Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Should we Attack Syria?


Syria is a nation generally considered in the United States to be a dictatorship that supports terrorism, and is therefore a nation to consider an enemy.  This is probably a simple caricature of a nation that has significant internal political issues that requires it to walk a line between antagonizing the West, and satisfying and controlling its population, and simply does its best to not push either competing demand to the point of causing regime failure.  Syria in fact has a recent history of responding to internal pressures by playing tough to external threats, but never crossing the line to an overt threat.   Syria has recently been forced to remove military forces from Lebanon in the face of popular and international pressure, and has cooperated at times with the US War on Terror. 

If military force is necessary, the Syrian military would likely not provide a significant deterrent or opposing force to US forces.  However, Syrians as a population are likely to consider battles to be a long term matter, and not a simple issue of major combat force.  With lessons learned in neighboring Iraq and a very similar government structure, post combat occupation would likely be a difficult and expensive affair.

National Overview:

Syria is bounded by Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel.  It is roughly the size of North Dakota, and has a total population base of about 18 million.  Syria has a relatively young population with 60 percent below the age of 20, and a 12% unemployment rate.  Given the demographics and lackluster economy, it is likely that the unemployment rate will continue to rise in the near future.

Syria is 75% Sunni Muslim, 15% Shia and related sects Muslim, and 10 % Christian.  The importance of religion in the region can not be overstated, and the reactions of the various religions to external issues such as conflict in Iraq and Israel are directly tied to issues of religion.

Syria is self sufficient for fossil fuels, and is a minor exporter of oil.  Unlike some if its neighbors, however, Syria does not have enough oil to rely on it for its entire economy.  Syria is also a generally socialist nation, with roots that connect with the Baathist movement in Iraq, and have a direct descendent relationship with Nazi Germany.  Despite this relationship, Iraqi and Syrian Baathists split in the 1960’s, to the point where Syria was a supporter and participant in the US led war on Iraq in 1991.  Recent movement in the Syrian economy includes shifting toward a policy of self sufficient food production (also intended to reverse population migration to the cities), and some softening of rules regarding investment and interest rates. 

Syrian recent history after the end of the Ottoman Empire includes being forcibly occupied by the French pursuant to a League of Nations protectorate in 1918, changing hands during WWII from the French to the Vichy French to the British and French, to national freedom in 1946.  From 1946 until the regime of Hafez al-Assad in 1971, Syria had a revolving door of coups and regimes.  Despite flaws, Hafez al-Assad at least created relative stability in Syria for almost 30 years.

However, the recent ascension of Bashar al-Assad as the new leader of government in Syria has opened a small window of potential relaxation of the policies of the government, and had a short window of relative press freedom.  The window closed due to the internal power brokers of the army and elite believing that freedom for the country risked their own social status, and despite the power of Bashar al-Assad, he appears to have succumbed to internal political pressure to retain power.

General nature of the conflict:

Syria is very unlikely to make overt military moves that threaten US interests.  Syria is a nation of about 18 million people, with limited oil wealth.  Syria is best positioned to be a facilitator of conflict involving proxies.  Syria’s most recent conflicts have involved limited use of conventional military force, and a greater reliance on proxy fighters, such as Lebanese militia and Hezbollah.  Even in the multiple Israeli wars since 1948, Syria rarely committed enough military force to leave it vulnerable at home:  Rather, Syria would make symbolic military commitments to Arab causes that its population supports.

Since 1973, however, Syria has developed chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles to deliver them that can reach most of IsraelSyria’s military was mostly armed with equipment from the former Soviet Union, and Syria continues a relationship with RussiaSyria’s conscript army is reasonably well trained for the region, but does not meet a standard that would meet the US.

United States interests with Syria currently lie with its long border with Iraq, which the US believes allows foreign terrorists, money, and weapons to flow into Iraq, increasing the turmoil.  Additionally, Syrian support for Hezbollah, and the ties Hezbollah has to Iranian interests in the region, gives the impression that Syria is dealing with those exporting terrorists.

