As the nine-month-old revolt in Syria has become increasingly bloody -- some 6,000, mostly civilians, have been killed -- calls for outside action have raised the possibility of military intervention. Late last November, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe made a case for deploying military forces to create a “humanitarian corridor” for importing food, medicine, and aid into Syria. On December 2, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the UN Human Rights Council, which has accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of crimes against humanity, that the “international community needs to take urgent and effective measures to protect the Syrian people.” Turkey, meanwhile, has been threatening to impose a “buffer zone” inside the country since mid-June, when it became the triage center for 10,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the massacre under way in their country’s northwest.

And Washington, though it has expressed reservations about intervention, is now considering how it might aid the opposition, by either sending medical assistance or helping to create a “safe zone” -- a martially cordoned-off area within the country to protect the civilian population close to the Syrian-Turkish border. In testimony before Congress last December, the State Department official Frederic Hof called Assad a “dead man walking,” implying that the United States is already envisioning a post-Assad Syria.

Yet despite the humanitarian catastrophe, intervention at this moment would be premature, because Syria’s various opposition groups have yet to coalesce into a unified political force worth backing. That said, calls for intervention are more than just wishful thinking. Should the various political and armed elements challenging Damascus align their interests, Turkey and the West could use force to create a safe area in Syria that would save lives and serve as an outpost to battle the Assad regime.

Unlike the Transitional National Council in Libya, which came together and gained formal international recognition quickly, the Syrian National Council (SNC) took seven months to form and has received scant recognition. Only the new leaders in Tripoli have formally recognized it as a government-in-exile. Tunisia has promised imminent recognition, and France has described it as a “legitimate interlocutor.” Moreover, the SNC, although it has come to include more on-the-ground activists, has failed to shed its reputation as a mainly expat-controlled movement that does not adequately reflect the ethnic and tribal makeup of Syrian society, much less the will of revolutionaries. Many protesters criticized the SNC’s slow response to unfolding events, particularly the action of its chairman, Burhan Ghalioun, who initially refused to support individual military defections, arguing that the Syrian army should defect en masse. That, of course, has not happened.

Making matters worse, in the last two weeks, the SNC has further embarrassed itself by sending mixed messages about its real intentions. First, the group said that it was in favor of foreign military intervention. But on December 30, 2011, reports swirled that Ghalioun and a handful of senior SNC figures had inked a unity agreement with the anti-interventionist National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, a domestic opposition group that activists suspect is a cover organization pushing reconciliation with Assad’s regime. Two high-ranking members of the SNC, Ausama Monajed and Radwan Ziadeh, told me that the council rejected the text of the agreement, which they claimed was only a "draft." Sure enough, a few days later, the SNC launched its official Web site that, drawing on a blueprint I prepared, called for outside forces to establish a safe zone in Syria. This more aggressive call for foreign military intervention reflects a need to hang on to support from the protesters, who now often denounce the regime and the SNC in the same breath.

Moreover, the SNC still lacks the leverage to pull varying factions of the insurgency under its umbrella. It simply does not have the power to establish a clear chain of command for the rebel forces on the ground. Late last month, the SNC appointed the retired Syrian brigadier general Akil Hachim, an émigré who lives in Seattle, as its chief military adviser. The move was ostensibly a prelude to the SNC’s attempt to form an official partnership with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

But for the moment, the FSA is an independent power in its own right. It claims to have 15,000 defectors in its ranks (a figure all but certainly exaggerated) and is typically referred to by Western journalists as the sole rebel force battling troops loyal to Damascus and actively defending civilians, particularly in the resistance city of Homs.

The FSA has avoided partnerships with other parts of the opposition and has in fact run its own diplomatic outreach. Last month, it established a military council whose mandate is providing cover for civilian protesters, protecting public and private property, and safeguarding against reprisal killings once the regime is gone. Colonel Riad al-Asaad, who heads the FSA, is unambiguous in his support for Western intervention and, in late November, called for bombing raids on “strategic targets” in Syria, as well as for international protection, a no-fly zone, and a buffer zone. The military council wants to liaise directly with foreign governments to shore up support and, presumably, weapons and money.

The FSA is not the only armed opposition force. Scores of independent rebel brigades, typically named for historical figures or recent “martyrs” of the revolution, are recruiting civilians and army defectors. These brigades are not beholden to the FSA’s leadership, yet they have proved particularly lethal in their high-profile attacks on the regime, including daring raids on an air force intelligence complex in Harsata and on the Baath Party offices in central Damascus. Rebel commanders may license their accomplishments to the FSA in order to project unity, but they swear no allegiances, not to the FSA and not to the SNC. As one Syrian dissident told me recently, the FSA is more of an ongoing project to enlist more defectors and independent rebels into a united opposition than it is a well-organized army.

