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The Broken Intervention Calculator: Syria

Obama meets with Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit at Lough Erne in Enniskillen

When U.S. President Obama sat down with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at the latest G-8 Summit in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, the evolving civil war in Syria dominated the conversation. The push had been for a negotiated political settlement under the guise of the Geneva II process, but it seems fated to be a stillborn process as fighting continues to rage on in stalemate while both sides continue to believe a military victory is within reach. Even with the sharply deteriorating humanitarian crisis that continues to spill over regional borders, what are the options for a U.S. intervention?

The fall of Qusayr from rebel control, coupled with a Russian pledge to honor the delivery of S-300 missile batteries to the Assad regime, prompted Obama’s move to begrudgingly send direct military assistance to rebel forces. It has also led to the ambivalent declaration that Assad had used chemical weapons, thus crossing Obama’s own “red-line,” and also giving way to talk of a “no-fly zone.”  The move to arm the rebels also stated the obvious: President Obama has no real interest or strategy for an intervention in Syria. His declaration to provide arms comes after two years of Syria’s implosion into sectarian, ethnic and geopolitical conflict. It also reveals Obama’s reticence towards getting involved in another military expedition over supposed use of chemical weapons, in the complicated conflicts of the Middle East, especially when a “pivot” towards Asia is on the horizon.

Making matters worse, Iran, Russia and even the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah have made no secret of where they stand in their intervention calculations. Indeed, it has been the overt military, diplomatic, logistics and arms support of all three that has given the battlefield advantage to a previously floundering Assad regime. Buoyed by their recent battlefield victories in Qusayr, Assad and his allies are even reportedly planning an attack on the rebel stronghold of Aleppo. Adding to this is the ongoing question of just who the rebels are, who they representm, and what, if any, chain of command structure they posses.

Part of President Obama’s strategy at the G-8 summit was to feel out international support for arming the rebels and wading into the Syrian quagmire. Russian President Putin is clearly not going to budge and is joined by China. Together, they have thrice used diplomacy to block any action on Syria through the U.N. Security Council. Russia may have its largest military base in the coastal Syrian city of Tartus, but to understand Russian diplomatic intransigence it is necessary to understand the intervention in Libya. Abstaining from Resolution 1973, which established a no-fly zone that led to NATO involvement and the death of dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, Russia was stunned to see how a Security Council Resolution could be transformed into intervention and regime change, one Russia would not have approved had it known the outcome. With similar rhetoric and circumstances in Syria, Russia has reverted to consistently blocking any progress at the U.N. Security Council.

The EU, led by France and England, twisted enough arms to get the EU to drop an embargo on arms to the rebels and strained consensus amongst its 27 members in the process. The strategy of using Croatia, as an arms exporter due to its unique status of aspiring member – one foot both inside and outside of the European Union until full accession on July 1, 2013 – is not a moot strategy. Austria, which opposed arming the rebels, will pull out its peacekeeping force in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).  Austria’s peacekeepers were attacked by rebels trying to open a front in the fighting on the occupied Golan Heights, heightening tensions with Israel in the process. The EU process has cleared the way for a leadership role, one Obama and the U.S. continues to brush aside.

Regional allies are also looking for a leadership position from the U.S., as the sectarian and regional fighting spreads from Syria across borders in all directions. For these countries, intervention is not a choice but a matter of necessity with Qatar openly and brazenly supporting the rebels. Looking to spend its substantial wealth on an ambitious foreign policy, Qatar has the means. However, Qatar also lacks the ability to sustain what is morphing into a larger proxy war, all the while keeping an eye across the Gulf to Iran. Saudi Arabia, while more discreet and with better intelligence, also lacks the ability to do the dirty work on the ground.

Turkey, rushing to support the rebels at first, also finds itself short on options as fighting drags on. Turkey lacks a concrete military response to a crisis that threatens to spill over its borders. This has occurred despite Turkish jets being shot down by Assad’s forces, missile batteries being fired from Syrian to Turkish territory, and bombings inside Turkey.  As the number of Syrian refugees on Turkish territory becomes greater, protesters have taken to the historic Taksim Square to protest the proposed construction of a mall, as well as voice displeasure over President Erdogan’s Syria policy.  Turkey is comprised of a substantial Alevi minority, estimated at 15 million,who feel persecuted by the Sunni ruling classes. This has been exemplified after Erdogan named a third bridge uniting the European and Asian sides of Turkey after Yavuz Sultan Selim, a 16th century Ottoman sultan whom they say is responsible for the brutal massacre of tens of thousands of Alevis in the early part of the 16th century.  Added to this are the roughly two million Alawites, the Shia sub-sect of Bashar al-Assad and his loyalists, located on the southern 5oo-plus mile border with Syria who more inclined to support, as opposed to fight, Assad.

It’s clear the humanitarian situation in Syria continues to deteriorate at an alarming pace and continues to pull the region into further turmoil. In light of this, the United Nations has proposed the largest-ever humanitarian initiative. In February, an unprecedented call for aid led to $1.5 billion being pledged. That initial pledge remains less than half fulfilled but has nonetheless given way to a plea of $5 billion to address the plight of refugees in neighboring Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Refugees and internally displaced persons are particularly vulnerable and food aid delivery far from secure amidst the ongoing unpredictability of violence. A ‘no-fly zone’ could assist in creating ‘safe-zones’ for refugees and internally displaced civilians to access aid delivery. Just as the calculation remains the same for arming rebels, so too is the need to end the humanitarian suffering of the people in Syria which has developed into a full blown crisis as the fighting continues.

Beyond the chance to assist allies and punish adversaries, the opportunity to enhance US credibility with a sustained and succinct American policy in a conflict that is seeking a leadership role has been present for over two years now. Other actors have made no secret on where they lie in their own intervention calculation and have waded in, whatever the cost. A reaction from the Obama administration has been wanting. The debacle of Iraq may loom large, but with each day that passes staying passive ensures the long-terms costs will be exponentially greater. The options are not good ones and an endgame even less likely, but the option of not doing enough may be the most damaging of all.

According the UNHCR, there are presently 1.6 million Syrian refugees as a result of fighting.

As of today, over 93,000 Syrians have died have died in the conflict. This is a conservative estimate.