NATO Intervention Will Harm Syria and Region

Assad must go.

With reports that Syian President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly using tanks and even helicopters to attack opposition protesters, it is clear Assad is no longer a credible leader who deserves to be head of state. Having consistently broken his promise to the Arab League of reining in the violence against opposition protesters, Assad has proven that not only can he not be trusted, but also that he is a threat to thousands of his own people.

Back in March, the world was faced with a similar dilemma in Libya. Muammar Gaddafi had pledged to hunt down and extinguish the protesters in the East of Libya like rats. Ill-equipped rebels prepared to defend Benghazi as government troops and mercenaries approached. But hours before hundreds of tanks and thousands of pro-Gaddafi loyalists were to lay siege to the city of 600,000, NATO intervened and Benghazi was saved.

Six months later, Libya is free. Yet Assad continues to kill civilians in an attempt to tighten his grip on power.

Thus the question must be asked whether it is time for NATO to once again intervene and employ a similar no-fly zone strategy that ended Gaddafi’s 40-year reign of terror.

Ultimately humanitarians and pro-democracy activists must come to terms with the fact that Syria isn’t Libya and such an intervention would be much more costly – both in terms of money and loss of lives – and not nearly as smooth. With the death toll soaring upwards of 3,500, many Syrians and democracy activists are once again looking to NATO for help. Yet, while as a humanitarian it is excruciatingly difficult not to support another similar mission, now is not the time intervene in Syria. Not yet anyway.

Unlike Libya, Syria’s tribal, religious, and ethnic differences present complicated challenges much more akin to the invasion of Iraq than the outcomes we have seen in North Africa.

As seen by recent large pro-Assad rallies in Damascus, the government still has strong support in the country. The additional combination of deep divisions based on religious and ethnic differences and unwavering allegiances predicated on self-preservation has created a convoluted web of both hostilities and loyalties towards the regime. An intervention in Syria could not only accelerate a possible civil war, it could also lead to an ethnic cleansing.

Further complicating any intervention is the fact that aside from the mainly Kurdish populations in the North, Syrian cities are an amalgamation of ethnic and religious communities. The advantage NATO had in being able to divide Libya between the East and West, mainly by patrolling a few coastal roads, does not exist in Syria. Densely populated towns in close proximity to one another make a NATO mission all the more hazardous, as higher civilian casualties would be inevitable should NATO deploy missiles.

Then, of course, there is the issue of Hezbollah and tribal and political affiliations that extend beyond the Syrian border spilling into the greater Levant. There is a very real possibility of Hezbollah responding by carrying out attacks in Israel or threatening to destabilize Lebanon. With Jordan to the south, Lebanon to the east, Israel to the north and of course the omnipresent influence of Iran, a confluence of events could ignite regional instability in the Levant far worse than the current unrest in Syria.

Such deterrents however could be overcome should the NATO countries be committed to ousting Assad. The problem isn’t a lack of military might or intelligence capabilities, but rather a lack of political resolve. The primary hurdle for any potential military operation is the fact that so far, there is no clear group to save or a unified opposition to back. The protesters are not based in an iconic square or area like they were in Egypt. The people aren’t all against the regime, like they seemingly were in Tunisia, and they have yet to develop a real opposition movement like they did in Libya.

Considering all the perils of any military intervention in Syria, NATO cannot just replace a dictator with no leader or movement ready to assume power and fill the leadership void. That would be unspeakably irresponsible. Yet, the Syrian resistance is woefully disorganized, so much so that the two main groups, the Istanbul based Syrian National Council and the Damascus based National Coordination Committee, can’t even agree on whether they want foreign intervention.

Sadly, both Assad and NATO realize that an intervention at this stage could permanently damage NATO’s credibility and plunge not only Syria, but also perhaps the entire region into greater instability and even war.

Nevertheless, from a purely humanitarian perspective, Assad must be deposed. He is another in a long line of brutal bloodthirsty criminals intent on doing whatever is necessary to maintain power and its only a matter of time before the bloodshed is too difficult to ignore. But before the West gets involve, Syrian opposition must first agree on who and what will come next.

Photo Credit: syriana2011