Without question, this is the dense thicket Juppe, Pillay, and Washington will have to navigate if they choose to protect the Syrian people and hasten the end of the Assad regime. Nevertheless, there are signs of progress. Now that the SNC has endorsed foreign intervention, bringing it in line with what all factions of the Syrian insurgency have advocated for months, there is a greater likelihood that the various political and military arms of the opposition will unite, if only out of their shared desperation over the unabated carnage. If this happens, then there is a path to Western interdiction in Syria, albeit one that will require deft and creative diplomacy not only between Western powers but with hitherto ambivalent Arab governments.

Such an intervention would need to begin with the establishment a 4.25-square-mile safe area around the northwestern city of Jisr al-Shughour, where a regime-perpetrated massacre took place last June and anti-Assad sentiment runs high. Due to the proximity of the city to Turkey, the geopolitical sensitivities of a Western nation invading a Muslim-majority country, and the fact that Turkey has already been hosting and facilitating the FSA, Ankara would be the strategic choice to provide the ground cover to fortify the safe area.

The most effective way of legally authorizing a safe area would be through a UN Security Council resolution. But Russia will not forfeit its alliance with Assad, making the Kremlin’s acquiescence at the Security Council unlikely. The other available route, then, is the UN General Assembly’s “Uniting for Peace” resolution, which allows for “collective measures” and the “use of armed force” in foreign conflicts. Created in 1950 by the United States to circumvent repeated Soviet vetoes in the Security Council against a Western military response to the crisis in Korea, this seldom used resolution requires a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly. Amassing such overwhelming support for intervention would be difficult, but certainly not out of the question. Last November, the General Assembly did what the Security Council was unable to do and passed its own nonbinding resolution -- one co-sponsored by Arab and Muslim-majority nations -- condemning the Assad regime for violence. If the crisis in Syria continues or escalates, then there may indeed be a moral and political consensus to invoke “Uniting for Peace” in order to establish a safe area.

A safe area in a central region of resistance would provide shelter for internal refugees, who are now reported to number in the hundreds of thousands. It could also serve as a base for the rebels, now largely operating out of Turkey, as well as a communications hub for Free Syrian broadcasting to the rest of the country. The FSA and independent brigades have already established de facto checkpoints and buffer zones deep inside Syria, which have served as the life line to the protests in Homs and elsewhere. Given a fortified logistical headquarters and a steady supply of equipment and arms, the rebels would have their Benghazi in Syria, their base from which to battle Damascus more effectively.

Any intervention would need to establish a no-fly zone to protect Jisr al-Shughour. Syrian forces used helicopter gunships in their previous attack on the city, and the Assad regime has Soviet-designed surface-to-air missiles stationed up and down the western corridor of the country that are capable of downing fighter jets. Nevertheless, a Western military force would achieve air supremacy with relative ease. The United States’ Sixth Fleet could also easily establish a naval blockade; ancillary air support could come from the United Kingdom’s bases in Cyprus. The question is whether NATO would participate, especially given Secretary-General Anders Rasmussen’s near-categorical rejection of NATO involvement in Syria several months ago. If it does, it could enforce a Libya-style no-fly zone from its base in Incirlik, Turkey. Even if NATO refuses the mission, however, the United States, Britain, and France have the technology and air power to keep the Syrian skies clear for as long as necessary.

The gravest challenge to intervening forces would come not from Assad’s conventional defenses but from groups allied to the regime, such as Hezbollah, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and Iraqi pro-Iranian forces and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, agents of which are already enlisted or embedded with Assad’s feared Fourth Armored Division. Following a foreign intervention, these groups could resort to terrorist attacks to make Syria a front line in a new proxy war. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia could also become al Qaeda in Syria if it senses an opportunity to destabilize another vulnerable Middle Eastern power, particularly following U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. There is also a possibility that Sunni or Shia militias would pour into Syria and turn the uprising into an all-out sectarian conflict. In addition, Assad could fight back beyond his own borders. In May, he sent Palestinian refugees into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights to distract from the unrest in his country, and he might launch rockets at Israel should he feel further besieged.

These dangers would imperil outside forces attempting to protect Syrian civilians and facilitate the anti-Assad opposition. There is no doubt that, for these reasons and others, intervention in Syria should be a last resort. But Damascus has scandalized every Potemkin effort at reform or negotiation. The Arab League observer mission has proved useless. Thousands have been massacred; many thousands more have been tortured using methods as imaginative as they are sadistic. When a country of 23 million collapses into anarchy, how many people will have to be widowed, orphaned, or dispossessed before the definition of failed statehood has been met? The more time the world gives Assad, the more he makes a mockery of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, and the more people begging for Western assistance are simply wished the best of luck and left to their grim fate.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • MICHAEL WEISS is Director of Communications and Acting Research Director at the Henry Jackson Society.
  • More By Michael Weiss