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Intervention In Syria: What Could Happen?

Written by Devon DB
Published on Wednesday, July 18th, 2012
Globalist Report

Intervention In Syria What Could HappenCurrently, the crisis in Syria is chaotic and ever-changing with the situation consistently on uneven ground.

The ongoing fighting between Western-backed rebel forces and the Syrian regime have plunged the country into a civil war and many government figures, such as US Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, as well as Vice Israeli Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, have argued for armed intervention against the Syrian regime.

It must be realized that tensions are quite high, as can be seen by the current debacle over a Turkish plane being downed. There are competing claims as to whose airspace it was in when the plane was shot down with the Turks, while admitting violating Syrian airspace, claimed that the plane was shot down in international waters while the Syria claims that it was taken down in their airspace.

The wreckage was found in Syrian territorial waters. This tense situation has resulted in the Turks threatening military action if there is “any future violation of its border by Syrian military elements”. [1] While the situation is still murky, military intervention has not been taken off the table. A view of what is at stake for major players, how an intervention would go about, and what its effects on the region could potentially be is thus needed.

Who Cares About Syria?

There are several major players in the Syrian crisis on both the regional and international scene, each with its own interests and objectives concerning Syria in the geo-political, military, and economic realms. While many of these actors are allied with one another, be it military pact or an alliance of convenience, it does not mean that their interests are the same, and as such one must examine the interests of each actor on an individual level.

United States

The United States has its concerns with Syria that are primarily linked to Iran and terrorist organizations. In April 2010, the US government acknowledged that Syria “continue[d] to support Hamas and Hezbollah” and had financial relations with Iran as Iranian companies “invested in concrete production, power generation, and urban transportation.”[2] At that time, such involvement with Iran was viewed as a problem for US interests due to their being the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran. [3] The Syrian-Iranian alliance would potentially prove a problem for the US and Israel if a strike had occurred as it could have allowed the Iranians to wage an effective retaliation on Israel, thus harming America’s interests by damaging a main regional ally. Today, the unease concerning the Syria-Iran alliance remains.

As of the recent civil war in Syria, the US seems to be hoping for the ousting of the Assad regime, stating that were the rebels to be found victorious in the civil war, “a more democratic Syria may seek to broaden its relationships with Western democracies and could choose to reduce its dependence on its current alliance with Iran.” [4] Yet, while the US may want a rebel victory, they are worried about infiltration of the Syrian opposition by terrorist groups, namely Al Qaeda.

The Americans have been worried about the Syrian opposition being infiltrated for quite some time, with US officials stating this year that “the violence and disorder paralyzing Syria appears to be creating opportunities for Al Qaeda operatives or other violent Islamist extremists to infiltrate the country and conduct or plan attacks” and that “Sunni extremists have infiltrated Syrian opposition groups, which may be unaware of the infiltration.” [5]

Yet, this infiltration of Sunni extremists becomes rather interesting when one acknowledges that the US knows Al Qaeda is in the Syrian opposition and that the US is supporting the opposition. Al Qaeda’s presence in the Syrian rebel groups was acknowledged in February by Director of Intelligence James R. Clapper when he said that “Members of al-Qaeda have infiltrated Syrian opposition groups, and likely executed recent bombings in the nation’s capital and largest city.” [6] Most recently, it was reported that the CIA was giving arms to the Syrian rebels. [7]

Thus, not only is the US aiding to arm elements of Al Qaeda, but also the US and Al Qaeda are (however indirectly) working together to dismantle the Assad regime. What peculiar bedfellows this situation is making!

The final interest that the US has in the Syrian crisis is taking out a major Iranian ally. As was stated earlier, a Syrian-Iranian alliance deeply troubles the US and taking Syria out of the picture would aid America in its quest to isolate Iran on a regional level. If the Assad regime were to fall, it would “cut off Iran’s access to its proxies (Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza) and visibly dent its domestic and international prestige, possibly forcing a hemorrhaging regime in Tehran to suspend its nuclear policies.” [8] Furthermore, with the Assads gone, it would result in Iran having no Middle East ally and being fully isolated, which would make it easier to invade or attack, seeing as how regime change in Iran is not off the table either.

Israel

Regarding the Assad situation, Israel is in a rather unenviable situation of essentially having to choose between an enemy it does know or siding with an unknown group that may be even more hostile to Israel.

