By Tony Karon
On Wednesday, Syrian National Council head Abdulbaset Sieda invoked Libya when calling for international intervention to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad. He may not have realized the extent to which, after last week’s attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya weighs heavily on American minds. The chaos that prevails almost a year after the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi allowed a radical Islamist militia to operate unmolested and use a demonstration over an Islam-bashing film made in California as an opportunity to attack and kill Americans. So, despite the escalating brutality in Syria, a repeat of the Libya model is unlikely to get many takers in Washington. “No one outside Tehran and Moscow wants to bolster Bashar al-Assad, but the images of infuriated young men in Egypt, Libya and Yemen have given outsiders greater pause about Syria’s fragmented, radicalized and increasingly well-armed opposition,” noted Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group risk-management firm. “That conflict will drag on without intervention by outsiders for some time to come.”
Yet, in the Hague, another meeting of the Friends of Syria group of Western and Arab backers of the rebellion ended on Wednesday. They made plans to escalate the slow-burning sanctions that are doing little to change the regime’s course, even as they constrict Syrians’ ability to make ends meet. The group vowed to meet again before the end of 2012, but set no date. Even before last week’s tragedy in Libya, Syria’s plight was simply not near the top of the to-do list of Western leaders, partly as a result of more pressing priorities and partly because they see no good options for effecting a positive outcome.
The Syrian conflict pits a predominantly Sunni rebellion against a regime based on an Alawite security core with a measure of support from Christians and other minorities, as well as a declining share of the Sunni elite (numerous exceptions notwithstanding). From the outside, at least, it is beginning to look more like the civil war that broke out in Lebanon in the late 1970s than the rebellions of Tunisia and Egypt. Mindful of the regional consequences of picking a side in such a civil war, and of the danger of being sucked in with no exit strategy, Western powers are, if anything, growing increasingly reluctant to intervene directly.
Syria’s opposition remains deeply divided. The armed rebellion remains disorganized, with dozens of rival militias fighting under autonomous commanders. The growing influence of both Syrian and foreign jihadists among the armed formations reinforces the West’s hesitance. Indeed, even the U.S. that hoped, together with France, Turkey and Qatar, to anoint the Syrian National Council as a government-in-waiting, has been forced to distance itself from the group in light of its limited authority over revolutionaries on the ground.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose new envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has been meeting with stakeholders across the region in recent weeks, pointedly warned this week that there could be “no military solution” to the Syrian conflict. But as Ban’s last envoy, Kofi Annan, found, neither the opposition nor the regime, nor the foreign backers of either side, appears to be ready to embrace that reality. Assad hopes to blast his way out of trouble, while the rebels appear to believe that even if they lack the military capacity to topple the regime themselves, putting up enough of a fight will eventually prompt Western powers to intervene, as in Libya, to destroy the regime’s fighting capacity.
Besides growing reservations born of the situation on the ground, the Western powers no longer have the same appetites and capacities for intervention today that they may have had a decade ago, or even 18 months ago, when they began flying close air support to the Libyan rebels. NATO is struggling to extract itself from a disastrous war in Afghanistan where it has lost more than 50 soldiers just this year to attacks from the very Afghan security forces it’s in Afghanistan to support. And the West is mired in a deep and sustained economic crisis that suppresses the appetite for global military adventures. Even pledges of humanitarian support for Syria have fallen way short in the delivery, although some suspect that may be based on a reluctance to provide help that would be distributed under the aegis of the regime.
Absent outside help, the conflict appears to be setting into a strategic stalemate, with neither side capable of destroying the other, though the body count keeps rising steadily in a brutal war of attrition. The more optimistic observers in the West imagine a situation in which the regime, unable to restore control over vast swaths of territory, finds itself starved by sanctions until Assad’s power erodes to the point of collapse. Pessimists in the West see the makings of a repeat of Lebanon’s 17-year civil war, in which the country, and even the capital city, was broken down into warring confessional fiefdoms — backed by competing regional powers — that were able maintain their standoff for years on end.
It may be precisely because of the slim prospects of any Libya-style intervention that an Egyptian initiative to establish a contact group composed of Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran is getting some traction. Turkey and the Saudis, of course, are backing the rebellion, while Iran is solidly behind the regime. Egypt’s new Islamist government hopes that the depth of involvement by those countries in the conflict is precisely why such a group has a better chance of convincing the Syrian combatants to heed a political compromise.
But the plan met an inauspicious start: the Saudis stayed home. Saudi media, like Syrian opposition groups and the Obama Administration, has challenged Iran’s involvement. Others, from former U.N. envoy Annan to Russia and the Qatari leadership, have supported Tehran’s inclusion precisely because it remains the regime’s key backer. And Turkey’s participation suggests a growing concern to resolve a conflict in which its involvement has become domestically unpopular. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy’s initiative is only just getting under way, and a second meeting is schedule for New York later this month, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
Nobody is especially optimistic that it will make quick progress. But the fact that it appears to be the only game in town underscores that much of the region, and the international community, is hunkering down for a protracted battle in a context where the rules of international conflict are changing. Bremmer sees the Syria stalemate as another symptom of a retrenchment of U.S. power in a region it had dominated for the past half-century. “Foreign governments are now less willing than ever to bet on either the devil they know or the one they don’t,” he noted. “The result is that local powers will be left to sort things out. Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia — three countries with very different political systems, social structures, worldviews and visions for the region — will compete for influence.”
Lebanon’s civil war too was settled without decisive foreign military intervention. But it took the combatants 17 years of fighting to accept the mediation of Arab governments. The grim reality in Syria is that neither side appears remotely close to accepting that its war can’t be won.