Syria: Why international action remains unlikely even as death toll rises

The Arab League asked the United Nations Security Council to send forces to Syria today to stop the bloodshed there. But international military action against Bashar al-Assad's regime remains unlikely.

George Orfalian/Reuters
Mourners carry the coffins of residents killed in bomb blasts on Friday in Aleppo, Syria.

At dawn on March 19, 2011, artillery rained down on the Libyan rebel capital of Benghazi. Col. Muammar Qaddafi appeared poised to make good on his threats to exterminate the "rats" seeking his ouster. Thousands of families fled.

Then French warplanes sprang into action, soon to be joined by US, British, and other NATO forces. Qaddafi's armored column was reduced to scrap metal, paving the way for his eventual overthrow.

Now, a similar scenario is taking place in Syrian cities like Homs, where withering artillery barrages that began Feb. 3 have killed at least 100 civilians – some say the number could be in the several hundreds – and flooded YouTube and social networking sites with horrific images. At least 5,400 Syrians have been killed in the 11-month uprising. But the prospects for action like the NATO intervention in Libya are virtually nil.

The barrage on Homs, a center for opposition to the continued rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, eased on Saturday as the Arab League held an emergency meeting in Cairo on the war there. The group called on the UN Security Council to send peace-keepers to Syria to end the bloodshed. The opposition in Syria has been braying for international military assistance for weeks. But it remains highly unlikely that they will get the direct intervention they're asking for.

Supporters of liberal intervention – the notion that international powers should override national sovereignty to protect civilians and improve societies – had crowed that Libya was a model for the 21st century, a further pillar supporting the "responsibility to protect." 

But Syria's war, longer and bloodier than when NATO intervened in Libya's, is not stirring anyone to action. There are differences between Libya and Syria in alliances, terrain, and military capability. International action would be longer, costlier, and would probably require an invasion to be fully effective. And at any rate, Russia and China, angry over how the UN's role in ousting Col. Qaddafi played out, have vowed to veto attempts at action in Syria.

Strengths and weaknesses

While the Libyan intervention was sold on moral grounds, the fact that it was a comparatively easy mission was also influential. Qaddafi had a weak military, paltry air defenses, and no powerful friends left internationally. Libya's vast desert landscape, with population centers clustered in a thin band along the Mediterranean coast, rendered it almost tailor-made for intervention from the air.

By contrast, Syria's population density is almost 30 times greater, which increases the risk of civilian casualties. The Army is five times larger than the former Libyan Army and much better equipped. And Syria's air-defense network is sufficiently large to pose a challenge to Western planes. "In Libya, we could accomplish a lot of value with very little at stake," says Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project in Washington, D.C. "Syria has an advanced antiaircraft system that would take a lot of work to get rid of. You'd have to engage in a lot of destruction and commit a lot of time and a lot of money to get to the point where you could accomplish something."

On top of the technical military problems is the charged regional context. The Libyan intervention took place in a calmer neighborhood. Syria – Iran's best friend and a key sponsor of the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon – is already becoming an arena for proxy battles between regional forces, says Aram Nerguizian. He is a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and author of a December report on the risks of military intervention in Syria. "Anything that would involve direct Western intervention would be deeply destabilizing at the regional level," he says.

Syria's social landscape is more complicated than Libya's as well. Like Iraq, where millions of Sunni Arabs and Christians were driven out during the sectarian civil war that followed Saddam Hussein's ouster, Syria is governed by a privileged minority: the Alawites. The Muslim sect makes up about 12 percent of the population. Many Alawites believe winning the war is a matter of survival and fear the reprisals that would follow a victory by the Sunni majority. Iraq and Lebanon (which endured a 15-year civil war) serve as reminders of the horrors of sectarian conflict.

"It's a genuine ethical dilemma," says Stephen Walt, an international affairs professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "If you stay out, thousands of non-Alawite Syrians are going to die, many of whom just wanted some basic degree of human rights there. On the other hand, if you intervene, you might have the slaughter of tens or thousands of people associated with the regime, or assumed to be associated with the regime, by the winners. I don't know what the automatic right formula to come to the right choice here is."

Russia's concerns

While the West has largely embraced the Arab uprisings as a welcome shift toward democracy, Moscow argues that the outcome will be instability and bloodshed. With a multitude of ethnic and religious sects as well as nationalist minorities itself, Russia has an innate suspicion of popular uprisings and their uncertain outcomes.

Though Russia had qualms about intervening in Libya's uprising and has long been wary of Western-mandated regime change, it ultimately declined to use its veto power last year to block United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized force to protect civilians in Libya. Instead, it abstained.

But Russia felt deceived by the West's interpretation of the resolution as support for a broad air campaign to aid the country's rebels and drive out Qaddafi.

"Countries like Russia and China have been for many years opposed to a world order in which the US and its allies could more or less unilaterally determine who could run certain countries," says Professor Walt. "They abstained on UNSC 1973 because the terms did not involve regime change but what they saw as something [that would lead to] a ... negotiated resolution. Certainly they were very uncomfortable with the idea that we'd just blow right past the terms of the resolution."

So when a more tepid Security Coun­cil resolution was proposed Feb. 4 for Syria, Moscow and Beijing vetoed it. "When [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergei Lavrov was in D.C., he flat-out said, 'You burned us on Libya ... so you're not going to get Syria on my watch,' " says Mr. Foust.

Russia also stands to lose about $5 billion in arms sales if UN sanctions are imposed on Syria, including current contracts worth about $1.5 billion. Foust speculates that continued Russian arms transfers to Syria are acting as a sort of "invasion insurance." They include the belated transfer in December of a consignment of supersonic P-800 Yakhont antiship missiles, part of a $300 million deal signed four years ago. Yakhont missiles are among the most advanced in the world and would pose a serious threat to a Western amphibious task force operating off the Syrian coast.

With diplomacy stalled and a Libya-style intervention out of the question, Western and Arab officials are weighing military support for the rebel Free Syrian Army, a catch-all for Syrian army defectors, Islamist activists, and others who have taken up arms against Assad.

But with the sectarian nature of Syria's politics, there's a risk that today's freedom fighters could become tomorrow's oppressors. And Mr. Nerguizian says that the regime has been preparing for decades for just such a scenario. "It still has a far higher degree of support than is being reported," he says.

• Fred Weir contributed from Moscow.

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