Israel may choose to deal with the Assad regime, but not due to any fondness for it. It should be acknowledged that “Syria fought Israel directly in October 1973 and via proxy in Lebanon between 1982 and 2000. Since 2000, Syria has continued to support Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.” [9] Yet, while Israel is no fan of the current government, they do realize that “the Assad regime will not attempt to repossess the Golan Heights by military force and will meet with Israeli leaders to negotiate for peace, which occurred in 1991, 1995-1996, 1999-2001, and 2008.” [10] Thus, while Assad may not be the friendliest neighbor, they are better than the alternative.

In addition to this, if a new regime is established that has more popular support than the current government (last checked, Assad had the support of 55% of the population [11]), it would allow for the Syrian government to position its military resources to external threats, namely the Jewish state. Thus, from an Israeli security standpoint it is better for the Syrian government to be tied up in suppressing rebels rather than potentially threatening Israel.

Just like the Americans, the situation regarding Iran is also at the front of the minds of the Israeli government, however it may not be for the reasons that one would assume. While governments and the media have been stating for years now that Iran is attempting to get nuclear weapons, in reality, Israeli (along with American and European) intelligence has acknowledged that “Tehran does not have a bomb, has not decided to build one, and is probably years away from having a deliverable nuclear warhead.” [12] (emphasis added) Thus, if Iran is “years away from having a deliverable nuclear warhead,” much less building a nuclear weapon, this leads one to wonder what the real reason is that Israel is so worried about Iran possibly attaining nuclear weapons? The real reason is that Israel is worried about losing its nuclear monopoly in the region and security risks that come with it.

Israel’s real fear — losing its nuclear monopoly and therefore the ability to use its conventional forces at will throughout the Middle East — is the unacknowledged factor driving its decision-making toward the Islamic Republic. For Israeli leaders, the real threat from a nuclear-armed Iran is not the prospect of an insane Iranian leader launching an unprovoked nuclear attack on Israel that would lead to the annihilation of both countries. It’s the fact that Iran doesn’t even need to test a nuclear weapon to undermine Israeli military leverage in Lebanon and Syria. Just reaching the nuclear threshold could embolden Iranian leaders to call on their proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, to attack Israel, knowing that their adversary would have to think hard before striking back. (emphasis added) [13]

Thus, Israel does see Iran as a threat but much more to its regional military hegemony than rather a threat to its very existence.

Finally, Israel both the current Assad regime and Iran come into play with Israel’s final regional interest, Hezbollah. Israel is worried that they may gain non-conventional weapons if the Assad regime fell. Most likely, Israel is concerned about Hezbollah coming into chemical and biological weapons as they are already rehearsing drills for if such a situation were to occur. [14] Such an occurrence would empower the terrorist group and by extension its financier, Iran, as well as become a potential security concern.

The Israeli government realizes that “The outcome of the internal conflict in Syria will have a decisive impact on Hizbullah’s strength and behavior, as well as on the political and security situation in Lebanon generally, and on Israel’s relationship with Lebanon,” [15] and this are keeping a close eye on the situation in Lebanon and how what occurs in Syria affects their northern neighbor.

Russia

Russia’s concerns about Syria stem from its military and commercial interests in Syria as well as its worries about the radical Islamist elements in the Syrian opposition and protecting its own borders.

Putin is pushing against military intervention due to the fact that the Kremlin think that “allowing the United States to use force at will and without any external constraints might lead to foreign interventions close to Russian borders, or even within those borders—namely, in the North Caucasus.” [16]

This possibility of intervention near Russia’s borders alarms the government as NATO has already been busy allying itself with many of the satellite states of the former Soviet Union in addition to the creation and implementation of the European missile shield. Russia may view such a possibility as an attempt to isolate and intimidate Russia.

Two other concerns of Russia are its commercial and military interests. In Syria, Russia maintains control of its naval base in Tartus, its only access to the Mediterranean sea. However, If Russia were to lose this base, it would hurt doubly as not only would Russia lose Middle East projection power, but also access to much of the natural gas and oil that is in the Mediterranean [17] and the power that comes with controlling such resources.

There are also commercial interests at stake as “Russia has long been Syria’s primary military supplier and currently has about $4 billion worth of contracts for future arms deliveries to Damascus.” Having a client for military weaponry is important but beyond that, “Russian companies have made a number of investments in Syria. These projects are worth roughly $20 billion and include some from Russia’s powerful energy sector, such as a natural gas production facility and pipeline.” [18] Thus, the loss of the Assad regime would not only hurt the defense sector, but would also harm the massive investments made in the Syrian energy sector.

