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The Syria Crisis: Assessing Foreign Intervention

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By Scott Stewart

The ongoing unrest, violence and security crackdowns in Syria have been the subject of major international attention since February. Our current assessment is that the government and opposition forces have reached a stalemate in which the government cannot quell the unrest and the opposition cannot bring down the regime without outside intervention.

In the Dec. 8 Security Weekly, we discussed the covert intelligence war being waged by the United States, Israel and other U.S. allies against Iran. Their efforts are directed not only against Tehran's nuclear program but also against Iran's ability to establish an arc of influence that stretches through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. To that end, the United States and its allies are trying to limit Iran's influence in Iraq and to constrain Hezbollah in Lebanon. But apparently they are also exploring ways to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al Assad, a longtime ally of Iran whose position is in danger due to the current unrest in the country. In fact, a U.S. State Department official recently characterized the al Assad regime as a "dead man walking."

We therefore would like to examine more closely the potential external efforts required to topple the Syrian regime. In doing so, we will examine the types of tools that are available to external forces seeking to overthrow governments and where those tools fit within the force continuum, an array of activities ranging from clandestine, deniable activities to all-out invasion. We will also discuss some of the indicators that can be used by outside observers seeking to understand any efforts taken against the Syrian regime.

Syria Is Not Libya

It is tempting to compare Syria to Libya, which very recently was the target of outside intervention. Some similarities exist. The al Assad regime came to power in a military coup around the time the Gadhafi regime took control of Libya, and the regimes are equally brutal. And, like Libya, Syria is a country that is quite divided along demographic and sectarian lines and is governed by a small minority of the population.

However, we must recognize that the situation in Syria is quite different than Libya's. First, the fault lines along which Syrian society is divided are not as regionally distinct as those of Libya; in Syria, there is no area like Benghazi where the opposition can dominate and control territory that can be used as a base to project power. As our map indicates, protests have occurred throughout Syria, and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) claims to have a presence in many parts of the country.

Moreover, while some low-level, mostly Sunni soldiers have defected from the Alawite-controlled Syrian military to the FSA, Syria has not seen the large-scale military defections that occurred in Benghazi and eastern Libya at the beginning of that conflict that immediately provided the opposition with a substantial conventional military force (sometimes entire units defected). The Syrian military has remained far more unified and intact than the Libyan military.

Second, Syria simply does not have the oil resources Libya does. We have not seen the Europeans push for military intervention in Syria with the same enthusiasm that they did in Libya. Even France, which has been the most vocal of the European countries against Syria, has recently backed away from advocating direct military intervention. The strength of the Syrian military, specifically its air defense system -- which is far superior to Libya's -- means military intervention would be far more costly in Syria than in Libya in terms of human casualties and money. In fact, Syria spent some $264 million on air defense weapons in 2009 and 2010 after the embarrassing September 2007 Israeli airstrike on a Syrian nuclear reactor.

With the future of Libya still unclear, it does not appear the United States and Europe have the political will or economic incentive to conduct another major military intervention (operations in Libya were very expensive). We also do not believe that regional powers interested in Syria, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Turkey, could take military action against Syria without U.S. and NATO support.

Regardless, it is important to remember that there are many options foreign governments can apply against the al Assad regime (or any regime, for that matter) that do not constitute outright invasion or even entail an air campaign supported by special operations forces.

The Force Continuum

As we examine some of the actions available along that force continuum, we should keep in mind that the steps are not at all static; there can be much latitude for action within each step. For example, training provided by mercenaries or the CIA's Special Activities Division is far more low-key, and therefore easier to deny, than training provided by the U.S. Army's Special Forces.

The least risky and least detectable option for a country pursuing intervention is to ramp up intelligence activities in the target country. Such activities can involve clandestine activities like developing contact with opposition figures or encouraging generals to conduct a coup or defect to the opposition. Clandestine efforts can also include working with opposition groups and non-governmental organizations to improve their information warfare activities. These activities may progress to more obvious covert actions, such as assassinations or sabotage. Most of actions taken in the covert intelligence war against Iran can be placed in this level.

Clandestine and covert activities often are accompanied or preceded by overt diplomatic pressure. This includes press statements denouncing the leadership of the target country, the initiation of resolutions in international organizations, such as the Arab League or the United Nations, and international economic sanctions. These overt measures can also include formally meeting with representatives of the opposition in a third country, as when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Dec. 6 with Syrian opposition members in Geneva.

The next level up the force continuum is to solidify a relationship with the opposition and to begin to provide them with intelligence, training and advice. In the intervention in Libya, this happened fairly early on as foreign intelligence officers and special operations forces traveled to places like Benghazi, then later the Nafusa Mountains, to provide the Libyan opposition with intelligence regarding Gadhafi's forces, and to begin to train the militia forces to fight. In Syria there is still a very real issue of a lack of unity within the opposition, which is apparently more fragmented than its Libyan counterpart.

In this level, outside governments often take opposition fighters to a third country for training. This is because of the difficulty involved with training inside the home country, which is controlled by a hostile government that rightfully views the opposition as a threat. Already we are seeing signs that this is happening with the training of FSA members in Turkey.

