Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

Syria is breaking apart. The regime is under pressure, the death toll from the conflict has accelerated, and calls are growing for the U.S. and its allies to intervene militarily to cut short the emerging civil war between Sunni and Alawite Muslims.

This would be a mistake. Just because policies followed to date have failed, it doesn’t mean that the military options on the table will work. They may not improve the final outcome of a conflict that’s unlikely to stop once President Bashar al-Assad has gone.

The recent defection of Prime Minister Riad Farid Hijab, a Sunni, shows that Assad’s regime is being whittled down to its sectarian, Alawite core. Defections of senior Sunni military officers have also increased, especially since the July 18 assassination of some of Assad’s top security officials. Smarter tactics and the use of improvised roadside bombs have hobbled the regular army, which has ceded control in areas along the country’s northern borders. In some places, ethnic Kurds have declared themselves in control.

Controlling Weapons

Princeton University’s Anne-Marie Slaughter has argued cogently that these changes make it essential for the U.S. and its allies to provide the opposition with heavy weapons, safe zones and possibly air cover so that the U.S. will have a say in the post-Assad settlement and control Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

That’s the right goal, but U.S. intervention is not the best way to secure it. Calls for the creation of safe zones date to the conflict’s first days. Turkey, understanding that such zones would involve declaring war on the Syrian military, has been reluctant, and its participation would be essential. It may be more willing now, but mainly in order to crush any Kurdish enclave on its borders. Turkey is already fighting its own Kurds at home and in northern Iraq. Another Turkish-Kurdish conflict would not be a good outcome for Syria or the region.

To establish safe zones would in any case require air supremacy, which in turn would mean eliminating Syria’s air defenses. This is something only the U.S. could do, as a recent report by the Royal United Services Institute, a British defense think tank, made clear. Syria’s Russian-supplied air defenses were designed to take on the Israeli military and are therefore formidable. Suppressing them would involve casualties among allied pilots and significant numbers of civilians.

Then there’s the matter of safeguarding Syria’s chemical weapons stash. To secure the regime’s arms depots, the U.S. and its allies would need boots on the ground -- 75,000 pairs according to RUSI’s estimates. To protect these units would take a peacemaking force of at least 200,000 more troops, providing a new narrative of foreign occupation for jihadists, the Assad regime and Iran to exploit. Syria has already become a magnet for extremists around the region.

Ground Involvement

The Barack Obama administration has not done everything it could on Syria, and events will now drive it to do more. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travels to Turkey on Saturday to discuss Syria, part of an effort to take the diplomatic initiative amid the vacuum left by the failure of the mission undertaken by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general. The U.S. has also indicated that it’s boosting covert efforts and the supply of non-lethal aid, such as communications equipment, to the opposition.

Military analysts think the rebels’ growing effectiveness is partly attributable to U.S., Turkish and Gulf covert operatives already training and organizing Syrian opposition fighters. The more U.S. personnel are involved with the rebels on the ground, the better U.S. policy makers will be able to understand and influence them. The news this week that some Free Syrian Army officers had signed a code of conduct, amid growing reports of atrocities against government supporters, is encouraging.

The lack of a unified opposition remains the biggest single barrier to stronger international engagement in Syria: With whom would the U.S. ensure that cease-fire agreements are respected and chemical weapons stores protected? What kind of new order would it be helping to usher in?

On this last front, the news is not all bad. The men who defected in July -- Sunnis with links to the old Alawite-run regime -- may be able to provide the nucleus for a transition government that could prevent Syria’s atomization.

The time for more open forms of military intervention may come, most likely when Assad falls or when swaths of the country’s air defense systems are no longer under regime control. That time is not now.

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