Finally, Russia is deeply concerned with the extreme Islamist elements in the Syrian opposition. Russia backs Assad as they realize that “if the regime in Damascus falls, the whole ‘terrorist international’ that is now fighting against Bashar al-Assad will begin to fight elsewhere. It is quite possible that the fighting could spread to the Caucasus or Central Asia.” [19] Such a possibility worries the Kremlin as the rebels in the Chechnya region have many Islamic links, including having Al Qaeda fight alongside them. [20] In the mind of the Kremlin the Islamist threat is quite serious as it potentially threatens not only their rule but also the stability of the country.

Turkey

Turkey, a close neighbor of Syria, also has many vested interests in seeing the fall of the Assad regime. The Turks view the situation through the lens of their economic and foreign policy interests as well as their domestic interests in relation to the Kurdish situation.

Turkey has viewed Syria quite some time as a stepping stone on its way to “become a political, economic and self-described ‘moral’ leader in the Middle East.” Economically, the Syrian crisis concerns Turkey, who has made major economic gains because of trade between the two nations. The Turkish government is concerned about

creating an environment that is conducive to the flowering of Turkish trade and the expansion of the Turkish economy. In that sense, one of Ankara’s main interests vis-à-vis Syria is to use the country as an outlet for Turkish exporters, particularly from the highly entrepreneurial regions bordering Syria, such as Gaziantep and Hatay. The statistics from the last few years demonstrate the success of this policy:Turkish exports to Syria skyrocketed from $266 million in 2002 to $1.6 billion in 2010. (emphasis added) [21]

On a regional scale, there is a battle between Iran and Turkey over influence in Syria. Turkey and Iran are both attempting to influence the Syrian regime for their own purposes. To Turkey, Syria would be “the proving ground for Turkey’s moderating effects on its neighbors and the place to showcase Turkey’s role as a kind of regional reform whisperer. Ties to Syria were seen as the cornerstone of a new regional order, one based on more open borders and the free flow of goods and people.” [22] Turkey needs to keep Syria in its sphere of influence if it is to establish a new regional order in which Turkey is the leader.

The Kurdish question also plays into Turkey’s concern about the situation in Syria. The Turkish leadership looks forward to the fall of the Assad regime as it would allow for “Kurdish rights [to] be recognised within ‘the unity of the Syrian state.’ Thus, Syria’s Kurds would be prevented from gaining any form of autonomy, the PKK’s branch in Syria – the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – would be undermined, and Turkey’s own Kurdish separatist movement would not be further inflamed.” [23] Keeping the Kurds in line and pacification them is quite important to the Turkish government as the Kurds have demands that range from recognition of cultural rights to the creation of a Kurdish state that includes majority Kurd areas in Turkey. Thus, Turkey must attempt to play all sides in order to ensure that it comes out on top.

Iran

Iran is a steadfast ally of Assad and a longtime ally of Syria. Yet even close allies have their own reasons for supporting the current regime. While economic and military interests play a role, a unique factor in this relationship is that the leadership of both regimes are of the Shite sect of Islam in a region that is filled with those of the Sunni sect.

Just like Russia, Iran has major economic ties to Syria as can be seen by the fact that Syria gives Iran a place to invest money and a trading partner. “Iran has high-profile assets like auto factories, a cement plant, and an oil refinery in Syria, all of which rely on the stability of the Assad regime. Leaders in the two nations also share theological ties, as Shiite Muslims, and a mutual distaste for the West.” [24] This economic alliance is made all the more important with the international trade sanctions that have afflicted Iran’s economy for years.

Iran is also concerned about its aid to Hezbollah as such a blow would affect Iran itself. Syria has allowed Iran to “transform Hezbollah into a force that the Israeli military cannot defeat.” If the Assad government falls, Iran will find itself without a way to back Hezbollah and result in a “[decrease in] Iran’s ability to deter Israel from attacking its nuclear facilities.” [25] Thus, Iran needs Syria as part of a larger strategy to deter Israeli aggression.

China

While far away in Asia, the Chinese government has extremely large investments in Syria and is backing the Assad government as a way to ensure the needed stability- and cash flow- continues unabated.

China has made major investments into Syria. In 2007 it was reported that the real figure of Chinese exports to Syria is around  $1.2 billion and that Syrian officials predicted it would double by 2011 [26], meaning that the Chinese government has about $2.4 billion in investments that are currently at stake.

