Syria before the fall of Bashar Assad bears a striking resemblance to Libya after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi. A common denominator of the Syrian and Libyan conflicts is the covert backing of the rebels by external countries or groups who do not have to live with the consequences of that support. From a comfortable distance, the outsourcing of regime change to a proxy army of disparate rebel movements may actually seem like a sound idea. On the ground, however, such an undertaking is as unpredictable as it is uncontrollable.
Libya is a perfect case in point. Democracy has arrived and elections have been held, but this means virtually nothing when one considers that those who wield real power in the country have never presented themselves as candidates, nor have they recognized the legitimacy of the country’s new institutions. And a destabilized Libya, as we have seen, has been a primary source of arms diffusion across the Sahel. This has contributed to conflicts in Mali and the risks of conflict and instability elsewhere in the region.
How does one apply a lesson that has not been learned? We shall soon find out, as the United States, France and the United Kingdom continue to lead the charge in offering their support to the rebel groups in Syria. It is becoming increasingly difficult to view this conflict as a civil war or a domestic uprising when it is rather clear that those challenging the regime are being armed, trained and directed by the same parties who brought about regime change in Libya. And while the implications of the Libyan operation have been far-reaching for North Africa and the Sahel (and are still unfolding), the geopolitical consequences of a destabilized Syria would be far more catastrophic for the entire Middle East, and certainly with major implications for both Lebanon and Iran.
Recently, while visiting German troops in Kahramanmaras (where NATO Patriot missiles are deployed), German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned the parties in the Syrian conflict that the civil war should not transcend borders and spill over into neighboring states. She reiterated that the deployment of Patriot missile batteries in Turkey was a signal that NATO would not allow this to happen. Her Defense Minister Thomas De Maziere also issued a public warning to Assad that a Syrian attack against Turkey would trigger consequences. The Syrian army had attacked rebel groups with Scuds.
It was this new phase in warfare that set the context for Turkey’s request to have Patriot missiles deployed along its border with Syria.
The U.N. Security Council is likely to remain paralyzed by the reticence of China and Russia. Three draft resolutions have failed so far, after both states made use of their veto power. Russia has called on the United States to exercise balance in any role it might play in the conflict. On Feb. 26, the Russians urged the United States to apply more pressure on the rebels so that they would meet with the Assad regime for direct talks.
Recent events could signal the advent of a Western alliance willing to work in a more outspoken manner for the fall of the Assad regime, even in the absence of a U.N.-backed mandate. And when the German Bundestag approved the deployment of Patriot missiles to the Turkish-Syrian border, Assad reacted with a series of unmistakably more assertive diplomatic signals, demonstrating that the West was perhaps beginning to close in on the Syrian regime.
The Patriot missiles are for the interception of incoming Syrian missiles and aircraft only, and are deployed too far north of the Syrian border to constitute the imposition of an indirect no-fly zone. Their deployment, though, is an important diplomatic gesture of NATO solidarity, reinforcing the notion that any spillover of the conflict into Turkish territory would trigger NATO retaliation. At the same time, the deployment sends parallel signals to Turkey. On the one hand, it reassures a NATO member about its security and protection. On the other, given that Turkish public diplomacy has become increasingly aggressive lately, the deployment of the Patriot batteries could indicate a NATO attempt to preclude any unilateral military actions by Turkey.
Attempts at diplomatic persuasion and mild external pressure have not made Assad shift course. His reliance on a continued campaign of violence has further isolated his regime. Any escalation by the regime risks alienating its last protective shields, China and Russia, who thus far have been steadfast in their support.
A solution to the Syrian stalemate cannot be achieved without also taking Iranian policy perceptions and sensitivities seriously. Iran, as Assad’s last and only regional ally, does not want to see him fall. The Iranians need Assad and the Alawite minority to stay in power so that Syria can remain a transit country for the delivery of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Any policy considerations currently on the table, be they open NATO intervention (which is unlikely), indirect and simmering NATO meddling (the deployment of Patriot missiles might point in that direction), or simply the current more outspoken anti-Assad public diplomacy on the part of Western governments, will prove as ill-conceived as those that governed the Libyan mission.
Serious consideration must be given to the importance of regional power dynamics. Any shift in the West’s Syria policy should be accompanied by more inclusive considerations of the interests of regional powers such as Iran. There is a geopolitical imperative for Western strategists to recognize the importance of consultation with the Iranians, without which no long-term scenarios for a post-Assad Syria are conceivable.
Moritz Pieper and Octavius Pinkard are Brussels-based specialists in foreign policy analysis and Middle Eastern politics. They are doctoral researchers at the United Kingdom’s University of Kent. They wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.