Syria – it could be worse than Iraq

The best scenario is the removal of Assad, but the best scenario may risk the worst war in the Middle East.

The London Economic


By Cagri Cobanoglu – foreign news editor of Akşam – a national Turkish daily. 

The US, Britain and France are planning a military response following claims chemical weapons were used by the Syrian army.

It has been two and half years since the uprising in Syria begun against Bashar Assad dictatorship. According to the United Nations, Since March 2011 more than 100,000 people have been killed, and millions have been forced to leave their homes.

However, all efforts by the international community have failed. First a ceasefire attempt was brought by Kofi Annan who was then UN and Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria. His efforts failed in June 2012 and he resigned. Annan was replaced by Lakhdar Brahmi, an Algerian diplomat, but his peace plan didn’t work either.

It was not only the UN that attempted to solve the Syrian crisis. Friends of Syria, an international body outside of the UN was organised as a maneuver to overcome veto power of Russia and China who stood by Assad regime in the UN Security Council.

However, Iran was excluded from the group and Russia and China did not participate in the group meetings, leading Moscow to call Friends of Syria ‘one-sided and immoral’.

Friends of Syria consisted of the US, UK, France, Turkey, Germany, Italy and the Gulf countries. From the beginning of its formation, the group had no interest in compromise between the Assad regime and its opposition. Their only motivation was to force Assad to resign.

Mubarak, Gaddafi, Assad

Friends of Syria didn’t work because its members had no real effect on Syria. That is a basic difference between other toppled Arab leaders and Bashar Assad. Ex-president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was one of the closest allies of the US in the region. When Egyptian people took to the streets and clashed with security forces for days, the Obama administration stopped supporting Mubarak and he was left alone.  Mubarak would be a huge cost for the Obama government while people are uprising against him.

Muammar Gaddafi didn’t have as powerful an ally as Assad had. Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stood against NATO intervention against Libya at the beginning but then Turkey supported the intervention by sending war ships to help NATO forces.

Assad has the chance to have three friends backing him. Russia and China prevented any resolution which would open a way for a foreign military action against Syria by using their veto power in the UN Security Council.  The third actor supporting Assad in the region is Iran.

As opposed to the Mubarak case, Assad’s friends did not stop supporting him and contrary to Gaddafi’s case, Syria’s geographic position is making a military intervention harder in comparison with Libya’s openness to the Mediterranean Sea where NATO war ships located during the operation. Syria is also sharing a border with Lebanon where a strong Shia organisation exists; Hezbollah and Hezbollah is sending its fighters to defend Assad regime against opposition. When we look at this picture, it is clear to see why Assad is still in the power. However, can a Western military intervention change this situation?

It is obvious that military power of the US, Britain and France is too strong for Assad’s army. However, the removal of Assad depends on how much Western powers will force it.

US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen Martin Dempsey outlined five military options for an intervention on Syria in July.

They are:

1-   training, advising and assisting the opposition

2-   conducting limited strikes

3-   establishing a no-fly zone

4-   creating buffer zones inside Syria

5-   controlling Damascus’ chemical arms

Dempsey estimated  that the first option would cost about $500 million a year. Others would cost about $1 billion per month.

Assisting the opposition is not an option anymore after a chemical attack is claimed to have happened. The international community has reached the point where something must be done urgently. On the other hand, the other four options would be a big cost for Western economies struggling with global financial crisis.

It seems like their first choice will be a quick strike that is not going to last more than a few days. According to reports, coalition forces may strike Syria by missiles without entering Syrian airspace. It is crucial to remember that foreign military attacks against Syria have already happened this year. Israel hit Syrian targets in January, May and July. Though Tel Aviv never accepted or refuted the attacks, US sources confirmed rocket strikes had been used. According to US forces, Israel targeted Syria’s Russian-made anti-ship missiles. Some other sources said missiles bound to be sent to Hezbollah were destroyed in these attacks. A military facility in Jamraya was said to be among targets hit by Israel. The center in Jamraya is believed to be a chemical weapon facility.

If a similar operation is carried out by Western coalition powers as it was done by Israel, it may not change much in Syria. The removal of Assad depends on how strong the West will hit. No one expects ground troops to be sent. Obama has already said in May that he did not foresee a scenario that would require sending US troops.

If Assad is removed…

If a foreign intervention happens, the best scenario is the removal of Assad. However, the best scenario may risk the worst war in the Middle East.

It has been a decade since Americans invaded Iraq, but every week car bombings takes civilians’ lives. Secretarian violence is at its peak, and this happened in a country where no civil war existed before American invasion.

Syria is already in ruins. Tension is spreading in the region. Shia and Sunni groups in Lebanon are fighting each other. Hezbollah-controlled places have been attacked by car bombs. Turkey is directly involved with Syrian civil war, with the government forming camps for Syrian refugees. But there are strong claims that weapons used by opposition fighters are being channeled through Turkey and anti-Assad fighters are being trained on Turkish land.

Relations between Ankara and Tehran are quite tense. Turkey has already paid the price of supporting opposition when two car bombs exploded and killed more than 50 people in Hatay, Reyhanlı on the Syrian border. This was the deadliest single terror attack on Turkish soil in history.

If a foreign intervention starts, whether Turkey plays an active role in it or not, mass demonstrations are not going to surprise anyone. GeziPark protests which began in June in Istanbul and then spread to other Turkish cities may be fuelled again if a war breaks out as a reaction against Erdoğan government. Turkey’s long border with Syria is another problem. Syria’s government may carry out revenge attacks targeting Turkish cities if they are attacked by Western countries. No other neighbor of Syria is involved in its civil war as much as Turkey is. Damascus may target Turkey which is just next to it rather than far away Western countries.

A full war against Syria is highly likely to increase problems. As American general Dempsey said: “We have learned from the past ten years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state.”

Any solutions?

If a military operation does not solve the problem, what does? This is a question those who stand against foreign intervention should answer.

A peaceful solution is harder now than it was two and half years ago, but this does not mean it is impossible.

Russia and Iran are only real powers Assad relies on. Both of these countries would not want to lose Syria which is an essential ally for them.

They may force Assad to quit power under a compromised agreement between opposition and the regime. Until now, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar did not show any sign of intention for finding a peaceful solution in real meaning.

Turkey kept dialogue with Assad rule until September 2011. However, Ankara suspended official relations with Syria and joined an arms embargo against Damascus. In November of same year, Turkish PM Erdoğan called Assad to resign from the presidency.

Turkey’s argument is that the Syrian government has never met the demands of its people for political reforms. However, this is not exactly true.

Assad’s reforms 

Earlier than Turkey’s call for reforms, in April 2011, Bashar Assad promised citizenship for hundreds of thousands of non-citizen Kurds living in Syria. Another move was to end 48-years martial law. However, protesters demanded Assad to quit the seat.

This is a justified demand but Assad had backing from outside to stay and fight. It is also important to note that Bashar Assad belongs to Alawite sect of Islam and Alawites are almost 12 per cent of Syria’s 22 million population. Christians who are ten per cent of the population are mainly pro-Assad too because they are afraid of extremists groups in the opposition like Al-Nusra Front linked with Al-Qaeda.

Turkey let anti-regime Syrian National Council open an office in Istanbul and gave its full support. Turkey had enough power to force the opposition to start dialogue with Syria but instead, Ankara was too impatient to ask Assad to leave the power.

Apparently, the Turkish government could not anticipate Assad would stay in the power that long. And if a military intervention happens, things are going to become harder to be anticipated in whole region.

The article is a personal opinion.

Leave a Reply