It also needs to be addressed that the majority of China’s imports from Syria are oil and crude oil imports. Oil is something that China greatly needs if it is to continue fueling its massive economic growth and growing military power. While the US has the governments of most of the major oil producing nations under its influence, China has been looking outward, from Africa to Middle Eastern enemies of the West, in order to attain natural resources. While it may not seem like it, China, without a doubt, wants to ensure that its investments as well as the transfer of oil is protected whether regime change occurs or not.

Military Intervention?

While the question of whether or not there will be a military intervention in Syria on behalf of the rebels, that option has not been taken off the table. There have been many calls for intervention from many prominent figures such as Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman in the US [27] and Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz in Israel. [28] There is still the possibility that a military intervention would occur and as such, it is needed that the military capabilities of all the potential players involved, including the Syrian military itself, be examined.

United States

While the intervention would without a doubt include European NATO members and potentially Western allies in the Middle East, it is quite likely that the US will have its regional military assets actively involved in the military intervention.

The Middle East region is covered by the US military command Central Command (CentCom). While CentCom has no fighting units that are directly subordinate to it, the command does have naval, ground, marine, air, and special forces components. If an intervention occurs, the US could activate its nearby Fifth Fleet in Bahrain which consists of “20-plus ships, with about 1,000 people ashore and 15,000 afloat, consists of a Carrier Battle Group, Amphibious Ready Group, combat aircraft, and other support units and ships.” [29]

In the region the US has the aircraft carrier theUSS Enterprise and several air force bases including Incirlik and Izmir in Turkey, as well as Camp Udairi in Kuwait which serves as a base for Middle Eastern Theater reserve soldiers. [30] Such air bases as well as the Enterprise would be useful for the US to do such things as launch airstrikes, deploy special forces to aid and train the rebels, bomb Syrian military forces, and give supplies to the rebels. If an intervention occurs, air power by itself would not fully tip the scale to the side of the rebels as it is ground forces, rather than air forces, that are doing the most damage.

An intervention in Syria could play into a changing in US military doctrine, at least for the US Third Army which is connected to CentCom. Third Army plans on (or is already) adopting a new strategy known as the campaign plan which is defined as “a series of major operations and efforts across the joint, interagency and multinational spectrums aimed at achieving strategic and operational objectives in a defined time and space” [31]

An intervention in Syria which would allow them to coordinate with allied forces would give them such a scenario as to achieve “strategic and operational objectives in a defined time and space” and allow Third Army to see what needs work in their campaign plan.

It has been reported that that US and its allies are currently discussing with Middle Eastern allies about the situation in Syria.

The United States, Britain and France have all been discussing contingency scenarios, potential training and sharing of intelligence about what is happening in Syria with neighboring countries including Jordan, Turkey and Israel. But it is Jordan, so far, that is most seeking the help because of its relatively small military and potential need for outside help if unrest in southern Syria were to impact Jordan’s security. (emphasis added) [32]

This is quite important to note as it implies that the Western forces may be preparing, at least partially, for some type of intervention into Syria.

Russia

Russia already has a naval base that it desperately wants to keep, however, that is not the full extent of Russia’s military capability concerning Syria.

According to Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense analyst based in Moscow, the Russian military is preparing “the 76th Pskov Airborne Division, the 15th Army brigade from Samara, as well as GRU special forces from the South Military District” and that “The Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Nikolai Bordyuzha also remarked on the possibility of a CSTO peacekeeping force being deployed in Syria.” [33] Thus, it seems that Russia is ready and willing to defend its interests in Syria with military force, if the need arises.

This would present quite a problem for the US and its NATO and Arab allies if an intervention were to occur as a Russian military presence as well as Russian military backing for the Assad regime would make it much more difficult for their intervention to succeed. If Russia does go into Syria while the intervention was occurring, it could potentially make any place Russian soldiers reside a stronghold for the Assad regime as the US-NATO-Arab alliance would have to avoid killing Russian troops, even accidentally, lest it risk greatly escalating the conflict.

Iran

Iran has been doing much to support and prop up the Assad regime. It was reported in March that Iran was increasing its aid to Assad in the form of  “dispatch[ing] hundreds of advisers, security officials and intelligence operatives to Syria, along with weapons, money and electronic surveillance equipment.” [34] The United States went so far as to state that it had “evidence of Iranian military and intelligence support for government troops accused of mass executions and other atrocities.” [35] In May the Guardian reported that the Iranian government had sent members of its Quds force to aid government troops. [36] A reason this could be occurring is for the sake of Iran’s national security as the Iranian government knows that if Assad falls, then it is almost only a matter of time before the US-NATO-Israeli alliance either attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities or invades it outright.

