sustained bloody conflict, as both Iraq and Afghanistan point to the opposite, it is fair to argue that the West remains less keen to see regular sustained conflict. Libya was a short, easily winnable war, fought against a third rate opponent in the middle of a civil war in which many elements of the regimes arsenal were not used against intervening forces. Attacks in Syria would not enjoy such a luxury – it is likely that any conflict would have to be sustained, slowly wearing down the apparatus of the state to conduct its offensives against dissidents. This would require major air strikes to remove the threats, and also potential damage to infrastructure, on a scale not seen since the first Gulf War, as efforts were made to deny the Syrian state the ability to harm its own people. It is also fairly clear that any such commitment would also require a long term boots on ground presence in some form. The idea that a conflict can be solved by airpower alone is, in the authors view a myth.

The author has personal doubts that the West has either sufficient willpower, resolve, or weapons to carry out such a role, particularly whilst Afghanistan remains an enduring commitment. The only nation with the ability to carry out such a role is the US, with limited support from the UK and some other NATO nations. The US has spent several years seeking to extricate itself from Iraq, and already appears to be in the process of considering likely contingency operations against other nations. It is hard to see a willingness on the part of the current US leadership, particularly in an election year, to engage in yet another conflict of choice in the middle east.

The military assets required for such an operation are also in short supply – in the UK, were airstrikes to commence, then they would be drawn from the same pool of assets previously used for Libya, and which remain on operations in HERRICK. In other words, the Tornado GR4 and Typhoon fleet would be called on to play the same roles as before. This would place yet more stress on a hugely over committed fleet of aircraft, further breaking planning assumptions on flying hours and deployment of personnel. This in itself could cause retention issues, and also longer term problems for the UK military to regenerate for contingency operations elsewhere. There would probably be a significant requirement for ISTAR and tanking assets, which again are in short supply.

The US could theoretically provide such assets, as could some NATO nations, but given the heavy use of smart munitions in Libya, it is likely that in many NATO countries munitions supplies have been denuded, and that there are less smart bombs than before. The result is a reliance on less advanced weaponry, and an increasing likelihood of the use of older ‘dumb’ bombs, which could cause increased civilian damage. The beauty of modern weaponry is its incredible accuracy, but its curse is that it’s incredibly expensive and time consuming to procure – it takes time to regenerate from even a low level conflict such as Libya, and its entirely possible that most NATO countries simply aren’t in a position to carry out such an operation at present.

The other major issue in carrying out any form of airstrikes is the location of the bases from where they would fly. The only friendly Western airbases near Syria are either located in Turkey, which even as a NATO member is unlikely to welcome such an overt act of intervention from its soil, or alternatively from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. There is simply not sufficient room at Akrotiri to accommodate the levels of aircraft and support that would be required to run this form of campaign.

This ties into the other wider point – any intervention from the air will eventually need some form of ground presence. It is hard to see how training opposition forces can be done otherwise – at some stage, if a side has been taken, then the West will be required to see this through to its bloody conclusion. Morally, if the West is unprepared to offer support to the opposition, then it has to accept that if air strikes fail to achieve the desired effect, then they must either commit ground forces, or watch as their chosen partners are destroyed by the Syrian regime.

The utterly disparate nature of the opposition means that there is no credible location to coalesce around – no rallying point, nor likely final bastion. The West cannot easily commit ground troops without access to a port, or some form of logistics site, and it is unlikely that they’d be willing to deploy even SF troops without having some form of extraction plan. Any effort to put troops on the ground will require support, and resupply and eventual withdrawal. The UK put troops on the ground in Libya, not only as escorts during the early stage of the conflict when seeking to establish alliances, but also later on as military advisors. These were risky deployments, but at least could be done via a proper city, which was emerging as a credible alternative capital. There is no such location in Syria, and it is hard to see one emerging.

As such, any proposed intervention in Syria has to consider the following – who will it target, what is the appetite for risk (particularly of friendly casualties), where will it operate from, what is its desired end state, are there sufficient munitions to achieve this, and what is the exit plan?

Ultimately, it is easy to call for intervention, particularly when one sees the utter tragedy emerging on our tv screens day in day out. In reality though, no matter how tempting it is to seek this, the reality is that air strikes are likely to achieve little beyond such western nations into the morass of an emerging civil war, damaging relations in the region, and not genuinely helping the cause of the rebels. When added to the sharp reality that such a move would have the potential to undermine the wider international relations picture, emboldening Israel, potentially causing Iran to consider further options to retaliate, and placing the entire region onto a shaky ground, it quickly becomes apparent that the most sensible option is to avoid a military entanglement as sometimes doing what feels right, isn’t actually the right thing to do.


  1. Strangely for me - I completely concur with Sir Humphry's analysis of the situation.

  2. there remains one 'card' we could play.
    Kill syrias leader.
    Repeat until a reasonable settlement is put on the table.

    It always amuses me when people say 'the un will intervene against us' over the falklands, when even when it broadly agrees something must be done, it cant do it.

  3. Two words....Civilian reprisals. The Regime has already shown they are prepared to kill thier citizens. How much would the tempo of murder increase if the leadership though they had nothing to lose by saying target us and we kill x number of people. kill our President ...there is a line of succession....we can kill those who oppose us at will. Sir Humphrey has unfortunately stated a good, reasoned and realistic case. An intervention would not be done without UN sanction or Russian approval ( their power to VETO in the Security council)...they have invested too much politically and financially in thier ties to the regime to see it fall. After the Russians have used such force themselves in Chechnya and Georgia in the past to be squeamish. And there have been Islamic extremists pop up in Libya. They seem to be prominent in Syria..if the media is right...for this and the reasons Sir Humphrey states I don't think the Regime is under any threat from the west. I would be pleased to be educated if I have taken a wrong tack in my thinking. Thank you.