Syria has become the land of bad options. The Obama administration has reason to hesitate in intervening, particularly when outsiders call for unilateral U.S. miracles. Low levels of initial violence can easily escalate into far more serious conflict. No one can predict who will gain power if Assad falls, and the same U.S. and foreign critics that call for U.S. action today have shown they can be even more forceful critics if the United States acts without instant success.
The problems and challenges in Syria cannot be overstated. The rebels have learned key lessons after two years of fighting, but so have the regime’s forces. The Assad regime seems ready to escalate in any way it can to either preserve power or effectively divide the country. Meanwhile, there is only the façade of rebel government; Syrian rebel forces are deeply divided and have extremist elements as bad as the Assad regime. Taken together, each passing day deepens Syria’s ethnic and sectarian struggle, brings in more extremists from the outside, produces more civilian casualties, and further damages a crippled economy.
At the international level, Russia and China will not support effective U.N. action. Iran and Hezbollah are turning the Syrian civil war into a sectarian struggle that affects the entire region, directly involving Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Meanwhile, the Gulf states that support opposition forces, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, continue to struggle with their own local and regional pressures. They also have to deal with the fact that quick and favorable outcomes in Syria were always a case of hope in the face of reality.
At the same time, external inaction or near-inaction offer no real hope of making things better. The last year has shown that things can and do get steadily worse. Near-inaction is not bringing stability to Syria or the region. It is not bringing order to the rebel factions, or reducing the risk of a Sunni extremist regime replacing Assad, or taking shape alongside it. Near-inaction is not reducing Iranian influence or the steady spillover of the war into other countries. Calls for negotiating some compromise between Assad and his opponents have degenerated into farce. Moreover, U.S. near-inaction is reinforcing all of the fears of allies, and hopes of our enemies, that the United States is now a far weaker power.
“A clear U.S. call for [the] collective action [of creating a 'no move' zone within Syria] would confront states that now openly or quietly call for U.S. action with the choice of having to be partners rather than simply critics.” – Anthony H. Cordesman, CSIS
However, the United States should not rush in where pragmatists fear to tread. The United States faces the grim reality that simply reacting to events like Assad’s possible use of chemical weapons is not a measured or decisive response. Any U.S. forces that tried to deal with the chemical weapons in Syria through ground raids would present the problem of getting them in, having them fight their way to an objective, taking the time to destroy chemical stocks, and then safely leaving. This may be a template for a possible plot for “The Expendables 3” but it is a truly bad real-world military operation. Major air strikes on chemical facilities might work if the United States accepted the risk of destroying and burning the facilities, but it would be a major act of war without a decisive impact on the trajectory of Syria’s civil war. Moreover, both options would fail if Assad has already distributed chemical weapons to his most trusted forces.
Creating limited protection zones for what are now millions of potential refugees would commit the United States to unstable half-measures – and the open-ended use of force to defend them – with the risks of either a continuing civil war or an unplanned process of escalation without allied commitments or support and the reality that the people in such zones would need massive amounts of emergency relief. As Libya showed, “no fly” zones are not enough to end a civil war or halt ground movements and escalation in the use of artillery, missiles, and carefully managed atrocities by competing ground forces.
So what are the least bad options at this point in time? One set of options has existed since the start of the conflict: it is to reinforce overt U.S. civil aid to the rebels and covert conventional U.S. arms transfers to Syria through countries like Croatia with weapons that can equalize part of the advantages the remnants of Assad’s massive military machine still give him.
Transferring advanced manportable surface-to-air weapons (MANPADs) would be a key element; it would do much to cripple Assad’s ability to use fighters and helicopters to strike anywhere in Syria, conduct “terror” raids on civilian targets, bypass rebel ground defenses, and reinforce his remaining loyalist cadres of ground troops. Adding modern antitank guided weapons (ATGMs) would be a further “equalizer,” as would working with other states to provide longer-range artillery. However, the problem with such transfers of MANPADs and ATGMs is that they can fall into extremist hands. They can then be used against the United States or its allies and in power struggles within the divided rebel military movements. The United States seems to have rejected the idea of modifying such weapons to reduce the risks of these possible transfers through measures like GPS limits on the area of use, activation codes, deactivation timers, and “identify friend or foe” (IFF) because none of these measures can totally avoid the risk of being bypassed. This unease may be misplaced given the skills needed to carry out such bypassing and the need for “equalizers.”
Another alternative would be having U.S. Special Forces or other covert forces embedded with the moderate rebel factions as happened to some degree in the initial fighting in Afghanistan, a smaller degree in Libya, and to a limited extent in part of Africa. This alternative might well work if this time the United States uses such forces to control sensitive weapons but it does present the risk such forces will be killed or captured by either forces loyal to the regime, Hezbollah and other Assad allies, or rebel extremist forces. Furthermore, extremist elements could still seize the weapons the United States may provide to vetted factions. Lastly, this option also presents the problem of how the world would react as these U.S. actions become known to the public. But once again, bad options may be better than the worse option of standing by.
Another broader and more decisive option would be to openly work with key allies to create a “no move zone.” There is no clear way to judge how much of Syria’s air defenses and overall military forces have declined during the fighting. While it seems very unlikely they have anything like their original combat strength, Syrian forces are almost certainly still far more effective than those of Libya, but using air power to create a “no move zone” may be far more feasible than in the past.
