Recent developments in Syria suggest ways in which western intervention may well be escalated within the conflict-stricken country, argues Dan Poulton

Turkey and Nato flagsSince Wednesday 3 October Turkey has mounted retaliatory attacks on the Syrian army after shells landed inside the Turkish border. It would appear this was an unintentional overspill of fighting along the Syria/Turkey borderlines rather than any deliberate provocation by the Syrian regime (it’s hard to see why Assad would want to bring on the military wrath of Nato stalwart Turkey.)

This unilateral response has taken place in the face of strong anti-war opposition within Turkey. Sadly, such anti-interventionism is in sharp contrast with mounting calls for intervention from within the Syrian opposition and from amongst its supporters. Nato has said it will defend Turkey if necessary, presenting another possible avenue for escalation in the future.

We should be under no illusions as to the devastating effects of a military intervention. This would require establishing one of Nato’s infamous ‘no fly zones’, in essence an intense air war. Security analyst Brian T. Haggerty recently calculated that such a no fly zone would require:

“[Initial strikes] destroying more than 450 targets, including at least 22 early warning radar sites and command-and-control facilities, 150 surface-to-air missile batteries, 27 surface-to-surface missile batteries, 12 anti-ship missile batteries, 32 airfield targets and more than 200 hardened aircraft shelters. This could require dropping more than 1,600 munitions over hundreds of sorties in the opening days of strikes, and could drag on much longer should mobile targets prove difficult to find, which is all but guaranteed.”

According to Haggarty, even after setting up a ‘safe zone’:

“…the burden would fall on coalition aircraft. This would require moving beyond keeping Syrian aircraft out of the sky to targeting pro-regime ground forces directly and on a sustained basis.”

Russia and China, with their veto powers, are still a block to such direct intervention, but at the same time a broad consensus in favour of a political ‘transition’ is taking root.

Syrian National Council (SNC) head Abdulbaset Sieda has said that, despite the SNC’s previous demand for the complete removal of Assad’s Baathist regime, no process of ‘de-Baathification’ will take place:

“We will just remove all its illegitimate privileges and officials who committed crimes will be put on trial. The Baath party will practice its activities in accordance with the democratic process. We will not have a revenge policy and we will preserve state institutions.”

This is despite the fact that the Assad regime has killed an estimated 30,000 Syrians since March 2011, the most brutal of all the Arab Revolution crackdowns. The SNC is set to meet in Qatar shortly to discuss its transition plans further.

If the SNC has little credibility on the ground in Syria (as even the Western powers acknowledge), then the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has a far greater purchase on activists, as it is engaged in an ongoing civil war alongside the more disparate and localised Local Coordination Committees (LCCs).

But the FSA, too, is now calling for western military backing, primarily in the form of requesting armaments for its fighters. According to Colonel Qassim Saadeddine, FSA commander in the besieged city of Homs:

“FSA brigades outside of Homs are trying to ease the pressure on the fighters inside these districts by attacking government checkpoints [s]urrounding the city. But we only have light weapons, we desperately need heavy weapons to stop them.”

It’s certainly true that large sections of the FSA lack sufficient armaments to counter Assad’s relentless military assault. But some commentators point to this fact as evidence that there are no attempts by the West to arm the rebels (despite significant evidence to the contrary). The BBC recently reported what they believe to be Saudi arms diverted to Aleppo, reporting that:

“…their [the weapons’] presence clearly suggests that someone in the Gulf is actively helping the rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad… When contacted by the BBC, Saudi officials refused to comment… Privately, opposition sources have confirmed to the BBC that they are receiving assistance from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”

The Libya bombing was presented as a heroic march to war on behalf of benevolent western governments, but the west has to balance its desires to intervene directly in the protracted Syrian uprising against the wider regional implications of a Nato war which would most certainly escalate and draw the major powers of Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and Israel into a conflagration.

Senior Pentagon advisor Melissa Dalton form the Centre for New American Security sums up this precarious balancing act:

“It’s a very difficult situation, and the lack of coherence of the [Syrian] opposition is probably the biggest single challenge. Given everything that is at stake, the United States clearly cannot do nothing. But there are no good scenarios arising from this conflict, and so the most important strategy for the United States to pursue is mitigating the risks to its interests.”

The United States clearly cannot do nothing. A useful proviso to bear in mind when assessing the fate of the Syrian revolution.

The ‘Plan A’ of US imperialists would be to install a pro-western regime in Syria. But an acceptable ‘Plan B’ would be for the country to become mired in an unresolved internal conflict which would incapacitate Syria in its role as an Iranian ally. We appear to be watching the beginning of this process already.

Dan Poulton

Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner.  His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.

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