Syria has other areas of interest that could draw US forces into conflict, however, besides support of terrorism in Iraq and Israel.  One primary issue is its own Kurdish population, which measures up to 10 percent of the total in the country.  Kurdish separatists in several neighboring countries, such as Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, make this issue one that could embroil the region into warfare that requires the US to take sides.  Given the recent alliance of Kurds in Iraq with the US, and the Kurdish importance to success in that country, an attempt by Syria to seriously repress Kurdish interests in Syria could cause conflict.

Additionally, Syria has had until recently a significant military presence in Lebanon.  The Lebanese democracy movement of 2004-2005 has created a situation where any resurgence of Syrian power in the region would directly impede US goals, including further democratization.

And finally, continuing issues resulting from the 1967 capture of the Golan Heights by Israel and the subsequent 1973 consolidation of the area by Israel continues to be an issue for Syria in the region.  While Syria also includes extra-territorial areas known as the Shabaa Farms (internationally recognized as Lebanese) that is occupied by Israel, the Golan Heights are both a strategically important piece of terrain, as well as a nationally important piece of property for issues of Arab pride and governmental credibility.

Moral centers of gravity:

Syria does not have a clear traditional moral center of gravity that could be coopted to aid post war occupation of Syria   Despite having several decades of relatively steady leadership, the current regime is not believed to have strong support among the people.  The government uses secret police and other influences to prevent challenges to its power.  For example, a state of emergency has been in effect since 1963.  Hafez Assad was especially skillful at eliminating challengers, and there is no indigenous groups with enough power to disrupt the current structure.  This power structure can best be described as “brittle,” in that it is strong, but once broken, it will shatter.

Since the governmental structure is similar in many ways to Iraq, we should assume that the potential for post occupation disruption is similar.  The particular dynamics would be different, however, given the overwhelming percentage of Sunni muslims in the population, and the lack of bordering states that would support a Shia or Christian insurgency.

Objectives of center’s of gravity:

Given the likely brittle nature of the governmental relationship to the people, identifying the objectives of the “people,” or more likely the objectives of multiple discrete groups within the country, is necessary to prepare for the second order “war,” that would occur after the defeat of the Syrian military and government.

Among the groups, Sunni islamists as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad, and Al Qaeda would likely play a part in disrupting attempts to reform a government.  Despite Syria’s support for Hezbollah, that organization is not likely to play a part in filling the local power vacuum, because Hezbollah is a Shiite movement that would not gain a large foothold in SyriaSyria’s Baathist party has repressed Islamist organizations, and the president has been targeted by them for assassination in the past.  Likewise, Kurdish separatists would likely take advantage of a power vacuum to consolidate control of some discrete border regions.  Similar to Iraq, the large Baathist party in power would likely cling to the power it has, but unlike Iraq, the Sunni’s are the vast majority in Syria.  Finally, there is a large population of Palestinian refugees (500,000) that maintains demand and expectations of a return to the Palestinian homeland now occupied by Israel.

None of these groups would be able to sustain a majority of support in the country, and civil war similar to what is now observed in Iraq would be the most likely outcome.

Principal implications for military intervention:

US Military intervention and removal of leadership in Syria would likely set off a dynamic similar to that ongoing in Iraq.  Muslim Brotherhood, a precursor to Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda, attempted to assassinate Hafez al-Assad in 1982, has been suppressed by the Assads, and would like to get rid of the Baathists.  Like the Iraqi Baathist movement, there is no love lost between the radical islamists and the Syrian regime.  There is however a population of radical islamists that would try and fill the void if the current regime were to disappear.  Similarly, Kurds in the north may disrupt the current regional balance of power and try to secede land from Syria to join autonomous Iraqi Kurds.  Finally, concern over the control of WMD’s known to be in Syrian control so that they do not fall into the hands of people even less friendly than the current Syrian government would have to be a top priority.



Based on previous conduct, Syria is not likely to be a direct threat to US interests that would necessitate preemptive war, but the US could be drawn into a scenario where the US has to use military force to disrupt or destroy the governing powers.  There is little doubt that US forces can destroy Syrian conventional forces in a very short time despite missiles and biological and chemical weapons.  Identifying how to direct the outcome of post governmental forces in the country is necessary prior to any armed conflict with Syria.  It is most likely that the dynamic that occurred in Iraq could occur in Syria today, and the occupation of Syria would be a long and difficult task.



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