SINCE the massacre of more than 100 people in Houla on May 25th, talk of setting up buffer zones on Syria’s border has grown louder in Western government circles. Reports on June 6th of a similar slaughter of at least 78 villagers near Hama have turned the volume up still more. Hitherto, all Western governments agreed that direct military intervention, which would almost certainly have to accompany the creation of those zones, was out of the question. That is changing.
Military planners are now pondering in detail the prerequisites for securing a buffer zone. Officials in Britain, France and the United States have all said that military intervention “cannot be ruled out” in due course. Though almost no one thinks it will be done soon, calls for intervention, especially in Washington, are growing.
Two main arguments against intervention still prevail. The first is that it would require the endorsement of the UN Security Council, which Russia and China still show no sign of giving. The second is that Syria with 23m people, unlike Libya with 7m, would be a hard nut militarily to crack—and that the ensuing bloodshed would be on a far bigger scale than now.
- Nerves on edge
- »Changing calculations
- Calling on a laureate
- Look the other way
- On the march
- Still too tribal
- Helping to calm a continent
On the first score, Western governments could conceivably in the end bypass the Security Council, as they did in 1999, when NATO set about bombing Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic—to the annoyance of Russia. But it is barely conceivable that they could undertake similar attacks against Syria without the close co-operation and public endorsement of both Turkey and the Arab League.
Once those conditions are met, however, a buffer zone could—it is reckoned—be secured quite fast. “People exaggerate and overestimate the power of the Syrian army,” says Riad Kahwaji, a military analyst based in Dubai. “Syria has a sophisticated anti-aircraft system but most of its equipment is from the Soviet era and could easily be outpowered.” Any Western-cum-Turkish decision to set up a buffer zone would require air raids on Syrian defences.
There are reports of flagging morale in the 300,000-strong army. Many conscripts have absconded. Rebel attacks by the ragtag Free Syrian Army have been increasing. In a recent ambush more than 100 Syrian soldiers are said to have been killed. Most soldiers are Sunnis, less loyal to the ruling Assad regime than is the Alawite minority to which the Assads belong.
The army’s elite squads, led by Mr Assad’s hawkish brother Maher, now a cult figure among his men, are still fiercely loyal. The shabiha, drawn mainly from the Alawite community, are carrying out many of the atrocities. “[Bashar] Assad is ultimately responsible for creating the conditions for these paramilitaries to operate,” says Emile Hokayem, another analyst. “But no one thinks he picks up the phone to order every attack. These groups may act on their own initiative too.”