Archive for Military Intervention

Unintended Consequences of Striking Syria

By David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at ISHR 

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However limited or narrow in scope, striking Syria will have consequences across the “Shiite Crescent” that spans Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The term was coined in 2004 by Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who warned that Iran’s support for Shiite forces in the Middle East sought to “alter the traditional balance of power between the two main Islamic sects and pose new challenges to U.S. interests and allies.” Military action in Syria could embroil the United States in civil wars from the Tigris to the Levant; U.S interests could also come under direct attack. A steely-eyed view of regional dynamics and contingency planning are critical to optimizing U.S. objectives.

Iran

Iran gains strategic depth by supporting Syria. As Iran’s proxy, Syria serves several Iranian goals, including rivaling Saudi power in the region. Syria is also a launch point for terror attacks against Israel. Iran provides Hezbollah with advanced surface-to-surface missiles through a transit pipeline across Syria to Lebanon. Iran also funnels arms to militant Palestinian groups via Syria. Iran helped Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad establish his stockpile of chemical weapons in the 1990s. Today, it is financing Syria. Ground forces from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Quds Force, and Iranian intelligence services have also joined the battlefield. The defeat of Assad by Saudi-backed Sunni Arab extremists with ties to Al-Qaeda would be a big blow to Iran.

U.S. officials say bombing Syria would send a strong message to Iran, proving America’s resolve and deterring its pursuit of nuclear weapons. However, it might have the opposite effect. Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have signaled a more flexible approach in nuclear negotiations. Iran historically refuses to negotiate under duress. The Supreme leader will surely limit Rouhani’s options if the U.S. intervenes in Syria. Iran could suspend diplomacy and accelerate its uranium enrichment activities. In a worst case, Iran could break-out and weaponize its nuclear energy program.

The Obama administration can mitigate these risks by engaging Iran. Now is the time to start a dialogue with Tehran about collaborating on shared interests, such as limiting Sunni extremism and Al-Qaeda’s penetration in Syria, as well as constraints on Iran’s enrichment activities.

Iraq

The risks of intervention in Syria closely resemble the challenges of Iraq in 2003. Despite the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), during which Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iranian troops, Iran and Iraq – majority Shiite countries – have forged close cultural, economic and security cooperation since Saddam’s downfall in 2003. Iranian pilgrims regularly visit Shiite holy sites in Iraq. Iranian goods flood Iraq’s consumer market. Iraq is officially neutral in Syria’s civil war. However, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki facilitates military assistance to Syria by allowing over-flight of Iranian military transport planes, ignoring strong objections of the United States.

Inspired by the struggle of their Sunni Arab brothers in Syria, radical Sunni groups in Iraq are resurgent. Today’s sectarian violence in Iraq is at its highest level since peaking in 2006-07. More than 1,000 people were killed in July alone. Sectarian slaughter over the Eid-al-Fitr holiday, marking the end of Ramadan, was especially intense. Maliki responded with a heavy-hand, establishing check-points and rounding up Sunni political and community leaders, many of whom have disappeared.

The violence has also spread to Kirkuk, threatening stability in Iraqi Kurdistan. Over20,000 Syrian Kurds fled to Iraqi Kurdistan last month after the Al-Nusra Front, Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate, issued a fatwa condoning the killing of Kurdish women and children. Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, has vowed to protect Syrian Kurds from Arab extremists. If Syria fragments, Kurds in Syria – so-called Southern Kurdistan – may seek territorial union with Iraqi Kurdistan, further polarizing Kurds and Arabs in Iraq.

The United States has little leverage over Maliki after failing to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement, which would have left a residual force of U.S. troops in Iraq. However, it can affirm support for Kurds by subsidizing Iraqi Kurdistan’s humanitarian assistance to refugees from Syria. Washington should also suspend its sale of sophisticated weapons, such as F-16s, to Baghdad until Maliki closes Iraqi air space to the transfer of Iranian weapons.

Lebanon

Iran’s most valuable client is Hezbollah, established in the 1980s as a popular resistance movement to fight Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon. Iran supports Hezbollah through Syria, which has occupied parts of Lebanon and dominated Lebanese politics for decades. As reprisal for steps by the Future Movement to evict Syrian forces, Syrian intelligence assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005.

