What does a U.S. administration do to justify failure to deal with a foreign crisis?
In response to that question, over the years, a system of signaling in three phases has been developed.
In the first phase, the administration uses its media contracts, the think tanks and academia to deny there is a crisis. Erudite papers are published demonstrating that what headline writers present as crisis is nothing but a storm in the tea-cup or a distant thunder storm in no way affecting American interests.
The tactic was used to cover inaction over the genocide organized by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s. In 1991 it was used to pooh-pooh ideas of U.S. intervention to stop massacres in former Yugoslavia. “We have no dog in that race,” the then Secretary of State James Baker declared.
The second phase is to narrow down options to just two: doing nothing or full-scale invasion of a distant land that few Americans would be able to locate on the map. “Do we want another Iraq?” pontiffs demand on television when they think they are clinching the argument.
For three decades, the tactic has been used in the case of the Khomeinist imamate in Tehran.
The third phase is triggered when it becomes clear that the crisis in question is unlikely to just blow away and that its continuation could damage the interests of the United States and its allies.
In this phase, un-named sources, “in the Pentagon” or “from the military”, brief friendly reporters about the “difficulties” and “dangers” of military intervention.
As far as the Syrian crisis is concerned we are in the third phase. This is why, these days, American newspapers are full of reports citing “senior military sources” arguing against any form of military intervention to stop massacres by Bashar al-Assad.
The Washington Post quotes “senior sources” asserting that taking on Assad’s forces “could be difficult”. (If a “superpower” cannot deal with a tin-pot despot, who could?)
The first reason cited for “the difficulty” is that Assad is supposed to have “a powerful air force”. Sure, thanks to Hafez al-Assad, since 1970, Syria has devoted the lion’s share in its military budget to the air force. Nevertheless, experience shows that the massive investment may not have produced the desired results.
Between 1973 and 2006, the Israeli air force penetrated Syrian defense forces in a big way on at least three occasions but met little resistance. In 2007, Israeli planes attacked and destroyed Syria’s nuclear program at al-Kibar without being challenged by Assad’s air force.
In Iraq in the 1990s, the U.S. imposed a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s murderous raids. Although better equipped, partly thanks to advanced French-made warplanes, Saddam’s air force was in no position to fight back.
Mostly equipped by Russia and North Korea, Syria’s air force is even less able to stop US intervention.
Another “difficulty” cited by “sources” is that Assad is supposed have a 350,000-strong army.
Again, Iraq’s experience may be relevant. Remember how US media claimed that Saddam commanded “the fourth largest army in the world”?
However, in 2003, the 500,000-man Iraqi army decided not to fight for Saddam.
Today, the same is true of Syrian Army. A force of conscripts, like that of Iraq at the time of Saddam, the Syrian army is not keen on killing its people on behalf of a despot from a minority community. Assad relies on Special Forces, possibly no more than 40,000 men, to continue the massacre.
The last argument cited against military intervention may be the most comical.
The “sources” claim that military intervention in Syria could involve “other powers” in and lead to war with Russia and Iran.
To start with, other powers are already involved in Syria. Russia and Iran are shipping arms to Assad while Iran may have deployed some of its Lebanese Hezbollah units in support of the despot. For its part, Turkey is involved on the side of the opposition.
Does anyone in the Pentagon seriously believe that Russia and Iran would declare war against the U.S. and European allies to save Assad?
The truth is that Moscow and Tehran would not go beyond certain limits to maintain their Syrian client in power. Once it becomes clear that Assad is doomed, Moscow and Tehran would jettison him as fast as possible.
This analysis, however, should not be read as a call for military invasion of Syria by the United States or anybody else for that matter.
Syria today is not what Iraq was in 2003.
At that time, under Saddam Hussein, there was no internal mechanism for change in Iraq. Outside intervention in Iraq was necessary not to impose democracy by force, as some jibed, but to remove the impediment to democracy that was Saddam’s regime.
In Syria, on the other hand, the internal mechanism for change exists in the form of a popular uprising of remarkable resilience that backed by almost every ethnic and religious community.
Any foreign intervention that might be needed would be for the protection of safe havens beyond the reach of Assad’s killing machine. Assad should be persuaded that he cannot win by massacring Syrians. To that end, the U.S. and European and Arab allies must make it clear that they would not shirk from using military means to protect Syrians.
Paradoxically, the prospect of foreign military intervention may be the surest means of avoiding that eventuality. Like all cowards in history, Assad would stop killing only when persuaded that there is a force out there, beyond the actual conflict that is willing and able to stop him.
The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in Asharq Al Awsat on Mar. 30, 2012