Syria

The Syrian military is quite different from that of Mummar Gaddafi’s Libya, with a larger army and air force, as well as advanced air defense capabilities.

The Syrian air defense system is composed of

  • Major surface-to-air missiles (Sams) - 25 air defence brigades, 150 Sam batteries, 320 SA-2 missiles, 148 SA-3, 195 SA-6 and 44 SA-5
  • Light Sams - 8,184+, including 4,000+ SA-7/SA-18 Igla Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (Manpads)
  • Anti-aircraft guns - 1,225 guns [37]

The SA-2 has a ceiling range of 60,000 feet [38] which is the same as the flight ceiling of an F-22 Raptor [39], thus the US could potentially have a difficult time taking out Syria’s anti-aircraft system with the F-22s that it has in the region. It is also important to note that in 2007 the Israeli Defense Force stated that Syria possessed “the most crowded antiaircraft system in the world” and that “According to one estimate, the Syrians hold more than 200 anti-aircraft batteries of different types.” [40]  This only reinforces the notion that air power alone will not do the job if an intervention is to take place and that the intervening countries may have to send in special forces soldiers if they are to complete their objective of overthrowing the current regime.

In addition to this, the Syrian military is actively preparing for an intervention by conducting large-scale exercises for such a scenario,[41] which will make an intervention all the more difficult.

Post-Intervention Effects?

If an intervention does occur, it is almost certain that there will be little to no similarities between the Syrian intervention and the Libyan one. Yet, there will be one major similarity in that there will be major effects on not just the nation of Syria but on the region as a whole.

The country that is most going to be affected by a fall of the Assad regime is Lebanon. Over the past month there has been a major flare-up in ethnic tensions between the Alawite and Sunni communities in Lebanon, which have resulted in major firefights between the two groups. [42] This is quite problematic due to the fact that if there is already a considerable amount of violence in the country and there has been no intervention, then there is a possibility that the violence will explode if an intervention occurs. Israel must also be taken into account as the two countries share a border and if there is large-scale violence in Lebanon then Israel will most likely beef up its military presence on its northern border.

Besides ethnic tensions, an ousting of Assad would hurt the Lebanese economy even more than it already has as the Lebanese economy is deeply connected with Syria and is affected by any political, economic, or social unrest that occurs there.

Pro-Syrian business interests are deeply influential within the Lebanese economy. The current unrest has significantly affected the Lebanese economy overall; the effects are particularly noticeable in trade relations, the banking industry, and tourism. Within Syria, the unrest has primarily impacted its oil and tourism industries.[...]According to the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism, tourism in Lebanon decreased by 25% in the first seven months of 2011.Approximately 25% of all tourist arrivals in Lebanon travel via Syria. Tourist activity on the Lebanese-Syrian border has decreased between 75%-90%. [43]

Greater economic distress on top of an already damaged economy and increased sectarian violence would most likely only increase violence in the country and make an already bad situation even worse.

Hezbollah would also be affected by regime change as “Without Syrian backing and without supply routes passing from Iran to Lebanon, through Syria, it is doubtful whether Hezbollah will continue to be the dominant player in Lebanon.” [44] The supply routes are quite important as they allow Hezbollah to attain weapons and aid from Iran which in turn allows the group to maintain a powerful position in Lebanese politics. Without the aid, the organization’s position would be considerably weakened.  A weakened Hezbollah also means a weakened Iran as “Under the new circumstances, these moderate forces will have a chance to finally put an end to the entrenchment of the armed militias, which serve Iranian, rather than Lebanese, interests” and Iran will no longer have an ally to aid in retaliation if Israel and its allies attack it.

Israel is also getting prepared for a potential backlash if the Assad regime falls. They are most concerned with Syria’s biological and chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Hezbollah militants which would endanger the lives of Israelis living near the Israeli-Lebanese border. Such a possibility has prompted Northern Command Chief Maj. Gen. Yair Golan to state that “The IDF has the capability to take over in a relatively short period of time the launching sites which threaten Israel’s home front, and defeat Hezbollah terrorists at these sites,” [45] as to reassure the populace that they would be safe.

Whether or not there is an intervention into Syria and to what extent no one knows, however, if there is one, the stakes will be high and the potential for catastrophe will be even higher. Overall, it seems that an intervention would do more harm than good. An intervention would only open up a Pandora’s box that we may wish had stayed closed.

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