After the events of the last weekend in Houla and the international reaction that followed there’s been fresh calls (and fears) from some quarters for “Libya Style” military intervention in Syria. “Libya Style” intervention should be taken to mean using overwhelming air superiority to first destroy air defences in the country, establishing a no-drive/no-fly zone, and targeting military infrastructure.
Ignoring the various reports of Russia and China stating their opposition to military action, and the British foreign secretary William Hague stating the only alternative to Kofi Annan’s peace place being civil war and collapse, would Libya Style intervention even be viable in Syria?
To begin with let’s look at the Libyan military intervention. Libya has around 6 million citizens, with the vast majority living in coastal cities, including Tripoli, Misrata and Benghazi. The military consisted of around 50,000 soldiers, around half of which were conscripts, and despite looking good on paper much of Gaddafi’s military equipment was found to be rusting in depots in the middle of nowhere, useless for combat operations.
So we have a small and poorly equipped army, the majority of the population living on coastal cities allowing for carrier operations and long range air operations from bases in Europe, and an outdated air defence system. On top of that we have 3 major locations, Benghazi, Misrata, and the Nafusa Mountains which are all in the middle of a major rebellion, and already building up stockpiles of weapons and vehicles.
Military intervention begins, and the air defence network is destroyed in days, with the rusting Libyan air force unable to put up any sort of fight against the coalition’s air far superior air power. At that point the Libyan rebels effectively have their own air force to support advances into Gaddafi controlled territory, with attempts by Gaddafi’s armed forces to capture towns foiled by coalition air strikes on their positions.
Even then it takes seven months for the conflict to be over, exposing the weaknesses in NATO’s supply chains and their reliance on the US to keep the war machine supplied in missiles and bombs. It’s clear that without the US playing a major role in operations that the coalition simply would have just ran out of bombs a few months into the conflict.
So let’s look at Libya Style intervention in Syria. First of all the coalition would need to wipe out the Syrian air defence system, as we saw in Libya. Recently Deputy Chief of General Staff Yair Naveh of the IAF warned that Syria had "invested $3 billion toward its build up" of air defence systems, and back in March Marine Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, told US senators that Syria had advanced air defence weapons provided to them by Russia, saying it would make it difficult to establish a no-fly zone in Syria. This claim was countered by Akil Hashem, a former Syrian general, who told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that Syrian defences under a western attack would "collapse right away”. However, it seems that in these matters the opinion of those doing the bombing counts more than the opinion of those who want the bombing to happen.
The next problem is the Syrian rebels don’t control vast areas in the same way that the Libyan rebels did. Despite press reports back in February comparing Homs to Benghazi only parts of Homs were rebelling, with other areas still loyal to Assad, or at least not siding with the rebels. This is a pattern seen across Syria, and you just have to look at some of the reports on the events in Houla to see why this could be a problem for any Libya Style military intervention. Some reports suggest that the armed men who went into Houla were shabiha drawn from local Alawite villages, and Homs was described as being divided along sectarian lines by the fighting. As much as I would like to imagine that the Syrian people can unify against the Assad regime and ignore sectarian divisions I don’t really think that’s likely to happen, especially as it seems likely that as the conflict goes on the Assad regime will be more likely to focus on sectarian issues to shore up support, and we just have to look at Tawergha and other towns that found themselves on the losing side after taking part in a brutal conflict.
Even ignoring the above major issues there would still need to be a long bombing campaign, against a much larger and better equipped army, and it took a 7 month bombing campaign in Libya, one that stretched coalition resources, and was thankfully shortened due to a fantastically executed plan to capture Tripoli, which included at least one major defection that allowed rebel forces to walk into the city with minimal casualties. Without that the intervention could have easily lasted for another 3 months while rebels forces slowly fought their way into Tripoli, and if Sirte is anything to go by, destroying much of it in the process. I don’t believe we can expect that Libya Style intervention in Syria will be over as quickly, and no doubt it would require much greater resources even to attempt that, most of which would come from the US, something that seems unlikely in an election year.
Where does that leave Syria? Some people have called for safe zones to be established, but it seems impossible that the Assad regime would agree to this when they are describing rebels as terrorists, so again we’d be back to using military intervention to establish a no-fly no-drive zone. Then we aren’t talking about Libya Style intervention anymore, but something much more significant and potentially dangerous to both Syria and the wider region.You can contact the author on Twitter @brown_moses or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org