Talk of military intervention is getting louder but is unlikely to be heeded soon
Jun 9th 2012 |BEIRUT| from the print edition
SINCE the massacre of more than 100 people in Houla on May 25th, talk of setting up buffer zones
onSyria’s border has grown louder in Western government circles. Reports on June 6th of a similar
slaughter of at least 78 villagers nearHamahave turned the volume up still more. Hitherto, all
Western governments agreed that direct military intervention, which would almost certainly have
to accompany the creation of those zones, was out of the question. That is changing.
Military planners are now pondering in detail the prerequisites for securing a buffer zone. Officials
inBritain,Franceand theUnited Stateshave all said that military intervention “cannot be ruled out” in
due course. Though almost no one thinks it will be done soon, calls for intervention, especially
inWashington, are growing.
Two main arguments against intervention still prevail. The first is that it would require the
endorsement of the UN Security Council, whichRussiaandChinastill show no sign of giving. The
second is thatSyriawith23mpeople, unlikeLibyawith7m, would be a hard nut militarily to crack—and
that the ensuing bloodshed would be on a far bigger scale than now.
On the first score, Western governments could conceivably in the end bypass the Security Council,
as they did in 1999, when NATO set about bombingSerbiaunder Slobodan Milosevic—to the
annoyance ofRussia. But it is barely conceivable that they could undertake similar attacks
againstSyriawithout the close co-operation and public endorsement of bothTurkeyand the Arab
Once those conditions are met, however, a buffer zone could—it is reckoned—be secured quite fast.
“People exaggerate and overestimate the power of the Syrian army,” says Riad Kahwaji, a military
analyst based inDubai. “Syriahas a sophisticated anti-aircraft system but most of its equipment is
from the Soviet era and could easily be outpowered.” Any Western-cum-Turkish decision to set up a
buffer zone would require air raids on Syrian defences.
There are reports of flagging morale in the 300,000-strong army. Many conscripts have absconded.
Rebel attacks by the ragtag Free Syrian Army have been increasing. In a recent ambush more than
100 Syrian soldiers are said to have been killed. Most soldiers are Sunnis, less loyal to the ruling
Assad regime than is the Alawite minority to which the Assads belong.
The army’s elite squads, led by Mr Assad’s hawkish brother Maher, now a cult figure among his
men, are still fiercely loyal. The shabiha, drawn mainly from the Alawite community, are carrying
out many of the atrocities. “[Bashar] Assad is ultimately responsible for creating the conditions for
these paramilitaries to operate,” says Emile Hokayem, another analyst. “But no one thinks he picks
up the phone to order every attack. These groups may act on their own initiative too.”