More than 700,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon since Syria’s civil war erupted 27 months ago. The influx disrupted Lebanon’s delicate ethnic balance, destabilizing the Taif Accords that established a tenuous power-sharing agreement that ended Lebanon’s civil war. Syria’s conflict has bled across the border into Lebanon. Sunnis in Tripoli, who back the Free Syrian Army, have targeted Hezbollah and its Shiite supporters. Attacks intensified after Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, sent Hezbollah militias to fight alongside Assad’s forces. They went house-to-house killing Sunnis in Qusair, tilting the balance of power and enabling Assad to retake the strategic border town in June. A massive bomb blast killed scores in al-Dahiya al-Janoubiya, a Shiite suburb in south Beirut, on July 9, 2013. Nasrallah, himself, promised to join the fight in Syria against Sunnis, whom he disparages as “takfiris” apostates.

Nasrallah will calibrate his support to Assad so as to avoid alienating his constituents in Lebanon. However, Hezbollah will not sit on the sidelines if the U.S. attacks Syria. It could attack Israel with conventional weapons or use WMD-tipped missiles smuggled provided by Assad. It could also attack U.S. interests in the region, or activate sleeper cells in the U.S. to carry out strikes against America’s homeland. Other than dispatching ships from the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean to help defend Israel, there is little the United States can do to counter Hezbollah’s asymmetric terror tactics.

Gulf Arab Shiites

The Shiite Crescent is more than a contiguous territory. The restive Shiite majority in Bahrain would protest a U.S. strike against Syria. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, which patrols the Persian Gulf and waters off East Africa. Violent unrest can also be expected against other U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf with Shiite minorities, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Bombing Syria won’t stop the war, nor create conditions for either Assad or the insurgents to prevail. More likely, the grinding conflict will go on. Syria will become ghettoized with ethnic groups defended by local armed militias. Kurds and Christians will pay a dear price for fence-sitting, as the failed state fragments into cantons.

General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, struck a cautious tone at Congressional hearing last week. For sure, the U.S. military can degrade Syria’s war-making capacity. After attacking Syria, however, it will face multiple threats including stateless adversaries motivated to defend sectarian interests across the Shiite Crescent.

This article previously appeared on The Huffington Post on September 11, 2013.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He is a former Foreign Affairs Expert for the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

Intervention Lessons From Kosovo for Syria

By David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at ISHR

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President Bill Clinton intervened in the Balkans to end a war in Bosnia and stop the slaughter of civilians in Kosovo. As the United States considers military intervention in Syria, the Obama administration should reflect on America’s Balkan engagements in the 1990s, considering what was done right — and wrong.

The international community took more than 3 years to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. While it dithered, more than 100,000 people were killed and millions displaced. The response to Serbia’s aggression in Kosovo was faster and more effective. NATO launched a 78-day air campaign that prevented what happened in Bosnia from happening in Kosovo. The diplomacy and military operations were imperfect, but Kosovo is the gold standard in humanitarian intervention.

Here are some lessons from Kosovo that are relevant to Syria:

-Diplomacy comes first: After more than a quarter million Kosovo Albanians fled to the mountains during the summer of 1998, the U.S.-led Contact Group, which included Russia, negotiated the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) to verify the withdrawal of Serb forces, enable the return of displaced Kosovars, and ensure the delivery of humanitarian supplies. The KVM was suspended after 40 Kosovo civilians were massacred in Racak, including women and children.

-Back diplomacy with the threat of force: After Racak, NATO approved an “activation order,” the last step in force readiness before launching an attack. U.S. Special Envoy Richard C. Holbrooke issued an ultimatum, but Slobodan Milosevic scoffed at Holbrooke’s threat. NATO launched limited operations, then paused. Holbrooke called Milosevic to give him a last chance, but his entreaties were ignored. NATO’s full force was unleashed only after all diplomatic options were exhausted.

-Build international coalitions: With the UN Security Council paralyzed, the U.S. abandoned efforts to gain a UN resolution and focused its diplomacy on building consensus among NATO Member States. NATO did not act alone. It was backed by the Organization of Islamic Conference and statements by the UN Secretary General.

-Gain Congressional and public support: The Clinton administration worked effectively with civil society groups and the media to expose Milosevic’s criminal regime and make the case for military action. Intervention was supported by a broad bipartisan group of lawmakers. Albanian-Americans played a key role garnering support.

-Keep all options on the table: Clinton pledged no U.S. ground troops. Milosevic believed he could withstand NATO’s air campaign, and hunkered down. Milosevic finally capitulated after 78 days of intensive bombing.

-Expect retaliation: Serbia intensified its ethnic cleansing when NATO attacked. Serbian forces went door-to-door, assassinating Kosovo Albanian leaders and displacing more than one million Kosovars. The U.S. had conducted extensive contingency planning. Expecting population flows, humanitarian supplies were pre-positioned in Macedonia and Albania.

