As the crisis in Syria continues to escalate, GJIA offers views of different possible responses to the crisis. Below, Cassie Chesley offers her view on how the international community should respond. You can view other perspectives here and here.
As the revolution in Syria nears its 20th month, the international community continues to only nominally support freedom for the Syrian people without a platform for action. The conflict retains its title as one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises of this decade. While concerns linger over what is the best strategy for intervention, it is increasingly clear that the risks of inaction are much greater than the risks of intervention for U.S. national security interests. Some policy makers fear that intervention would accelerate regional spillover and the influence of extremist groups; however, these risks are already materializing as the conflict grows in complexity and violence. In order to mitigate these risks, the U.S. and the international community must help strengthen the rebels’ military power and democratic institutions.
The conflict has had the largest impact on Turkey, which has already spent $300 million to accommodate hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. The risk of military action over border issues has also crystallized; after Syrian rebels killed five civilians while shelling Akcakale, a Turkish town across the border, the Turkish government responded with cross-border artillery fire for several days. In fact, the military tension between Turkey and Syria reflects the sectarian conflict in Syria between the Sunni Muslim majority and Alawite minority. The ruling AK Party earns the support of Turkey’s Sunni Muslim majority, whereas the main opposition party, the CHP, earns the support of the Turkish Alevi population. Such divisions in Turkish politics will exacerbate the religious strife in Syria as Turkey becomes drawn into the conflict. The conflict has also spilled over into other countries such as Lebanon. In October 2012, General Wissam Al-Hassan of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces was killed in a bombing in Beirut. Former Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, believes that the Assad regime was behind the incident.
Moreover, extremist groups threaten to fill the power vacuum that has already started to form as the Assad regime loses territorial control. In fact, the power vacuum will intensify during the transitional period following the fall of the Assad regime. In “Jihad in Syria,” Elizabeth O’Bagy highlights the participation of Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and other groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. Members of the opposition and Syria experts believe that JN is a front for Syrian intelligence, in which the Assad regime uses such groups to project false ties with the rebels to frame the conflict as one solely between the government and terrorist groups. However, it is no longer clear whether the Assad regime controls volatile actors such as JN, or whether it unleashed them in order to terrorize minority communities and discredit the opposition by association.
Because of the consequences of regional spillover into Turkey and Lebanon, as well as other bordering countries, the U.S. and the international community must intervene militarily. Troops on the ground are not necessary to improve the situation for the Syrian opposition. Rather, the armed opposition requires Western airpower to blunt the airpower of the Assad regime and ground its heavy weapons. An international coalition could replicate the successful no-fly zone in Libya, or arm the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles. However, because policy makers are concerned about who might acquire weapons post-conflict, they could provide limited arms to the FSA with DShKs, old Soviet machine guns that are incapable of targeting civilian aircraft or modern fighter aircraft. Instead, they are very effective at hitting the Syrian Air Force’s fleet of old Soviet MiGs, which fly at the low altitude of 300 meters when conducting attacks. These weapons would help protect liberated areas from recapture or devastating attacks. The relative futility of DShKs and MiGs against weaponry other than the Soviet-era MiGs employed by the Assad regime mitigates the risks of arming the FSA.
In addition to military support, the international community can help the Syrian people by supporting grassroots democratic initiatives—in particular, the civilian administrative councils (CACs). While Secretary Clinton has expressed support of the CACs, the international community must provide more material and technical support to ensure the development of a stable democracy in a post-Assad Syria. Mouaz Moustafa, the Political Director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, highlights the benefits of CACs:
Contrary to the concerns that Syria will stay militarized post-conflict, FSA battalions’ react to the CACs by giving them the final word—allowing them to govern in their own local areas. They realize the right of self- determination of the people. They don’t know how to provide these services and thus defer to the CACs on civilian matters.
Moustafa recently returned from the liberated areas in northern Syria where he met with FSA commanders and leaders of the CAC in Khirbet al- Joz. He found that the rebels view civilian and military authority separately, in which the FSA concedes control to civilian rule in areas where the violence has subsided. The FSA also intends to hand over complete authority after the transition. For that reason, the FSA demonstrates political credibility, which should also ease policy makers’ concerns of the risks in providing them with arms.
If the international community continues to evade responsibility with regards to Syria, the consequences will be disastrous for the region and U.S. national security interests. Unmitigated violence could spread into places like Jordan, Israel and Iraq, triggering conflicts that have far greater implications for long-term security interests. This is especially true since the Assad regime is a key ally of Iran. The U.S., in concert with European countries and Turkey, should officially recognize the recently created National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, arm the rebels, and facilitate a democratic transition as soon as possible to hedge against a situation where Iran increases its stake in the conflict due to the involvement of either Israel or Iraq. Furthermore, extremists could develop the transnational networks that they currently project out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the investment in the War on Terror, the U.S. would not want to offer extremists’ another haven from which they can develop extensive control.
Since the start of the Syrian revolution, the international community has observed the conflict go from a peaceful protest movement to an armed conflict. The U.S. and other countries have idly watched over 40,000 people die while civilians fight for freedom and democracy, claiming that intervention would exacerbate regional spillover and the influence of extremist groups in a fragmented opposition. However, with unification of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the excuses for inaction are running out.
Cassie Chesley serves as the Media Coordinator for the Syrian Emergency Task Force. All views expressed are her own.