Intervention Debate Experts Warn Against Syrian Adventure

What contours might a military intervention in Syria take on? Strategists are discussing the creation of a humanitarian buffer and no-fly zone. But experts warn that 40,000 to 75,000 ground troops would be required in Syria for that to happen.


By in Beirut

If you believe US President Barack Obama's antagonists, putting an end to the civil war in Syria is simple. All it would take is the establishment of a buffer zone for civilians, the provision of adequate protections for that zone and the distribution of arms to the right people in Syria and the problem will be gone -- at least so goes the tale as spun by Republican John McCain on Fox News. The best thing about his plan? That it could work without sending any American troops into the country. He argues an American invasion wouldn't be necessary to stop the civil war.

McCain's appearance was yet another attempt to drive Obama into a war that the United States has been trying to avoid. And it illustrates yet again that some participants in the discussion over a military incursion in Syria are operating almost completely free of the facts. Indeed, it would be hard to find an expert who wouldn't warn that an incursion into Syria would be enormously challenging and require many, many soldiers.

"Humanitarian buffer zones have to be set up by ground troops and secured against potential attacks from forces loyal to the regime," said Markus Kain, an expert in security policy at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. Together with military officials, Kaim calculated that to establish a humanitarian corridor that is 80 kilometers wide and 50 kilometers deep (31 by 50 miles), a contingent of 40,000 to 50,000 soldiers would be necessary.

There would also have to be guarantees that a humanitarian corridor could not be attacked from the air, which would require the establishment of a no-fly zone over Syria. But the regime of President Bashar Assad would almost certainly not permit the creation of a no-fly zone. At the point international powers moved to establish the no-fly zone, it would essentially be a declaration of war. "The line will have been crossed turning this into an international conflict," Kaim said.

Other experts also share the belief that engagement in Syria only makes sense if it takes place on a large scale and over a longer period of time. At the end of last year, the US Defense Department looked into the commitment required to secure Syrian chemical weapons depots. The scenario concluded that for this task alone, a force of more than 75,000 soldiers would have to march in to Syria.

Another possibility would be to create a buffer zone that would be secured by Arab troops, an operation the Wall Street Journal recently reported the Pentagon is reviewing. The plans envision establishing a buffer zone along the Syrian-Jordanian border that would be secured by the Jordanian army, according to the paper.

A Welcome Excuse

Still, even if the Jordanians and other Arab troops did the lion's share of the work, the United States would still be involved in the largely Arab undertaking. Hundreds of US trainers and military advisors are already on the ground in Jordan to provide support to the military there. So far, the effort has been focused on providing the Jordanians and a small, hand-picked group of Syrian rebels with training on securing chemical weapons. The Wall Street Journal also reported on Wednesday that a further US team has been placed in Jordan since last month. It is helping the Jordanian military plan for the possibility of establishing a buffer zone.

The West is still very reserved about the prospects of intervention in Syria. Critics accuse Western governments of hiding behind formalities. The fact that Russia and China would block any decision on a mission in Syria in the United Nations Security Council comes as a welcome excuse in the West to do nothing, they say.

But a shift in thinking appears to be emerging, although it is limited to efforts to arm the rebels. Last week, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the US is now strongly considering providing weapons to the rebels. Britain and France in particular have announced several times in recent months their desire to provide weapons to the rebel Free Syrian Army. The date when that decision could come into focus is June 1; the European Union's weapons embargo against Syria will expire at the end of May if the 27 EU member-states don't unanimously vote to extend it at the end of May.

In light of developments in recent days -- the suspected use of chemical weapons in Syria, two Israeli air strikes against the country and most recently the renewed kidnapping of four UN peacekeeping soldiers along the Syrian-Israeli border -- calls for Western intervention in the Syrian conflict down the road could grow louder. But engagement would by no means be easy.

On Tuesday, President Obama hinted at the difficulties, saying. "Understandably, there's a desire for easy answers," he said. "That's not the situation here."


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