Short version: intervening in Syria would be much, much harder and more expensive than intervening in Libya. This was true back in March, and it’s still true today.
(1) The uprising in Syria has never remotely approached the success of the uprising in Libya. Syria has seen a bunch of large, sustained protests and demonstrations. That’s great! But Libya saw the effective secession of almost half the country. By the middle of March, the rebels controlled the country’s second largest city. About a fifth of the country’s area and maybe a third of its population had passed completely out of government control. Major government military units had gone over to the rebel’s side. Nothing like that has happened in Syria.
(2) Syria has an actual, functioning air force. This is in sharp contrast to Libya, which did not. Syria actually has late-ish model planes, pilots who know how to fly them, and some semblance of a professional administrative and logistical infrastructure to support them. No, the Syrians couldn’t stand up to a sustained war with NATO — but they exist, and would have to be dealt with.
(3) Syria has an actual, functioning air defense system. Again a sharp contrast to Libya. As with the air force, it could be dealt with — but it would take time, and would likely cost casualties.
(4) Syria’s in a much, much more delicate and complicated location. Just look at a map. Taking Gaddafi out was relatively easy — Egypt and Tunisia just had their revolutions, and nobody cares much about Chad. But Syria? Israel, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon. What a nightmare. Do I need to spell out why this makes everything much harder and more fraught?
(5) Assad is much less diplomatically isolated than Gaddafi. By 2010, the Brother Leader had managed to alienate or annoy pretty much everyone. Even the Arab League openly despised him. His nominal “friends” in the Mediterranean — most notably Berlusconi’s government in Italy — turned out to be fair-weather indeed. Russia restricted itself to tut-tuts from a distance. Only in Sub-Saharan Africa did he have any real allies left, and the plain sad fact is that Niger and Senegal just don’t count for much when you’ve got the United States, United Kingdom, and French Republic all lined up against you. With bombs.
Assad, on the other hand, is a respected member of the international club. He’s a dictator, but he’s not a flake. He’s a reasonable neighbor. (Well, unless you’re Lebanese. More accurately, a Lebanese of a certain political flavor.) The Arab League is never going to pass a resolution approving force against him. And the Russians are likely to veto anything in the Security Council — they’re much closer to him than they ever were to Gaddafi. They’ve had a small naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus since the 1970s, and they’ve sold weapons to the Syrians since forever.
In fact, the Russians were just closing a deal to sell Syria a bunch of Yakhont antiship missiles when the uprising started. The Yakhont is basically a bigger, dumber Exocet; a supersonic cruise missile designed to kill large ships from far away. Israel vigorously protested the deal, for fear Syria would pass a couple along to Hezbollah. (Hezbollah blew a massive hole in an Israeli corvette a few years back using a crappy little Chinese C-802, and my co-blogger will eventually post something about his research on the brewing conflict over Israel’s new offshore gas fields, so it’s a quite reasonable fear.) Remember how in Libya, we had capital ships hanging around just offshore from Tripoli, and the Charles de Gaulle parked conveniently just a bit further out? That wouldn’t happen in Syria; even the faint possibility of shore launched cruise missiles would make any sane admiral pull his ships well back over the horizon.
Oh, and he’s got the Iranians on side, at least for the moment. I think the Iranians would switch sides in a flash, if they thought it was in their interest — but until they reach that point, they’re backing him firmly. (They just replaced their ambassador to Damascus with a hardliner with ties to the Revolutionary Guards.)
(6) Assad is much less physically isolated than Gaddafi. Libya looks like a solid block of territory, but in fact it’s like Canada — a long, thin populated strip and a vast empty hinterland. 90% of the population lives within 100 km of the coast. The civil war cut that strip in two, east and west. Gaddafi had an open path to the south, but as supply lines they were meaningless; an 800 km drive across desert, and then you’re in Niger. (A country whose major resources are under French control.) With NATO controlling the seas, virtually everything in Gaddafi’s territory had to come in or out through Tunisia, most of it on a single coastal road. The moment the rebels cut that road was the moment when everything changed for good.
There’s nothing like this in Syria, which has well-developed land links to all its neighbors except Israel. And most of Syria’s coast is actually Lebanon. Nobody’s going to blockade Lebanon. As with the air defenses, this is a solvable issue — but it makes everything much, much more difficult and expensive.
So, to summarize:
- Military intervention in Syria would be incredibly expensive and difficult, would have to overcome serious diplomatic obstacles, and would likely involve significant losses and casualties. This has always been true, and will probably continue to be true for some time to come. Therefore, it is very unlikely to happen.
- Because military intervention is unlikely, any uprising against Assad will have to succeed or fail without it, as did the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. I judge this unlikely, but that’s an issue for another post.
- If someone says “our intervention in Libya prevented us from intervening in Syria,” then you may immediately begin heavily discounting, or completely ignoring, anything else they have to say on the topic. (This goes double if they suggest that the reason is “Syria has no oil.”) If someone suggests that we should intervene in Syria, same-same.
I wish the Syrian people good luck in getting rid of the loathsome Assad regime. But the plain fact is, they’ll have to do it without direct military help from us.