Anne-Marie Slaughter has a provocative op-ed in today’s New York Times calling for intervention in Syria. She argues that simply arming the opposition will trigger a proxy war. Instead, she advocates creating “no-kill zones” that are explicitly defensive, rather than offensive, in intent: “The key condition for all such assistance, inside or outside Syria, is that it be used defensively.” The problem is that many of her policy suggestions will have the same effects as offensive war. This is regime change by any other name.
Slaughter’s policy recommendations have several components.
First, she advocates arming the opposition to create no-kill zones and humanitarian corridors: local states need to “arm the opposition soldiers with anti-tank, countersniper and portable antiaircraft weapons.” It’s not clear how this is different than the ostensible alternative of arming the opposition; they seem to be precisely the same thing. Moreover, special forces from Qatar, Turkey, and possibly Britain and France would advise and support the Free Syrian Army. This is more aggressive than just arming the opposition.
The second step in the plan is that “Once Syrian government forces were killed, captured or allowed to defect without reprisal, attention would turn to defending and expanding the no-kill zones.” This is obviously a form of offensive military action: “expanding the no-kill zones” means taking and consolidating territorial control through the use of anti-tank, countersniper, and portable antiaircraft weapons. Indeed, the explicit goal is to cause a rupture in the Syrian security forces, which cannot occur unless there is conflict. As she notes, the strategy aims to “weaken and isolate government units charged with attacking particular towns.” Actively weakening and isolating standing conventional forces looks like offensive war, not defensive humanitarian intervention.
Third, Slaughter advocates using Turkish and Arab League “remotely piloted helicopters, either for delivery of cargo and weapons — as America has used them in Afghanistan — or to attack Syrian air defenses and mortars in order to protect the no-kill zones.” Given that most drones have little cargo capacity, in reality this means targeting Syrian air defenses and local conventional forces. Making this strategy unambiguously “defensive” is difficult, since it clearly aims to degrade capabilities central to Syrian regime survival. The difference between offense and defense is often in the eye of the beholder.
Slaughter promises that any offensive actions by the Free Syrian Army would be punished – but who would punish them? The internal logic of her own argument encourages the expansion of FSA control. For the strategy to work, the FSA needs to go on the offensive in order to force crises within the Syrian forces, create more no-kill zones, and liberate targeted cities in order to create some kind of “truce.”
Furthermore, carefully managing and manipulating local armed forces from the outside is extremely difficult. This is why Slaughter’s disclaimer that “revenge attacks would not be tolerated” is difficult to believe: once international powers have thrown their support behind the FSA, its (fractious) forces will have enormous power to create facts on the ground. Figuring out who is responsible for what military actions will be difficult in the fog of war. Indeed, there are reports that the insurgents are already “bringing in defensive and offensive weapons.” Understandably, they have their own agendas that aren’t simple reflection of international desires. The experience of Libya in recent months provides little evidence that the international community is able to tightly control loosely-organized local armed groups.
The Syrian government’s repression is absolutely abhorrent (as this video shows), and advocating the fall of Assad is Slaughter’s prerogative. But let’s not pretend that her preferred strategy is something other than regime change through proxy war. This is a potentially very costly policy (as Marc Lynch points out), and its advocates ought to be forthright about the risks of escalation. Real debate isn’t advanced by delicate euphemisms.