By Adam Motiwala, BASC Research Assistant
Ever since the group of disgruntled students first immortalized their message of revolution onto the worn-down walls of the city of Deraa, there has been much discussion about what the West should do about Syria. An increasingly vocal chorus of people is now calling for a reenergized and bellicose Western response, with some, including former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, insisting on arming the opposition. At the same time, convincing arguments about the logistical complexity and dubious legality of, and lack of domestic appetite for, full-scale intervention have taken this option off the table. What seems to have been lost in this discussion are three widely-ignored realities about the situation in Syria that suggest that even a more limited Western intervention may not be the best option.
First, many are quick to conflate the events in Syria with those that occurred in Egypt and Libya. Yet it is important to remember that the number of vested interests in Syria is far greater than that elsewhere in the Middle East. Although Hosni Mubarak was in many ways a U.S. strongman, there was little chance of a foreign country intervening to prop up the regime against a democratic opposition. Unfortunately, this simply is not the case in Syria. The last Russian naval base outside of the ex-Soviet Union is in the Syrian city of Tartus; a stop in Syria is thus the only way for the Russians to refuel when going through the Mediterranean. Similarly, Iran uses Syria a means of extending support to Hamas and Hezbollah.
Both countries have shown the ability and willingness to support Assad in squashing the opposition. If the United States were to increasingly supply the Free Syrian Army (FSA), it is easy to imagine that the Kremlin would respond by intensifying its support for the regime. The prospect of Syria slipping into such a Cold War-style proxy war between the United States and Russia is worrisome, and would likely be profoundly bloody for Syrian society and detrimental to the global economy.
The second point of concern is what would replace a defeated Assad regime. It is important to remember that Bashar al-Assad still retains considerable support among minority groups in Syria and that the opposition remains fractured and has had little success in attracting non-Sunni leaders. Alawites, Christians, Druze and the merchant class have expressed legitimate fear of retaliation were a Sunni government to take hold in Damascus. This means that a new regime lead by the Syrian National Council (SNC) risks the chance of being just as divisive as the current one, solving few of the ongoing problems. Furthermore, the fact that the opposition has now received the endorsement of both Hamas and al-Qaeda (putting the terrorist organization and the United States on the same side of an issue for the first time in living memory) is troubling, and may serve as an indication of the nature of the SNC. The only thing that would be worse than a Syrian civil war would be a brutally repressive Islamist regime that came to power via U.S. action.
Finally, Syria’s large stockpile of chemical weapons has almost entirely escaped media attention. Syria has not yet joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, and is one of the few countries thought to possess considerable amounts of VX, the most vicious nerve-agent known to man (an unfathomably small dose of 10mg touching the skin is sufficient to kill). A more weaponized and aggressive opposition might provide the Assad regime with a justification for actually deploying these weapons. This could in turn lead to a spiral escalation wherein NATO responds to the use of WMDs with bombs and Assad, in desperation, reacts with even more chemical weapons.
As unattractive as it may sound, then, the best course of the action is to allow current trends to continue. As the rate of defections from within the Assad regime hastens, and as renewed sanctions continue to send the Syrian economy into free-fall, many predict that the business class will stop supporting the regime in droves. Once this happens, Russia may realize the need to hedge its bets and give up its unconditional support of the regime, thus opening doors for political compromises. In short, patience may be the least bad solution to what promises to be a rough revolution in Syria.