Bashar Al-Assad’s army and his Hezbollah allies have retaken the strategic border town of Qusayr. The victory is significant for three reasons. Firstly, the rebels have used Qusayr to enable the flow of supplies from Lebanon. Secondly, rebel control of the town had split the two major government-controlled areas of the country, making it harder for them to consolidate their resources. Finally, the retaking of the town indicates that Hezbollah’s increasing involvement in Syria has militarily and psychologically tipped the balance of the conflict in favor of Assad.
If a speedy victory for Syria’s rebels ever seemed likely, those days are over. Neither does it seem likely that Assad will win an outright victory himself any time soon, or that he will seek a negotiated settlement now that he is having military success. Despite over two years of Western hand-wringing over the conflict, and huge loss of civilian life, there remains little appetite in the West for military intervention. People are justified to be skeptical at the idea that intervention could “solve” Syria’s problems. It cannot. However, the case for limited intervention is strong.
A full-scale military intervention involving regular ground forces would be a major miscalculation. Amid the chaos of today’s Syria, Western troops would be like a blind boxer in a street fight: an obvious target able to take the hits and hit back too, but with as much chance of knocking out the wrong targets as the right ones.
However, the imperative to resolve the issue of who leads Syria quickly is strong. The longer the civil war continues, the more innocents who will die. Perhaps even more importantly, the longer the war goes on, the more ungovernable the country will be for whoever ultimately wins, and the greater the risk of contagion into neighboring countries.
The lesson of countless modern intrastate conflicts – from Afghanistan to Libya – is that if a civil conflict is fought by a large number of loosely controlled or allied group of militias, the prospect of disorder or even a second round of conflict after the initial enemy is defeated is very high. This is more pronounced in longer conflicts, since loyalty to fighting unit increasingly comes to trump loyalty to country, and the norms that usually ensure obedience to the state are diluted.
Syria is a classic example of a very loose coalition of militias bound only by their hostility to the established order. It seems highly likely that those fighting alongside each other against Assad – progressive democrats, Kurdish nationalists, Salafists, and the rest – will turn on each other after his demise (indeed, conflict between rebel groups is already not unknown).
In addition, it is clear that the longer the Syrian conflict continues the greater the risk of contagion from Syria into neighboring countries. Given its troubled history there is particular cause to fear that the conflict will spread to Lebanon, where tensions between Sunnis and Shias are already being stoked by the Syrian conflict.
It is strongly in the world’s interest that this stage of the conflict is ended quickly, to reduce the long-term damage to Syrian society and increase the prospect of it remaining a governable state. It is certainly in the West’s interest that in the chaos that would follow the demise of Assad, nationalist democrats come out on top rather than extreme Islamists.
Intervention is already happening – just not by us, and contrary to our interests. Russian arms supply Assad’s army, Hezbollah provides it with manpower, while international supporters of violent jihad have significantly strengthened Salafist rebels at the expense of moderates.
The use of foreign air power to target Assad’s air force and heavy armor would have a huge psychological impact on both sides. Not only would this significantly reduce Assad’s military advantages, but it would create an expectation of rebel victory that would in itself tip the balance in their favor. To reduce the danger that air strikes would lead to the collapse of Assad’s regime but leave the Salafists on top, the international community should simultaneously arm moderate rebel groups.
Even with limited involvement the West will not be able to decide the conflict, or ensure that post-conflict Syria is shaped in the image it would wish. There are huge risks attached to intervention. However, non-intervention would mean a drawn-out conflict, with either Hezbollah or the Salafists likely to emerge from it as the main power in Syria, and the potential for Syria becoming an ungovernable state in the long term. Given this, the risks of Western non-intervention seem even greater than those of stepping in. We can’t guarantee a happy end to this sorry saga, but let’s try and load the dice.