Pres. Obama and his advisors have begun speaking publicly, albeit in muted terms so far, of the prospect for a Kosovo-style military intervention in Syria to punish Bashir Assad’s government for alleged use of chemical weapons. The example of Kosovo brings up reminders of the 78-day air war there which led Serbia to withdraw from the province, and to eventual Kosovar independence.
Much would depend in Syria on what the goal of the intervention would be: is it only to punish Assad and warn him to remain within the limits of conventional warfare in his battle against rebel forces? Or would it be to impose a no-fly zone that would substantially tilt the battle in favor of the rebels? Or would it be to topple Assad (as was the case with the Libya intervention)? If the latter was the goal, Obama would no doubt never state this publicly out of fear the public would link Syrian intervention to the NATO-led overthrow of Muamar Ghaddafi. That episode ended in quite ugly fashion when Libyan rebels murdered the former dictator in a most brutal and ugly fashion. His end didn’t redound to the credit of the western intervention.
If the U.S. and a coalition of western allies does take action against Assad’s forces, what might the likely result be inside Syria? Given that the rebels are a disorganized, often brutal lot dominated by some unsavory al-Qaeda affiliated groups, I doubt Obama wants to throw in his lot with them. In that case, he might think twice about a military action that would result in Assad’s downfall. We simply can’t guarantee a stable outcome, and the chances of the country falling into the hands of the al-Nusra Front and its allies are too great.
But there is a potential outcome that might prove highly desirable both to Israel and even to Assad himself in the event the goal of intervention is to remove Assad as ruler of a unitary state (but not to neuter him politically). Some observers have suggested that Syria could fragment into cantons based on religious or ethnic dominance/affiliation. That might mean that the Mediterranean coast, where Alawites predominate could become a rump Alawite mini-state ruled by Assad and his acolytes.
Israel, having experience with carving out territorial buffers in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, would be intensely interested in creating such a zone in the Golan. There it would have willing partners in the Syrian Druze, who are related by family and clan to those on the Israeli side of the ceasefire line. It’s known that the IDF and Israeli intelligence have been active inside Syria liaising with friendly Druze rebel forces. The model here would be southern Lebanon in the 18-year period when Israel occupied it with the help of the Falangist South Lebanese Army.
If this scenario should come to pass, clearly the Islamist rebel groups would carve out their territorial niche as well. Turkey might see it as being in its interests to carve out a sphere in northern Syria that served as a buffer from attacks on its territory. The conflict and tension between the various mini-states would be severe. There could never be stability, though there could be a marginally acceptable status quo based on a form of mutually assured deterrence.
Though various interests and players may find this outcome desirable, it’s a bad idea for many reasons. First, because Syria will cease to be a unified state and become a loose conglomeration of fiefdoms ruled (at least in some or most cases) by warlords and other corrupt types. Second, because such chaos will have to be constantly monitored and policed by the same western coalition that created it in the first place. This in turn is a recipe for a form of ongoing, if not occupation, then intervention. Neither Obama nor the American people can want such a thing after a decade of two Middle Eastern wars and the possibility of a third, if Netanyahu succeeds in drawing us into an adventure against Iran.
While there can be no doubt that if Assad’s forces carried out the latest chemical weapons attacks some form of military response is justified (watch this video to feel the heartbreak this attack caused), what that form takes is crucial to determining Syria’s future. If we fall in with a full-bore Israeli-style intervention, we risk much to our own reputation and the region’s stability for decades to come. That will suit parties like Israel just fine. But Israel’s narrow parochial interests are not those of the region.