Ian Bremmer did a wonderful take on the deteriorating situation in Syria for the Financial Times. He points out this is now a full-fledged proxy war, with Hezbollah and Iran fully committed to backing their proxy, Bashar al-Assad, who is also obtaining fresh Russian arms in Putin’s typically inflammatory and anti-Western fashion. On the other side, Israel and Saudi Arabia — strange bedfellows! — clearly want to cripple and if possible overturn Assad’s regime, if only for the purpose of denying a strategic victory to their regional arch-enemy, Iran. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Europe, who are potentially capable of tipping the balance, sit on the sidelines and wring their hands over how sad it all is, and how there are no really good and trustworthy folks among the Syrian rebels to whom they can entrust weapons.
One wonders how long this nonsensical US/European stance — a rationalization for not wanting to spend money or get involved at a time of fiscal distress and political contention at home — can go on. Surely if Iran, struggling under sanctions and a staggering economy, can afford to support Assad for reasons of geostrategic advantage, then certainly the US and Europe can afford to help topple Assad to deny Iran that advantage.
The question the US and Europe should be asking themselves now, and actively planning for, is not whether or not to intervene, but how to have in place the international peace-keeping forces that will be needed to prevent a slaughter and disintegration when western intervention drives Assad from power.
In the past few weeks, Assad’s hand has strengthened considerably. He has fresh infusions of fighters and weapons from Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia. The Russian anti-aircraft batteries will make it somewhat more difficult (but still possible) for the west to take control of the air over Syria, as these batteries will have to be taken out by ship-based cruise missiles first, which will mean a clear decision to be actively at war with Syria. In addition, Assad’s forces have strengthened their control on the ground in Damascus, Aleppo, and the coastal hills where most of the Alawite population resides. If Assad can also strengthen his control on the ground of the entire Damascus-Aleppo corridor, it will take a major offensive to drive him from power.
So, after months of dithering, Europe and the US now face the following question: Should they sit by an allow Assad to consolidate his gains, reinforce his position, and hand a major regional victory to Hezbollah and Iran, also increasing the local threat to Israel? Or should they intervene to prevent this, even though that now will involve a major commitment of weapons and military action, plus support for post-conflict peacekeeping and state-reconstruction?
It is a wretched choice — but that is the price the US and Europe pay for dithering while watching the Syrian state break down and descend into civil war. It is time to face up to that and act before things grow even worse, and an Assad/Iran/Hezbollah/Russia victory becomes unavoidable.