What could a Syrian collapse unleash? So far, “the chemical weapons are under pretty tight control,” said Jeffrey White, who spent decades as a Mideast specialist at the Defense Intelligence Agency before joining the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But in the chaos of the breakdown of the regime and the military command structure, people could just walk away from storage areas, just leave them [unguarded]. So it’d be important for somebody to come in and police them up.”
“We know how to do those kinds of things but it would be tricky,” White said. “There’d be no way to really be sure what kind of situation you’d find on the ground.”
The most straightforward scenario for a Syrian collapse would be de facto partition, with the coastal regions dominated by the Allawi minority — the regime’s main supporters — breaking away from the Sunni Arab provinces inland. “That would be fairly clear-cut,” said White. But Damascus lies outside the hypothetical “Allawi-stan,” and White doubts the regime would be willing to give up the capital and retreat to the coast: “What I think is more likely is the regime will fight for Damascus as long as it can, and when that falls it will be a matter of flight, every man for himself.”
In that event, the Syrian army and security forces would splinter. Allawis dominate the intelligence services, a few elite units like the Republican guard, and the shabiha militia, but they’re spread thin across most of the army, which is largely by increasingly reluctant Sunni conscripts. “I doubt if any Allawi officers would be staying around because their hands are almost all dirty [in the repression],” said White, “so you have a bunch of guys with guns without leaders.” Some might defect to local rebel leaders, some might just go home — with or without their guns — and some might start looting.
The upside of intervening into a state in collapse, as opposed to one in full command of its forces, is that complex systems requiring large-scale coordination and specialist personnel would probably not be functioning. “You don’t just drive up in your Scud launcher and fire it: It takes someone who’s trained,” said White. Likewise, he said, “the air defense system would be somewhat or largely disabled; people would be not manning the radars or the missile batteries.”
The downside is that whatever weapons remain could be in all sorts of unknown hands. “There’s lots of MANPADs [shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles], including fairly sophisticated ones like the SA-24,” said White. “They’re issued down to the battalion level,” which would put them under control of dozens of relatively junior commanders. In general, White went on, “there’d just be huge amount of conventional arms available, and there are a lot of people how know how to operate tanks and artillery.”
In an intervention against a hostile nation-state, the crucial question would be where those weapons are and how to target them. In an intervention into chaos, there’s the added dimension of know who currently controls them and what their intentions are. Will they welcome US forces? Shoot at them? Stay neutral? And how can the US conduct the intervention to minimize the number of factions that oppose it? Just going in guns blazing might be safest in the short run but guarantees making enemies for tomorrow.
Read More: AOL Defense