And that’s the other shoe. Saddam developed and executed a plan to deal with an American invasion that involved building an insurgency and hiding away his deadlier toys. His partners in that plan were in Syria. The people suppressing the insurgency in Syria are the same ones who oversaw the insurgency against NATO in Iraq. There are mutual grudges on both sides, but the Syrians know how to play the other side of the board.
Finally there’s one more explosive element. This isn’t the conflict between a dictator and his people that every media outlet is trying to present it as. This is a religious civil war between Alawites and Sunnis. The Alawites have slaughtered plenty of Sunnis and if the Sunnis win then the butcher’s bill will come due. As repugnant as the Syrian elite may be, they are not only fighting for power, but for the lives and futures of their families. And they may be willing to do things that the Libyan forces would be unprepared to do.
The likely scenario is still a No Fly Zone aiming at the destruction of the Syrian air force and much of the heavy stuff on the ground. This should be doable, but it will be more expensive than we envision. Even Libya managed to outlast Obama’s initial assessment by several months. Syria may take even longer unless a great deal of firepower is committed to the task.
That could mean another indefinite conflict that ends in another Saddam scenario complete with sanctions and a permanent No Fly Zone. That could have been the outcome in Libya; it still might be the outcome in Syria with Sunni Islamists operating in a limited territory under our protection. If the Democrats screw up that badly and create their own Iraq, then they really will have come full circle.
But assuming that Syria’s capabilities are significantly degraded, and that NATO aircraft safely prowl the sky taking out any remaining command and control centers and armor, then the conflict boils down to a straight civil war in which bands of insurgents on both sides do their best to butcher each other. Syria has some rather nasty special forces and its Baath elites have experience running insurgency operations against which NATO airpower will be mostly useless.
That breaks down into Iraq, complete with both sides carrying out the kind of Sunni-Shiite terror that sent the country spiraling down into hell. And it’s hardly an implausible scenario. The basic elements of religious fanaticism, guerrilla experience and trainers on both sides are available. With NATO and Qatar providing training and strategy on one side, and Russia and Iran doing the same on the other, this could end up being worse than Iraq, except that American troops probably won’t be in the middle of it.
That raises the question of whose troops will be. The Arab League wants a joint UN Peacekeeping Force. That isn’t likely to happen except as a completely useless paperweight. A UN force would prevent NATO from implementing regime change and prevent the Assad regime from butchering its enemies, thereby serving no one’s purposes. More likely though the UN force would be absolutely useless at both these things and would stand and watch, while providing occasional targets for either or both sides.
Turkey’s Islamist AKP thugs are raring to go, but a Turkish deployment might be too much even for the Arab League, which is on the same Islamist page as the AKP, but still might feel uncomfortable about what might look like a Turkish conquest of Syria. Sarkozy might be dumb enough to commit French ground troops, but that would end up carrying its own price. Some joint Friends of Invading Syria force might be able to throw together the Turks, the French and the Saudis for a comic version of the Coalition of the Willing, to secure Free Syrian Army territory and dispense humanitarian aid. And on the other side of the line would be the Baathists who have some experience fighting occupation armies. The end result might not be very pretty at all.
There is still an alternate scenario in which the Russians manage to trump NATO with some coalition of top Baathists and the Islamist opposition, while sidelining Western-backed leaders, but that’s not too likely. For one thing the Russians aren’t really any better at this than us. They showed that in Afghanistan. For another this isn’t just about Russia, it’s about Iran and its own religious solidarity. The Alawites are useful for a number of reasons, most of them having to do with being an isolated minority. End the isolation and suddenly Syria wouldn’t make quite as good a pawn.
That brings us to the showdown. NATO has become the arsenal of the Arab Spring, much as Al Jazeera has become its propaganda arm. But this time around the scenario is much more complex than a loony colonel with an army that couldn’t beat African militias. And there is no telling who will win or what the cost will be.
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