The news that U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed “with varying degrees of confidence” that the regime of Bashar al-Assad “very likely” used chemical weapons “on a small scale” in Syria, along with recent Israeli strikes against select targets in that country, has been met with an all-or-nothing debate over potential U.S. policy responses. On the one side, advocates of intervention such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Michael O’Hanlon, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, have used these recent developments to argue for open-ended, large-scale U.S. military intervention in Syria’s stalemated civil war. The debate between these noisy interventionists and skeptics such as political commentator and blogger Andrew Sullivan, who appear primarily interested in countering interventionist claims and rhetoric, has obscured the possibility of an American policy response that is proportional to the transgressions of the Assad regime. But the national debate over what the United States should do in regard to Syria’s civil war and its chemical-weapons arsenal should not be framed as a false, all-or-nothing choice between large-scale military intervention and doing nothing.
The most common calls of those favoring intervention remain constant: arming Syrian opposition forces, imposing a no-fly zone over the country, or using ground troops to carve out safe zones inside Syrian territory to protect civilians. These options would likely have only a marginal impact on addressing the issue at hand—the regime’s likely chemical-weapons use. The United States has already reportedly trained rebels on securing chemical-weapons sites and stockpiles, and equipping the fractured rebel movement with antiaircraft and antitank missiles is unlikely to make much of an impact on the ground against regime forces. In any event, a rebel victory appears unlikely to be as swift as necessary to preclude further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime—with or without arms supplies from the United States and Europe.
No-fly zones would address one aspect of the chemical-weapons problem. After a no-fly zone is established, the Assad regime would find it difficult if not impossible to deliver chemical weapons by aircraft. But unless the no-fly zone is extended to cover targets on the ground that are not related to ensuring the safety of allied aircraft, a country-wide no-fly zone would not address artillery or missile chemical-weapons delivery systems. In other words, a strictly no-fly-zone approach would stop only one possible method the Assad regime could use to deploy its chemical weapons.
If the overall goal is to prevent the Assad regime from using its chemical-weapons arsenal with airpower to the furthest extent possible, an even broader air campaign against the regime’s command and control, chemical-weapons sites, and missile and artillery batteries would be necessary. While the Nuclear Threat Initiative lists 12 major chemical-weapons facilities in Syria—including three depots—the U.S. intelligence community does not have firm knowledge of where the Assad regime’s chemical weapons are at any given moment. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper put it, the ability of the United States to secure Assad’s chemical weapons “would be very, very situational dependent.” Even a more expansive air campaign targeting Assad forces on the ground is unlikely to eliminate the threat of Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal.
What’s more, a no-fly zone is a technically ambitious military undertaking. While likely degraded by fighting over the last two years, Syrian air defenses likely remain more formidable than those faced by the United States and its allies in Libya and the Balkans. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey put it, “The U.S. military has the capability to defeat that [Syrian air defense] system, but it would be a greater challenge, and would take longer and require more resources.” Keeping that system in check while allied warplanes conduct combat air patrols or take out targets on the ground would require constant efforts as well, with no foreseeable end in sight.
Advocates of a no-fly zone such as Sen. McCain argue that imposing a no-fly zone on Syria would not present the difficulties that Gen. Dempsey outlines because Israel is able to penetrate Syrian air defenses. But it is inaccurate to compare one-off Israeli air strikes against very specific targets—including strikes in which Israeli planes reportedly did not even enter Syrian airspace—to a country-wide air campaign aimed at either establishing a no-fly zone or sufficiently safe conditions to conduct air strikes against the Assad regime’s forces in the field. Quick strikes against discreet targets are a very different proposition than establishing and maintaining a no-fly zone for an indefinite period of time.
The question is not whether the United States and any partners in military action could, from a technical military perspective, establish a no-fly zone over Syria but whether doing so achieves America’s and its partners’ strategic objectives at an acceptable cost. If the overriding strategic objective is to prevent or punish the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, a no-fly zone would fail to achieve it. Moreover, the number of aircrafts, the length of time, and hence the financial cost that such an operation would entail are much higher than those that a strike on a single target or series of targets would require. While an air campaign directed against the Assad regime’s ground forces might be more effective in addressing the chemical-weapons problem than a simple no-fly zone, it would require additional aircraft and time.
Likewise, safe zones established by U.S. or other foreign troops on the ground inside Syria to protect civilians would suffer from similar problems. They would not directly address the problem of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons and could provide tempting targets for the use of these weapons by the regime. Advocates of such safe zones should answer practical questions of logistics, rules of engagement, and diplomacy before their proposals are taken seriously, including how the forces conducting safe-zone operations would be supplied; how these forces are to defend themselves and the safe zones they establish so as to avoid the terrible fate of the Srebrenica safe zone in Bosnia; what diplomatic support the United States will get from its allies in Europe and regional partners such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel; and how the United Nations factors into this political-military equation.
All three options presented by the most vocal interventionists ultimately do little to address the problem of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons while at the same time drawing the United States deeper into Syria’s civil war. The two most aggressive options—some sort of an air campaign or the establishment of ground safe zones—would undoubtedly short circuit any attempts, however unlikely their prospects, to achieve a negotiated political settlement to end the civil war. Nowhere in the region—neither among America’s allies nor in the United States itself —is public opinion clamoring for the sort of intervention being advocated by Sen. McCain and others. A healthy measure of caution is needed when contemplating any military response to Syria’s civil war or the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.
The U.S. policy response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons should be proportional to and directly address the actions in question. Diplomatic efforts should remain a key component both to determine the truth regarding current allegations of chemical-weapons use and to prevent their further use by the Assad regime. The Obama administration’s attempt to build the strongest and broadest possible coalition as it moves forward remains a vitally important task. Given the complex regional and international political and security dynamics, the United States cannot afford to go it alone in Syria.
Secretary of State John Kerry is traveling to Russia with hopes of reviving efforts to achieve a political solution to Syria’s civil war. Similar diplomatic efforts should be made to pressure Assad to refrain from using his chemical-weapons arsenal. Should such efforts fail and the Assad regime either uses or appears ready to use chemical weapons, the United States should be prepared to conduct limited military strikes against the regime’s chemical-weapons delivery, logistics, and command and control systems, as American Progress has argued. Such strikes would be proportionate to the imminent or actual transgression of the Assad regime’s chemical-weapons use.
The civil war in Syria remains a difficult problem, and the United States’ policy debate is ill-served by a discussion that reduces potential options to either costly, large-scale interventions that do not address the pressing problem of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons or simply doing nothing. All-or-nothing thinking should be resisted, and a broader conception of the tools at the disposal of the United States should be put forward. Keeping the United States’ response to the Assad regime’s offenses proportional should remain a guiding principle moving forward.
Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.