Philipp Trösser
Last updated: 1 July, 2012

Can Syria do without NATO?

“Two truths remain: Firstly, the Syrian opposition is still no match for Assad’s combined forces. Secondly, Assad’s forces and inner circle remain cohesive,” writes Philipp Trösser.

On June 22, a Turkish F-4 Phantom fighter jet was shot down by Syrian air-defences at 11.58am local time, after a short violation of Syrian airspace. At the time of writing, it is not quite clear yet, just how far and with how much intent the Turkish plane ventured into Syrian airspace. What is clear is that this incident raises the profile of the debate surrounding possible international military action against Syria. Should Turkey strike back?

Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952 and as such is now in a position to demand NATO military support to ensure its national security and prevent any further violation of its sovereignty. This is ensured by article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which calls for collective defence if a party to the treaty is attacked.

Turkey, however, chose to invoke Article 4, and not 5. In coherence with its general approach to the Syrian crisis, it merely convened the North Atlantic Council. The unsurprising result was the delivery of a firm “Don’t do it again”. But then, Syria surely never meant to trigger a Turkish or NATO intervention.

Syria insists that the whole issue was an accident, triggered by the aircraft’s violation of Syrian airspace and its lack of identification. Wherever the answer lies, it is obvious that a strategic aim has been achieved over the issue. The capability of the Syrian air defences now has been demonstrated, as has the Assad regime’s resolve to protect its territory. And this is not the kind of demonstration you repeat; all parties involved know another such ‘accident’ could mean war. NATO’s condemnation thus is to be understood as mere defensive posturing. It is in no connection to Assad’s crackdown on his people and overall appears rather lame.

In the meantime, Assad has endeavoured to ease this tense situation. In this context, it is important to keep in mind that the Syrian opposition still is no match for Assad’s combined forces. Hence, it is a crucial part of the Syrian opposition’s strategy to foster international outrage vis-à-vis the Assad regime, and thus, ultimately, trigger significant foreign military action that will depose Assad.

Assad on the other hand must mitigate the risk of foreign military action as he moves to eliminate dissent and those who challenge his rule across the country. A major trump card up his sleeve is that within the international community, there is no appetite for military action against him. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United States and Turkey likely cooperate on supplying the Syrian Free Army with arms, ammunition and equipment. This support most certainly will remain below a certain threshold though, since no international actor wants to take the lead in bringing Syria back to stability. ‘Taking the lead’ still seems to equate with ‘assuming sole responsibility,’ something no one wants. Not after Afghanistan, not after Iraq, and maybe even after Libya. The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine may not be dead, but it certainly is subject to realistic cost/chances-of success calculations.

And this must be born in mind when considering Assad’s strategy concerning the international community: He highlights the cost of military action against him as well as the elusiveness of avoiding an Iraqi-style sectarian war. Absurd as it may seem, he still retains some claim to being the safer bet for Syria’s future.

On the Tuesday following the shooting of the Turkish aircraft Assad acknowledged that Syrians now “live in a real state of war from all angles.” This admission of weakness must be considered in the light of NATO military action becoming more tangible, and, of course, is all part of Assad’s tactics.

The state of war is hardly news to the Syrian people, but the international community has been keenly waiting for such a statement. Hesitant to fully commit to the Syrian tragedy, it is making an effort to fool itself into believing that the Syrian opposition can win its struggle without significant outside help. Logically, it is in Assad’s interest to strengthen this belief, which is how one must understand his latest maneouvre.

The appearance of weakness is further reinforced by the recent reports of heavy fighting in Syria’s capital, sometimes close to, or even targeting major strategic assets of the regime. It is unclear though, just how much this helps the rebels’ cause. Assad’s strategic infrastructure may be damaged, but experts assure us that the ranks of Assad’s forces as well as his inner circle hardly show any cracks. His propaganda campaign very clearly is stagnating, but then we know that the battle lines have hardened over the last 15 months. Any individual change of allegiance is becoming harder by the day, and Assad clearly is not on his last legs yet.

This, however, is exactly what Assad’s admission that Syria is in a state of war and the heavy fighting in the capital seem to suggest. Will the world community believe that the rebels can do it alone, that NATO won’t be needed?

As both the regime and the opposition wage a media war against each other, reliable information on what exactly is going on remains elusive. Two truths remain: Firstly, the Syrian opposition is still no match for Assad’s combined forces. Secondly, Assad’s forces and inner circle remain cohesive.

Beyond moral outrage, everybody is preparing for a protracted struggle. Syrians fight for the fate of their country; the international community struggles to contain the conflict to Syria.

The views in this article are the author’s and do not neccessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.