The ongoing unrest, violence and security crackdowns in Syria have been the subject of major international attention since February. Our current assessment is that the government and opposition forces have reached a stalemate in which the government cannot quell the unrest and the opposition cannot bring down the regime without outside intervention.
In the Dec. 8 Security Weekly, we discussed the covert intelligence war being waged by the United States, Israel and other U.S. allies against Iran. Their efforts are directed not only against Tehran’s nuclear program but also against Iran’s ability to establish an arc of influence that stretches through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. To that end, the United States and its allies are trying to limit Iran’s influence in Iraq and to constrain Hezbollah in Lebanon. But apparently they are also exploring ways to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al Assad, a longtime ally of Iran whose position is in danger due to the current unrest in the country. In fact, a U.S. State Department official recently characterized the al Assad regime as a “dead man walking.”
We therefore would like to examine more closely the potential external efforts required to topple the Syrian regime. In doing so, we will examine the types of tools that are available to external forces seeking to overthrow governments and where those tools fit within the force continuum, an array of activities ranging from clandestine, deniable activities to all-out invasion. We will also discuss some of the indicators that can be used by outside observers seeking to understand any efforts taken against the Syrian regime.
Syria Is Not Libya
It is tempting to compare Syria to Libya, which very recently was the target of outside intervention. Some similarities exist. The al Assad regime came to power in a military coup around the time the Gadhafi regime took control of Libya, and the regimes are equally brutal. And, like Libya, Syria is a country that is quite divided along demographic and sectarian lines and is governed by a small minority of the population.