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PV Vivekanand: Syria – what to expect next
April 18, 2012
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The key factors that are cited by those who favour foreign military intervention to end the Syrian crisis are exactly those presented by those who oppose such action but for different reasons.

The reality on the ground is that the Syrian regime is well-prepared and organised to wage a protracted conflict with dissidents.  Its security forces have learnt many new lessons from the one year of crackdown on dissent where they are fighting a poorly armed and divided opposition.

Unlike Libya, where forceful action by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) helped a better united opposition to bring about a regime change last year, Syria is more equipped and has well-trained security forces to deal with an internal strife. And this means that the opposition stands little chance of overpowering and toppling the regime without direct foreign military intervention.

On the other side, the argument is that the heavy armour in Syria’s possession makes it tough for anyone to expect quick success for foreign military intervention and that the splintered opposition does not have a common vision for the future of the country after the regime is toppled.

Arming the opposition is an option favoured by some countries but opposed by the US and allies who say the weapons could end up with anti-West groups like Al Qaeda although there is no clear indication that Al Qaeda militants are active in Syria.

There are at least two points that all sides agree on – the Syrian strife is threatening regional stability and neighbours would be eventually drawn into the conflict. And removing the Shiite offshoot Alawite Syrian regime will be a major clipping of Iran’s wings.

The best candidate who fits into the bill is Turkey, which is experiencing violent turbulence on its border with Syria and is hosting some 25,000 displaced Syrians. The Turkish leadership is said to be planning to set up a “safe haven” inside Syria for Syrians fleeing the regime’s violent crackdown. If the plan is implemented, Syria is sure to call it an infringement of its territorial integrity and put up a military challenge that could see Turkish and Syrian forces fighting each other.

There is little doubt that Turkey has the military prowess to  overpower Syria in an armed conflict.

Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato),  also has the option of calling for help from the alliance and this would mean direct Nato involvement in the affair. Under its founding charter of 1949,  the fundamental role of Nato “is to safeguard the freedom and security of its member countries by political and military means.”

Turkey, which has the second largest army in Nato, has already said that the alliance also had a responsibility to defend its border.

“We have many options. A country has rights born out of international law against border violations,” Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan said last week.  “Also, Nato has responsibilities with regard to Turkey’s borders, according to Article 5” of the founding charter of Nato.

Article 5 states an armed attack against one of its members will be considered an attack against all members and allows for the use of armed force.

A recently released report says that Nato cannot wage and win a war without direct American support such as collecting intelligence, reconnaissance, planning sorties and refuelling aircraft. That means a direct US role in the alliance’s operations to help Turkey.

Is that the way the scenario is being written?

Quite unlikely, given that the administration of US President Barack Obama and the Nato governments have no inclination to engage in another military conflict, which could trigger a broader regional war if Syria’s ally Iran decides to pitch in somehow.

Russia, which, along with China, is blocking UN Security Council action against the Syrian regime, has already made naval moves with a clear warning against foreign military intervention in the country.

Regional countries have enough reasons to be concerned about the developments.

The collapse of the regime in Damascus will immediately mean regional destabilisation starting with Lebanon’s Hizbollah, an ally of the Syrian government, which will move to consolidate its grip on the country. Hizbollah will draw resistance from its rival groups which are also armed.

Israel, which is fearful of the rise of Hizbollah, will intervene in its own unpredictable ways.

The two-million strong Kurdish community of Syria is another source of concern. All of Syria’s neighbours have Kurdish minorities and a majority of them are in favour of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

It is widely held that the majority Sunnis will be the dominant force in a hypothetical post-revolt Syria. The minority Sunnis of Iraq could align themselves with them and emerge as a powerful community which could challenge the Shiite domination of their country.

It is an irony that Israel might even prefer to have the current Syrian regime continue in power because it has a record of not disturbing the 1973 ceasefire line on the Golan Heights. Israel fears that Islamist forces will control a post-rebellion Syria, and add to its concerns. Islamist forces have come to the fore in Egypt and are present in the Gaza Strip in the form of Hamas and in Lebanon’s Hizbollah (although Shiite).

It will be ideal for Israel to see Syria being splintered into cantons vying with each other for power, with no strong central authority that could pose a challenge to the Jewish state. It is indeed a possibility haunting the thoughts of many who have seen how post-revolt Libya is turning out.

In the immediate term, there are too many ifs and buts attached to the crisis in Syria that project nothing but a prolonged conflict with neither side winning. 

Given the complexities of the Syrian crisis, the best (and perhaps the only) option at this juncture seems to be playing it by the ear.

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