BRITISH foreign secretary, William Hague, has tentatively raised the prospect of military action against Syria, but the advice from defence chiefs has not changed — and it is stark.
They have warned that Syria cannot be compared to Libya, and that any military action will almost inevitably lead to a more bitter and bloody civil war. They say there is no clear first move; there is no clear exit strategy either.
Which is why the planning that has been undertaken at the British Ministry of Defence remains glued to the table and is not in any immediate danger of being realised.
Insiders in London and at Nato’s headquarters in Brussels have been wary of speaking about contingencies for military intervention, fearing an unintended momentum might develop towards conflict.
Nato points out that it has not had the political instruction to start war-gaming, and while the MoD does not need this to do its own scenarios and blueprints, the more they do, the less they like what they see.
Even setting aside the legal issues, the military options are defined by the strength and cohesion of Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces, the weakness and fragmented nature of the opposition, and the necessity for Arab League states, and Turkey, to do some of the heavy lifting.
Assad’s army alone numbers 295,000, and there is an active reserve of more than 300,000. Though nobody is considering this at the moment, a land incursion of any kind would require a monumental effort. And the scale of the regime’s forces suggests arming the opposition militias, even if they were unified, may be impractical.
The creation of civilian havens has been mooted, but these would have to be secured in the first place (almost certainly requiring ground troops), and then defended from attack (almost certainly requiring air power).
In Libya, Nato flew thousands of missions without losing a single aircraft, firing missiles at buildings with little or no retaliation.
Syria, though, has 85 fighters and 240 ground attack aircraft, most of them Russian-made MiG 23s and MiG 21s. They also have attack helicopters and reasonably accomplished air defence weapons, including more than 4,700 surface-to-air missiles.
Drawing on information from the UN and other respected military think tanks, an Oxfam report published in May said the Syrian government imported $167m-worth of air defence systems and missiles in 2010.
Shashank Joshi, a security and Middle East specialist from the Royal United Services Institute think tank, said: “Syria’s armed forces are led by Assad family members and clan members. The Syrian military sees a viable state that they can defend, and they see an opposition that is weak. The Syrian regime forces are more powerful, more potent, better trained and better equipped. They have been fighting without having to use air strikes.”
But Joshi said the West needed to start providing proper, viable options, however difficult they may prove to implement, because Syria was in effect in a state of civil war.
Joshi acknowledged the complexity of the situation, but said a range of options, including “the shadow of military force”, needed to be used to increase the pressure on Assad and encourage subversion within the regime.— The Guardian, London