The South Asia Channel

Syrian intervention: Let's not pull another Afghanistan

As calls for an international intervention in conflict-wracked Syria begin to echo in Washington, it is critical that policy-makers remember the lessons learned in Afghanistan. One recent editorial on the crisis highlighted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of a United Nations Security Council brokered peace plan to buy extra time to crush his opponents, the Free Syrian Army.  The plan, pulled together by international envoy Kofi Annan, called for Syria to withdraw troops, tanks and heavy weapons from major urban areas where fighting has claimed over 1000 civilian lives in the last week.   Assad's predictable outmaneuvering of the U.N. drew this response from the Editors:

"The inescapable reality is that Mr. Assad will go on killing unless and until he is faced with a more formidable military opposition. That is why the shortest way to the end of the Syrian crisis is the one Mr. Obama is resisting: military support for the opposition and, if necessary, intervention by NATO."

I think that they are right.  But having participated in an intervention or two in my day, here are a few thoughts to consider before we jump in:

Go in light. 

There will be calls for a large-scale, multinational intervention.  But consider Afghanistan 2001, where 300 U.S. Special Forces and 110 CIA officers - supported by precision air strikes - partnered with the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban in a matter of weeks.

Or Libya 2011; Operation Odyssey Dawn (U.S. operation) and Operation Unified Protector (NATO) used air strikes and Tomahawk missiles to cover ground assaults by forces opposed to Qaddafi's military.  Duration: months.

The takeaway: a small investment of ground, intelligence, communications and air support can help produce an insurgent victory in a reasonable amount of time.  Special Forces, for example - Arabic-speaking, experts in small unit tactics and calling in precision air support - can act as force multipliers by organizing, training, equipping and supporting the Free Syrian Army to conduct guerilla warfare, subversion, sabotage and intelligence activities. 

Equally important: the fewer American and coalition partners on the ground the better, as it gives the Free Syrian Army and political leaders-in-waiting more legitimacy. After all, this is their war to win.

Go in smart.

Following a Free Syrian Army victory, we can expect some kind of insurgency. Fomented by former al-Assad regime members with external support, this insurgency will include former Syrian military members, elites who have lost position, true believers, and citizens taking advantage of the chaos to address local grievances.

As the Syrian Army's fortunes decline, caches of weapons and ammunition will be squirreled away for future use.

That said, there are 100 things that can be done right now to tamp down those things that will foster a post-conflict insurgency.  And when it starts, there are 100 things that we need to do to put that insurgency to rest. 

Go in cheap.

The U.S. is broke.  In the coming year, the Pentagon, the Department of State and USAID will all suffer huge budget cuts.  And after burning through immense amounts of cash in Iraq and Afghanistan, politicians and citizens alike are going to want this one done on the cheap.

And do not expect our allies to pick up our financial slack.  NATO members are recovering from operations in Afghanistan and a rough economic ride thanks to the Euro crisis.

And that's okay - because going in with wads of money for stabilization, reconstruction and development can distort national and local economies and contribute to corruption.  It is better to have fewer resources, and work to get government and community contributions for proposed projects.   Sometimes less can be more.

Go in with humility.

If the Free Syrian Army pulls off a victory, they will have earned the respect of the world for winning their freedom from a ruthless dictator.

Let's be conscious of shackling and binding the new government with all sorts of Western cultural requirements.

In Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia intervening and international organizations have, at times, forcefully pushed Western ideas, notions and agendas before newly formed governments.  Note that what is important to us will probably be important to them too - but maybe not this year, or the next.  So think about what is immediately possible, and lay down the groundwork for that which is not. 

Go in - but be prepared to walk out

Do not want it more than they want it.  Never become so invested in another country's success that you cannot walk away.

If for some horrible reason the post conflict government participates in Human Rights violations, engages in corruption at levels that could lead to state capture, behaves in other ways that are irresponsible or reprehensible, and refuses to work with donor and supporting nations willing to assist them in recovery, then be prepared to walk away.

What is unacceptable in this day an age is to find your nation or international organization so leveraged by a new government that they can behave poorly and get away with it - because they know that you cannot leave; and that you will refuse to fail.

We do not want to find ourselves supporting a government that is as bad as the one that we helped remove.

Lastly, never take the first step until you know that last.

Do not commit to intervene until an agreement is reached with the Syrian opposition that outlines how the conflict ends and how the peace is to be secured. 

Perhaps an important starting point to the conversation: "what do you/we want Syria to look like in 20 years?"  The answer to that question tells you how to construct your post-conflict situation - and that in turn tells you how to fight your war.

Discuss things like:

- dismissing the Syrian military wholesale or deciding to work with it;

- choosing to form either a strong central government (that may lack capacity) or a federalized state;

- the process for creating a new constitution: timeline, participation, and content;

Essentially, what we want to avoid is rushing to bad decisions that will hamstring efforts to bring Syria back as a full participant in the world community.

Intervention seems to be a possibility.  We have a lot of experience and talent in this arena - let's put it to good use.

Roger D. Carstens is a Senior Research Fellow at New America Foundation.  A former Army Special Forces officer, he is currently in Somalia conducting research for a book that he is writing on counterinsurgency.

LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

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