Monday, February 27, 2012

Syrian safe havens, and R2P overreach in Libya

I supported and continue to support the vast majority of what international community did in Libya.  For those who continue to predict bad things in Libya's future, I'm going to put up a post soon to give them a chance to put their money where their mouths are, while I do the same.

Our governments did, however, go too far at the tail end of the war and I opposed it. There were earlier examples too were we twisted the international authorization of force under the Responsibility to Protect civilians doctrine and used it for the only-partially overlapping goal of regime change.

That's part of the problem in Syria today, that the military overreach in Libya makes it harder to apply R2P in Syria.  But that doesn't mean we should put all military options off the table.

I partially disagree with Marc Lynch and his analysis that no military options should be pursued.  Asad should be given a choice (in private communication), to either back off from rebel-held zones or face the establishment of safe havens along the Turkish border.  Safe havens wouldn't be the first choice but it would be the alternative.  There also should be some, only some, covert military assistance to the armed opposition - not an attempt to make them strong enough to win, but to help them be strong enough to protect the areas they control and retain the possibility of further fractures in Syria's military.

Marc is right that armed observers are useless absent Syrian authorization, which won't happen, and that a no fly zone is a bad idea (mostly).  Punitive air strikes are also useless in themselves, but not as a limited mechanism to protect safe havens.  If safe havens become necessary, Asad gets warned (privately) that any attack on a safe haven will face reprisal air strikes that will degrade his air defenses, making it incrementally easier to do still more punitive strikes or establish a no fly zone.  We don't need to do a no-fly zone, just make him fear one.

(More after the jump....)

To critique Marc's argument more directly, I think there's little additional that can be done in terms of sanctions absent Russian cooperation, which won't happen for a year or more.  He also says the government will use military force even more brutally if outside military options are pursued, but I doubt they can be much more brutal.

His two best arguments are that Russia et al. will start re-arming the Syrian government if we use force, and that some elements of Syrian society will rally around Asad in response to outside intervention.  Keeping the outside intervention limited - the only boots on the ground anywhere being Turkish soldiers protecting safe havens, and keeping airstrikes very limited if they have to happen at all - would reduce these problems.  In any event, military assistance to Asad won't change the outcome that much, and I don't see too many more factions coming around to Asad's side, especially if we could use our aid to start influencing the opposition to continue respecting minorities.

The safe haven approach would require Turkish leadership and cooperation, and shouldn't be done without support of the Arab League.  Absent that, the only military approach I can see right now is covert military support.  The approach may also have international legal issues since it won't get Security Council support, but arm-waving is good enough for me when lives are on the line.

Another reason why safe havens are a good idea is to improve the best worst case scenario.  What if Asad wins?  If safe havens exist on the 5%-10% of Syria's land bordering Turkey with 2%-5% of Syria's population, then at least there's a Free Syria for some Syrians that will demonstrate an alternative future is possible for the entire country.  I think Marc was entirely wrong in saying that the safe haven of Kurdish Iraq after the Gulf War didn't work out well.  Certainly the people living there were better off and even slightly freer than under Hussein.  He's right that it was expensive, but it doesn't need to be as expensive with Turkish support and no need for a no-fly zone.

Marc challenges military action supporters with a few questions (at the link, bottom of page 3).  The intervention should be about protecting civilians only, not regime change.  I think I've outlined how it would protect some civilians, and could protect even more if Asad decides that leaving rebel held areas alone is a better deal than having safe havens forced on him.  It increases a soft landing possibility by encouraging Syria's military to get rid of Asad on their own rather than lose incremental control of the country and of military capability.  The main resource limitation is Turkish cooperation, and otherwise should costs less than Libya did, which wasn't much.  It will harm attempts to get Russian cooperation, but we're not getting that anyway.  If Asad doesn't collapse right away, keep up the pressure covertly, and work to stabilize a Free Syria.

If we don't rush into military intervention, use it sparingly, and provide incentives to Asad to avoid following the military route, then having that option could spare lives.