Some Syrian Oppositions Groups Want Intervention—Sort Of

They're asking for a sort of "intervention à la carte," picking and choosing who would intervene, with what, and for how long

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Opposition delegation of the Syrian National Council, led by Chairman Burhan Ghalioun, attend a news conference during their visit to Moscow / Reuters

After nine months of brutal repression that has killed over 3,500 people--the vast majority being nonviolent protestors--Syrian opposition groups are escalating the frequency and variety of their demands for international military support. What form that external intervention might take, what the intended military and political objectives would be, and what countries may contribute, remain altogether unclear.

On Thursday, Colonel Riyadh al-Assad, chief of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)--an armed opposition group of reportedly 15,000 Syrian soldiers who defected--explained:

"We are not in favor of the entry of foreign troops as was the case in Iraq but we want the international community to give us logistical support. We also want international protection, the establishment of a no-fly zone, a buffer zone and strikes on certain strategic targets considered as crucial by the regime."

Col. Al-Assad has also repeatedly requested that other countries supply weapons to his militia.

Al-Assad's statements are indicative of an increasing trend of Syrian opposition members--or foreign activists lobbying on their behalf--making selective demands of outsiders to provide military support, albeit on their own terms.

This represents the trend toward "intervention a la carte," whereby overhead surveillance assets, logistical enablers, peacekeepers, armed drones, combat aircraft, ground troops, or smuggled weapons are demanded and presumably applied as opposition movements see fit.

This has been particularly evident in the public discussions on whether a no-fly zone (NFZ) should be imposed over Syria. An anonymous 25-year-old FSA member boasted, "The [Assad] regime would only last thirty days" with a NFZ. Another FSA member, Lt. Col. Abdullah Yousef, claimed, "If there is such a zone, the regime will not last for a week." Such wishful thinking is reminiscent of statements by Abdel Hafeez Goga, the deputy chief of the Libyan rebels' Transitional National Council, who--before the western intervention--mistakenly believed, "We are capable of controlling all of Libya, but only after the no-fly zone is imposed."

NFZs have the dual benefits of applying coercive pressure on a targeted regime while simultaneously allowing an opposition movement to claim that its uprising is free of foreign footprints on the ground. In Syria, however--as was true in Libya--a NFZ becomes irrelevant when civilians are mainly attacked by tanks and snipers on the ground. As the State Department spokesperson pointed out earlier this month, "What a no-fly zone does in a situation like that is not particularly clear." Warnings from a Libyan doctor on the eve of NATO's intervention also apply to Syria: "This no-fly zone doesn't mean anything to us because Qaddafi only had a few planes and they were doing nothing. We need a no-drive zone because it is tanks and snipers that are killing us."

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Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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