Syria's risks mute talk of Libya-style action

October 7, 2011 - 12:45 PM
Mideast Syria

Syrian opposition members attend a Syrian opposition meeting in the Halboun area, near the capital Damascus, Syria, on Thursday Oct. 6, 2011. Some 75 opposition figures held a rare public meeting in which they called for the downfall of the regime. In a statement, participants at the meeting headed by prominent dissident Hassan Abdul-Azim said it was too late to talk about reforming the regime. The Arabic banners read:

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — In shaky videos posted on the web, some protesters in Syria have begun flashing signs appealing for international help. "Where is NATO?" some messages ask amid crackdowns that have claimed nearly 3,000 lives.

The answer: Waiting on the sidelines with other world powers and showing no willingness to open a Libyan-style military offensive against the regime of Bashar Assad.

"No intention whatsoever," emphasized NATO's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, earlier this week in Brussels.

The reason is a brew of international political complications, worries over unleashing a civil war and plausible risks of touching off a wider Middle East conflict with archfoes Israel and Iran in the mix. In the end, Assad has more powerful friends and carries far more wild cards than Moammar Gadhafi's Libya, analysts say.

"The Syrian regime is much more capable of causing trouble for the region and its allies," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. "There's a real risk of a major spillover effect."

Prime targets are right on Syria's borders: U.S.-backed Israel and NATO-member Turkey.

Assad and his main Mideast backer, Iran, could launch retaliatory attacks on Israel or — more likely — use proxy Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon or Palestinian militant allies for the job. To the north, Turkey has opened its doors to anti-Assad activists and breakaway military rebels, which also could bring Syrian reprisals.

But some see even greater dangers if Assad falls without a clear successor, such as the transition administration built by Libya's former rebels.

Syria has an array of competing factions and allegiances, including some Sunni groups falling behind Saudi Arabia pitted against Assad's Alawite minority with ties to Shiite power Iran. Assad has tried to exploit fears of a bloody unraveling in Syria by portraying himself as the only power capable of keeping peace.

"Israel is more worried if there is civil war," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born regional analyst based in Israel. "During the chaos, Iranian-backed factions could take the opportunity to strike Israel. The last thing Iran wants is a Saudi-allied regime emerging in Syria. Iran will not sit by as spectators."

Assad also still carries favor in Moscow and Beijing, which on Tuesday vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned Syria for its crackdowns on pro-reform protesters. A divided Security Council puts an effective stranglehold on any discussions about military options.

Like Iran, both Russia and China worry that the downfall of Assad will be a severe blow to their interests in the Middle East.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday defended Russia's veto, saying the resolution would have opened the door to future resolutions allowing military action. NATO launched its air campaign in Libya after a U.N. resolution authorizing countries to use military force — short of occupation — to enforce a no-fly zone and protect civilians.

Video clips that appeared Thursday showed protesters in Damascus holding a banner mocking the Russian "bear," Chinese "dragon" and describing Assad as a bloodthirsty lion — the meaning of his name in Arabic. "Animals of the same kind," it read.

In Geneva, the U.N.'s human rights office raised its tally of people killed during seven months of unrest in Syria to more than 2,900, including members of the security forces.

Sporadic individual calls for international military action have begun to arise among Syrian protesters. But most protesters and Syria's opposition leaders have so far resisted the idea. At a rare opposition meeting in Damascus on Thursday, banners read: "Yes to the collapse of the tyrannical security regime" and "No to foreign military intervention."

Assad's government permitted the meeting in a possible attempt to show tolerance to some degree of dissent as long as it comes from within Syria.

"We firmly believe that history will bear out which nations were right and which were on the wrong side in this vote," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland after the Security Council stalemate. "Countries have to take responsibility for the decision that they made ... and any implications it might have on the ground in Syria."

Yet no one in Washington or elsewhere is raising the option of airstrikes — such as NATO's campaign in Libya — or other types of military action to try to cripple Assad's regime.

Libya shows another likely reason why: Gadhafi's security forces battled for six months against rebels despite being hammered by NATO strikes, and they continue to fight in pockets a month after the fall of Tripoli.

Syria is believed to have a much stronger and cohesive military than Gadhafi's. Its arsenal includes Russian-made MiG warplanes and modern air defense systems.

"Syria is not Libya," said Khaled Mahadeen, a Jordanian columnist and former government adviser in Amman. "Any such action will have serious repercussions across the Arab world."

Even Israeli officials have not been pressing for Western-led attacks to bring down Assad, though he sides with Israel's chief enemies — Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza.

Israel is already trying to reshape its policies after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, where the nation's 32-year-old peace pact with Israel is now being questioned by Islamist groups and others with newfound power. An upheaval in Syria could raise new security questions in the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967. For all Assad's hostility against Israel, he has kept the Golan front largely quiet for decades.

For the moment, the most likely channel for possible outside military help runs through Turkey, where a group of Syrian military defectors have set up a faction called the Free Syrian Army. Its leader, breakaway air force Col. Riad al-Asaad, said "armed rebellion" may be the only path for the opposition.

The military rebels, however, may first need to claim a slice of Syrian territory before they can pitch for Western or Arab aid like the anti-Gadhafi fighters in their de facto capital Benghazi, said the Qatar-based analyst Hamid.

"The Free Syrian Army needs to give the international community an address," he said. "Benghazi was an address. They need to have a piece of territory of their own to say, 'This is where we are basing our operations to hold this territory and protect the civilians within.'"

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Associated Press writers Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, Sloboban Lekic in Brussels, and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.