You can't say it enough: Syria is really different from Libya

Syria's war is as violent today as at any point of the over year-long conflict, and a UN peace plan spearheaded by Kofi Annan is in tatters. But that doesn't spell military intervention.

Mohammed Salem/Reuters
Women take part in a demonstration against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and to protest against the killing of at least 108 people in the Syrian town of Houla last Friday, in Cairo on Thursday, May 31.

Syrian rebel leaders have declared a UN peace plan for the country to be a failure, joining a chorus of international opinion in agreement.

There's good reason for that. Syria's civil war rages as hot or hotter as it has at any point since the uprising erupted early last year. President Bashar al-Assad may be ringed with international sanctions, but his security forces, from the Army to the special police, remain united and behind him. Pockets of Syrian territory are outside of government control, but not vast enclaves. Troops move freely around the country.

The Houla massacre last week, with at least 108 civilians murdered by militiamen alleged to be loyal to Mr. Assad (the BBC has published satellite images that make a convincing case of major Syrian government troop movements around the city at the time of the murders), has heightened the sense of crisis at the UN and world capitals.

The remaining option would appear to be military action designed to remove Assad from power. But the Obama administration appears to be backing away from that position, a consequence of the dawning reality of the challenges and steadfast Chinese and Russian opposition to any United Nations Security Council (UNSC) action.

Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, gave a series of interviews yesterday where she framed current diplomatic measures so far. On Twitter, she outlined three "mutually exclusive" scenarios for Syria. Cleaning the Twitter abbreviations from her language, she wrote: "First and best: Syria wakes up, stops killing, adheres to its obligations under multiple UNSC resolutions. Not a high probability. Second possible outcome – Russia and China need to agree – UNSC and international community assume responsibilities, exert pressure on Assad. Third and worst: violence intensifies, spills over, exploits sectarian fissures. UNSC unity gone. Annan plan gone. Most probable now."

That "most probable" is due to the fact that Russia, in particular, has shown no appetite for a UNSC resolution calling for military action. And she appears to say the US will not act without a UN mandate – "Russia and China must agree."

Her analysis is reasonable given events and tracks with the views of many knowledgeable military and regional analysts. More surprising, perhaps, was that she publicly acknowledged these facts. It's one thing to know you probably won't act without Russian approval. It's another to remove the seed of doubt that could be useful in negotiating some kind of more robust action down the line.

But something else is going on here. While some Republican leaders appear to be calling for military action in Syria, chief among them Mitt Romney, there seems to be increasing concern in the Obama administration that Syria's conflict isn't fixable by the sort of stand-off air campaign that helped Libya's rebels defeat Muammar Qaddafi. There also appears to be increasing concern that foreign forces, led by the US, would be easily led into another bloody Middle Eastern war, with an unpredictable domestic outcome and likely severe repercussions on everything from efforts to curtail Iran's nuclear program, the security of Israel, and the stability of neighbors Lebanon and Iraq, which like Syria have major sectarian fault lines. 

Last night, Ms. Rice appeared to rule out arming the rebels – something called for by both Mr. Romney and Sen. John McCain. "Even in Libya, we did not take the very exceptional decision to arm the opposition," she told CNN. "And in Syria, we know much, much less about the nature of this opposition. It’s not coherent. There’s not a unified command and control. It’s a series of different groups in different cities. There’s, clearly, also an extremist element that is trying to infiltrate... I don’t think that those that are advocating that have fully thought through the consequences. That would mean that we are conceding that the only option is to see the further militarization, to see an intensified regional war."

Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and scholar of the region who fought as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan, tells Foreign Policy that "while the Pentagon will and should prepare military contingencies, without a more cohesive Syrian opposition, an international mandate, and a viable strategy for success, the United States should not rev up the B-52s. Under current conditions, military intervention in Syria would, in the words of Foreign Policy's own Marc Lynch, 'alter but not end the dynamics of a long conflict, embroiling the United States directly in a protracted and bloody insurgency and civil war.'"

That Syria is very, very different from Libya cannot be repeated enough. Qaddafi lost the eastern half of his country within days of the start of the uprising against him. A massive international air campaign eventually followed, but it still took eight months for him to be defeated. Syria is much larger than Libya, has a far more sophisticated and loyal military, and much of the fighting is inside major population centers.

All of this points to the fourth option, which Rice did not mention: Assad wins, much as his father did against an Islamist uprising against his regime centered around the town of Hama in 1982, in which around 10,000 residents of that city were put to the sword, ending a major challenge to Syria's Baath regime. That would be a horrific outcome for his opponents, as the country's torture chambers could be expected to be filled to the brim with his opponents in the aftermath, both those who fought him, and those who merely called for change.

That option is going to keep the international dialogue about what comes next bubbling along, and could eventually lead to a consensus for international military action. But for now, the fear of a Pandora's Box being opened with consequences stretching well beyond Libya is going to keep the cautious approach front and center.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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