Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, August 26, 2013

Syria: A New Kosovo or a Very Costly Intervention?

This week, the New York Times reported that Barack Obama's national security aides "are studying the NATO air war in Kosovo as a possible blueprint for acting without a mandate from the United Nations." Coincidentally, on the same day, Foreign Policy published an essay by Enver Hoxhaj, Kosovo's Foreign Minister, arguing the need for the US and NATO to intervene in Syria, using NATO's intervention in Kosovo in 1999 as a model.

It is really tempting for anyone to draw a parallel between the situation in Kosovo back in 1999 and Syria in 2013. This model is very appealing to use in Syria's case. As in Kosovo, the US has been stymied in its attempts to force the United Nations Security Council to act on Syria, due to Russia's and China's interference. There is also a willing coalition to support the United States' intervention, notably from Western European nations and Arab States, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

At the same time, however, it is misleading to draw an analogy from Kosovo, as there are several big differences that could make intervention in Syria a very costly one both politically and economically.

First of all, unlike in 1999, when Russia was headed by a tired Boris Yeltsin, Russia today is headed by Vladimir Putin. Back in 1990s, Clinton had a decent working relationship with Yeltsin; at the moment, there's no love lost between Obama and Putin. The so-called "reset" has failed. And, unlike Yeltsin, Putin will not stand silent seeing the United States again threatening Russia's few remaining client states. The downfall of Assad's dictatorship in Syria could hurt Putin's domestic standing, signaling his impotence against the United States, and discredit his claim of Russia as a global power. Of course, there are also fear of contagion after the fall of Assad, which might embolden the Islamist rebellion in Chechnya.

Second, despite Russia's poor economic conditions--due to rampant corruption, lack of strong rule of law, and declining energy price--its overall economy is in better shape now than it was in 1999, when Russia had just recovered from its 1998 economic crisis, in which it defaulted on its debt. Back in 1999, Yeltsin was reliant on both European and the America's economic assistance, and thus unwilling to jeopardize Russian ties with the Western powers. Right now, Putin can afford to alienate the rest of the world with his support of Assad, especially given that Western Europe relies on Russia for its energy needs.

What could Russia do? Granted, Russia could not intervene openly without alienating the Arab states. But it could make life very difficult for the US and the NATO, should they want to impose a no-fly zone, through a massive arms supply to Assad. Already, Russia has delivered S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, which could make air war very expensive, unlike in Serbia in the 1990s, where NATO virtually enjoyed air supremacy.

Third, there's also China, which back in 1999, had opposed a humanitarian intervention because of the fear that it would be used as precedent to threaten China's hold on its restive provinces, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, or its on client state North Korea. While Syria is way outside China's sphere of interest, China could still back Russia's actions, especially in exchange for Russia's support on issues that China really cares about, such as North Korea or territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas.

Fourth, while Serbia in 1999 was practically alone in facing the NATO's attacks, Syria can count on Hezbollah and Iran for assistance, especially on the former for its foot soldiers. Hezbollah has already intervened in several important battles, even though its intervention has hurt its standing back in Lebanon. Regarding Iran, it's doubtful that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran's Revolutionary Guard, an influential power of its own right, and even Hassan Rohani, Iran's new "reformist" president, would allow the destruction of Assad's regime in Syria. Such a  move would threaten its client Hezbollah and its own position in the region.

Fifth, unlike in Kosovo, the Syrian rebels are not speaking in unison. There's no credible single leadership of the rebellion in Syria, and in fact, there are many indications that radical Islamists and al-Qaeda affiliated Jihadists have joined the fray and tried to impose their harsh brand of Islamic law on unwilling populations, making both the regime and the rebel groups unpopular among ordinary Syrians.

This leads to a sixth problem: unlike in Kosovo, the problems in Syria won't be easily contained due to the growing bad blood, as the body count rises, between the Shiites on one side and the Sunnis on the other side, in a society where tribal and familial links remains very important. Regardless of whether Assad is toppled, the Sunni Jihadists might very well continue to strike the Shiites' soft targets in Lebanon and Iraq. There could be attempts to get rid of Hezbollah once and for all. Other neighbors, such as Turkey, Jordan, and especially Israel would, to some degree, be impacted as a result of this region-wide mess.

Thus the question is: if the United States and NATO follows the "Kosovo Model" faithfully, and at the same time, topples the Syrian regime, will the intervention open a Pandora's box? More importantly, will the always cautious and risk-averse Obama be willing to shoulder the cost of intervention?

Intervening would be very costly. Yet staying aloof, especially in light of Assad's use of chemical weapons, risks undermining whatever is left of Obama's credibility in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, seeing that Obama didn't want to interfere two years ago, when the situation was not nearly as bad, I predict that he will keep following Calvin Coolidge's advice: "Never go out to meet trouble. If you will just sit still, nine cases out of ten someone will intercept it before it reaches you."

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