The next step beyond training and intelligence-sharing is to provide the opposition with funding and other support, which can include food, uniforms, communication equipment, medical assistance and even weapons. To restate a point, providing funding is not as aggressive as providing weapons to the opposition, so there is a great deal of latitude within this level.

When providing weapons, an outside government will usually try to supply opposition forces with arms native to their country. This is done to maintain deniability of assistance. For example, at the outset of international support for the mujahideen who were fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, efforts were made to provide the fighters with weapons consistent with what the Soviets and the Afghan communists were using. However, when those weapons proved insufficient to counter the threat posed by Soviet air superiority, the decision was made to provide U.S. FIM-92 Stinger man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to the Afghan fighters. Tactically, the MANPADS greatly benefited the mujahideen on the battlefield. But since they were advanced, exogenous weapons systems, the MANPADS stripped away any sense of plausible deniability the U.S. might have maintained regarding its operations to arm the Afghans.

We saw a similar situation in Libya in May, when rebels began using Belgian-made FN-FAL battle rifles. While the rebels had looted many Gadhafi arms depots filled with Soviet-era Kalashnikovs, the appearance of the FN-FAL rifles clearly demonstrated that the rebels were receiving weapons from outside patrons. The appearance of Iranian-manufactured bomb components in Iraq in 2006-2007 was another instance of a weapon indicating foreign government involvement in an armed struggle.

Since furnishing weapons foreign to a country eliminates plausible deniability, we are listing it as a separate step on the force continuum. Unveiling the foreign hand can also have a psychological effect on members of the regime by signaling that a powerful foreign actor is supporting the opposition.

The next level begins to bring direct foreign involvement into play. This usually entails foreign special operations forces working with local ground forces and foreign air power being brought to bear. We saw this model used in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, where the CIA, special operations forces and air power augmented Afghan Northern Alliance ground troops and helped them to defeat the Taliban quickly. This model was also used successfully against the Gadhafi regime in Libya.

The highest and least exercised step on the force continuum is foreign invasion, like the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Preludes to Intervention

With this range of actions in mind, outside observers can look for signs that indicate where foreign efforts to support a particular struggle fit along the continuum.

Signs of a clandestine intelligence campaign can include the defection of critical officers, coup attempts or even major splits within the military. When figures such as former Libyan intelligence chief and Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa defected from the Gadhafi regime, they were doing so in response to clandestine intelligence efforts.

Signs of training and support will translate to increased effectiveness by the FSA -- if they suddenly begin to employ new tactics, strike new targets, or show the ability to better coordinate actions over a wide geographic area, for example. Another sign of increased effectiveness would be if the FSA began to execute sophisticated asymmetrical warfare operations, such as coordinated ambushes or hit-and-run strikes directed against high-value targets. Foreign trainers will also help the FSA learn how to develop networks within the local population that provide intelligence and supplies, communication, shelter and early warning.

Outside training and intelligence support would lead to an increase in the strategic impact of attacks by armed opposition groups, such as the FSA. The opposition claims to have conducted several strikes against targets like the Syrian Directorate for Air Force Intelligence in suburban Damascus, but such attacks do not appear to have been very meaningful. To date these attacks have served more of a propaganda function than as a means to pursue military objectives. We are carefully monitoring alleged FSA efforts to hit oil and natural gas pipelines to see if they become more systematic and tactically effective. We have heard rumors of American, Turkish, French and Jordanian special operations forces training FSA personnel in Turkey, and if these rumors are true, we should begin to see results of the training in the near future.

As we watch videos and photos coming out of Syria we are constantly looking for evidence of the FSA possessing either an increased weapons supply or signs of external weapons supply. This not only includes a greater quantity of weapons, but different types of weapons, such as anti-tank guided missiles, mortars, mines, MANPADS and improvised explosive devices. We have yet to see either increased weapons or external weapons; the FSA appears to be using the weapons with which they defected.

If outside powers are going to consider launching any sort of air campaign -- or establish a no-fly zone -- they will first have to step up surveillance efforts to confirm the location and status of Syria's air defense systems. This will lead to increased surveillance assets and sorties in the areas very close to Syria. Aircraft used in the suppression of air defenses would also be flown into the theater before launching any air operation, and an increase in aircraft, such as U.S. F-16CJ and British Tornado GR4s in Cyprus, Turkey or Greece, is a key indicator to watch. Increased EA-6B Prowler and EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, both carrier-based aircraft that regularly transit the region aboard U.S. Carrier Strike Groups, would likewise be important to watch. Aircraft carrier battle groups, cruise missile platforms, and possibly a Marine Expeditionary Unit would also be moved into the region prior to any air campaign.

Like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, any invasion of Syria would be a massive undertaking and there would be clear evidence of a buildup to such an invasion. The likelihood of actions against Syria happening at the top of the force continuum is very remote. Instead we will need to keep focused on the more subtle signs of foreign involvement that will signal what is happening at the lower levels of the scale. After all, any comparison to a "dead man walking" makes one wonder if the United States and its allies will take steps to hasten demise of the al Assad regime.

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