The United States does not have to choose between leading from the front or from behind. As Libya and the Balkans show, it still has important partners in Europe; Britain and France have quietly pushed for outside intervention and other European states might follow. A combination of United States, U.K., French and other allied air power, coupled with U.S. logistical support, could confront the Assad regime with the alternative of “no fly” and “no missile” activity and no movements into protected areas, or facing major air and cruise missile strikes on Syria’s now much weaker air and surface-to-air missile forces.
The United States and its allies could still use the the term “no fly” but make it quietly clear that the de facto “no move” aspects of such an operation meant any use of chemical weapons or attacks on civilians would lead to strikes on regime targets. This might force Assad to the position where he would leave or reconsider his position, and negotiations might then become credible. If Assad did cross these “red lines,” an actual attack on the regime’s key facilities could be used to force him from power.
Moreover, enforcing a “no move zone” can be selective. Nascent rebel government structures and moderate rebel forces could be protected and extremist elements ignored or held at bay. The U.S.-European coalition could give moderate rebel leaders a role in designing and managing the “no move” effort and actively work with the moderate rebel forces in targeting Assad’s army.
The success of such an effort would depend on European willingness to actively partner with the United States rather than simply call for U.S. action. It would also depend on access to Turkish, Jordanian, and possibly Saudi facilities and air bases. Indeed, its effectiveness would be greatly enhanced if Arab air forces would contribute and help avoid a Western-versus-Arab/Islam division, creating the possibility of a joint command of the kind that occurred during the first Gulf War.
A clear U.S. call for such collective action would confront states that now openly or quietly call for U.S. action with the choice of having to be partners rather than simply critics. Moreover, it would send a powerful signal to Iran that the next such coalition might have to execute preventive strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities and halt any Iranian effort to close the Gulf.
One can speculate whether Jordan and the Arab Gulf states would quietly signal that they would tolerate an Israeli participation in striking at Syria’s air defenses and air bases. The Arab proverb that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” would not apply; however, the universal reality that the enemy of my enemy is my enemy’s enemy” would still hold. Any such coordination might reassure both Israel and its Arab neighbors that there were still some options for working together in other areas of common interest and even some hope for moving towards and Israeli-Palestinian peace. However, it will not reverse decades of anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian sentiment in Syria.
The risks in a “no move zone” would still be very serious. It could still escalate into a major air war and it might mean having to deal with Syrian missile strikes on targets outside Syria. Where such a zone would actually be is a critical question. A “no move zone” in the north of the country, where opposition forces have made significant gains, will give regime opponents breathing room but with little impact on the trajectory of the battle for Syria. Such a zone would also fail to address the regime’s chemical weapons infrastructure, should it be dispersed. A “no move zone” would also still mean the rebel forces would probably have to fight Assad’s ground forces to exhaustion, and it would still leave major uncertainties as to what kind of Syrian regime would emerge.
Another key consideration is that the hold of opposition forces on areas near Lebanon to the west of Damascus is increasingly precarious; the Assad regime has maintained, and slowly expanded, a significant “security zone” around Damascus. A major regime offensive is currently underway to retake the Qusayr pocket: a key rebel logistics hub from Lebanon and the last major obstacle to a regime push from the south on Homs. At best, the regime hopes to link up Latakia, Tartus, Homs, Zabadani, greater Damascus, and possibly down through Dera’a along the Jordanian border.
It is highly unlikely that Assad can reverse his fortunes completely, let alone avoid international and Arab isolation if he does find the means of breaking the armed opposition. However, if the regime manages to control such a north-south “security zone” it could complicate efforts to create a “no move zone” and it would impact the broader balance of power in Syria. This in turn may lead to a protracted stalemate that neither the regime, nor its opponents, nor external actors like the United States can decisively shape alone or in the short term.
However, even proposing such a zone would move the United States out of the trap of passively letting a tragedy escalate and force the issue of collective action. It would mean actually implementing the calls for “partnership” in the new U.S. defense strategy, and show that the United States not only remains a preeminent military power, but one that is now really committed to working with both its traditional and new allies. Moreover, the signals such a U.S. initiative would send would be felt in countries a great deal further east than Iran.
There would be serious diplomatic problems. There is no chance of a U.N. agreement on such action and the United States would have to consider the impact on the U.N. and the reaction of outside powers like Russia and China. But this is what dialog and diplomacy are for – bad days in diplomacy are scarcely bad relative to a bad day in Syria.
The United States could also make it clear that it had no objection to Russia preserving its current port and basing facilities in Syria. It could point out to Russia and China that its actions in Libya have not been followed by any effort to control that country, and point out to them that they too have a strategic interest in the overall stability of the Middle East, and that success would have an impact on the Gulf and the security of oil exports as well as the Levant.
The United States could also react to the fact that this is the time to begin preparing for collective international action to help Syria once its civil war is over. The United States has every possible reason to avoid another exercise in Western-dominated (largely U.S.-funded and executed) nation building. It needs to prepare for a strategic partnership in civil as well as in military terms. It needs to determine whether or not the U.N. can really lead such an aid effort in Syria. It needs to consider how international organizations like the World Bank and the IMF can be given the lead in helping Syria make a planned recovery rather rely on uncoordinated national aid efforts. It needs to assess how to create joint U.S.-European-Arab (and even possibly Russian and Chinese) aid efforts that share the funding burden.
Like collective military action, this post-conflict form of nation building is an option where the United States cannot be blamed if it tries to lead and other states fail to follow. It is also a grim reality that every serious insurgency or civil war has to end in a national building effort or failure. Ignoring this reality is just as dangerous as hoping that standing by and taking minimal military action will somehow be enough.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.