-Anticipate collateral damage: NATO mistakenly bombed a convoy of Albanian refugees fleeing Decani, killing 73 civilians. In the fog of war, NATO also accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Clinton personally apologized, but the incident entrenched China’s opposition to the war.

-Work with insurgents: Target selection became more difficult as the bombing campaign dragged on. NATO cooperated with the Kosova Liberation Army to identify targets and track Serbian troop movements. The KLA was an essential force on-the-ground that helped guide NATO air operations.

-Hand-over power to a credible local partner: American diplomats worked intensively to forge cooperation among Kosovar leaders. The Kosovo “Unity Team” became the nucleus of post-Milosevic administration in Kosovo.

-Walk-the-talk: In the middle of the Kosovo conflict, dignitaries from around the world gathered in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of NATO’s founding. The Clinton administration understood that Kosovo was more than a test of Western diplomacy. The future of the North Atlantic Alliance was also at-stake.

Has the Obama administration taken on-board lessons from Kosovo?

Picture from: http://www.infoplease.com/atlas/country/syria.html

Picture from: http://www.infoplease.com/atlas/country/syria.html

The United States is diplomatically isolated, except for France which endorsed air strikes against Syria. Even Great Britain, America’s erstwhile ally in Iraq and Afghanistan, has balked. The Obama administration released its intelligence verifying Assad’s use of chemical weapons too late to influence the British parliament’s vote to authorize use of force. After the vote, Obama offended Britain by referring to France as America’s “oldest ally.”

Though Russia and China have vetoed three resolutions designed to pressure Assad, the Obama administration has bent over backwards to work with Russia on talks between the regime and opposition. The Geneva conference was stillborn from the beginning, and has recently been overtaken by events. Hezbollah entered the battlefield, rolling-back gains by the insurgents and further regionalizing the conflict.

Indignation is the right response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. However, the threat of military action is more effective when demanding compliance rather than as a punitive measure. With U.S. tomahawk cruise missiles locked and loaded, the Obama administration should demand that Assad sequester chemical weapons under UN control or hand over field commanders to the International Criminal Court. It could also give Assad a deadline to relinquish power.

Some Members of Congress want air strikes to advance the goal of regime change. But who will succeed Assad? Syria’s insurgency is dominated by the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliated terror group murdering Alawites, moderate Arab Sunnis, and Syrian Kurds. Just like Kosovo when more than 100,000 Serbs fled after Milosevic was defeated, reprisals resulting in a bloodbath are a real possibility when Assad steps down.

Secretary of State John Kerry has been a passionate point man in the recent flurry of public diplomacy. However, the administration has not done enough to explain why it is in America’s national interest to attack Syria. Given public skepticism, Obama’s decision to consult lawmakers is a high-stakes gambit. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton launched strikes against Libya, Afghanistan and Kosovo without asking Congressional authorization.

Obama repeatedly characterized military action as “limited and narrow.” He called it a “shot across the bow.” He also publicly ruled out the possibility of ground troops. Taking the middle ground satisfies no one. Opponents to military action are not convinced. At the same time, moderation may be alienating some senators clamoring for a more robust response.

Obama is clearly a reluctant warrior. He understands that Americans are weary from a decade of conflict in distant lands. However, Obama has boxed himself into a corner. Speaking at an impromptu news conference more than a year ago, he went off-script saying that President Bashar al-Assad’s use or movement of chemical weapons represents a “red-line” that would change his administration’s “calculus,” with significant consequences including the possibility of more direct U.S. intervention in the conflict.

Drawing a red-line is morally correct. It is also in America’s national security interest. I visited Iraqi Kurdistan after chemical weapons were used to kill thousands. It was a horrific scene. Indiscriminate use of the world’s most heinous weapons against civilians violates international humanitarian law and norms of decency. Just like Milosevic’s murderous rampage in Bosnia and Kosovo, it cannot be tolerated.

However, military action is a tactic not a policy. The decision to go to war should be linked to a broader strategy of creating a safe haven on Syria’s border with Syria and Jordan. The safe haven would be protected by a no-fly-zone, enforced by NATO. As was the case in Kosovo, a Russian contingent under NATO’s command could be deployed. The safe haven would allow refugees to return to Syria. It would also provide a buffer between Syria and front-line states, furthering stability in the region. Creating a safe haven could also change momentum on the battlefield, revitalizing prospects for a Geneva conference and bringing the grinding conflict in Syria closer to an end.

This article previously appeared on The Huffington Post on September 3, 2013.

 

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights. His most recent book is Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and U.S. Intervention.