Syria: The Need for Decisive U.S. Action

The time has come for the United States to take decisive action in Syria. It cannot do so without running all of the risks that have existed since the crisis began. It cannot control all the arms it sends and some may fall into the hands terrorist and extremists. It cannot control the government that emerges if Bashar al-Assad falls. It cannot be sure that an extreme Sunni Islamist regime will not emerge that will be more of a threat to friendly Arab states and Israel than Assad and make the prospect of a war between Sunnis and Shi’ites/Alewites in the Islamic world even worse. The United States cannot count on winning UN support or Russian tolerance or having the same nations and voices that call for U.S. action today not being critics tomorrow.

But, there are times when the risks of inaction outweigh the very real risks of action. For all the talk of sarin and “redlines,” the United States has far greater reasons for action than the scattered use of small amounts of chemical weapons that may have killed 140 people. In fact, the “discovery” that Syria used chemical weapons may well be a political ploy. It seems very like that the administration has had virtually all the same evidence for weeks if not months. The real reasons are the broader humanitarian issues involved and far more urgent U.S. strategic interests.

Ironically, on the same day the White House made its announcement that chemical weapons might have killed 140 Syrians, the United Nations announced that the total death toll had risen to at least 92,901 killings, with more than 5,000 killings documented every month since July 2012 and a total of just under 27,000 new killings since December 1, 2012. These totals were only a fraction of the 263,055 killings reported to the United Nations. Moreover, there are virtually no cases where the number of seriously wounded and disabled does not at least match the number of dead, and the ratio is often two or three to one.

These numbers make the limited use of chemical weapons seem like an almost meaningless redline. Moreover, the most serious impact of the Syrian civil war is not its casualties, but the fact that it has disrupted the entire educational, medical, and economic structure of a weak and horribly misgoverned state, created millions of refugees, and steadily polarized the nation along Sunni and Alewite lines while threatening every other minority.

There are no accurate counts, but there are at least 120,000 refugees in one camp in Jordan near the border. There are roughly 500,000 total refugees in Jordan, a country in an economic crisis that already had massive numbers of refugees from Iraq. There are at least 200,000 more registered refugees in Turkey, and the number may well be much higher. Turkish officials report that some 290,000 more may exist outside the refugee camps and that their relief infrastructure can only support around 100,000 refugees, even though Turkey has built 14 tent cities.

If one includes Lebanon and other external refugees, Reuters estimates put the total number of Syrians who are refugees outside their country at around 1.4 million, with 200,000 more unregistered or waiting to register. There are often families, families with no jobs or token jobs, lost homes and businesses, and children with no or minimal education.

It is almost certain that well over a million other refugees or internally displaced persons (IDP) have had to leave their homes, jobs or business, and schools inside Syria, and millions more now live in fear of their Sunni or Alewite neighbors, the Assad regime and militias, and the extremist factions among the rebels. This brings the total to at least 2.4 million out of a population of 22.5 million, and the total whose lives have been shattered may well be over 5 million. The dead are dead, the wounded heal, but the legacy of massive refugees and sectarian division and hatred has effects that go on for decades. And the more the conflict drags out, the more Syria’s people become divided and become refugees, and the worse the humanitarian disaster will get.

From a more selfish viewpoint, the Syrian civil war has also escalated in ways that pose a steadily growing strategic threat to the United States and its allies. It has already caused serious instability in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. It has pushed Israel into moving troops and reinforcing its security barriers on the Golan Heights, as well as increasing preparations for a possible war with Hezbollah.

Most significantly, it has strengthened Iran’s role in Syria, where Iran has become a critical source of arms and money. A credible Alewite source has reported that Iran now has three training camps for Assad’s Alewite militias, evidently run by the Iranian al Quds force with Hezbollah support. If Assad either defeats the rebels or controls most of a divided Syria, he will be far more dependent on Iran than ever before.

Lebanon has already split along sectarian lines, but this time more between Sunni and Shi’ite than Muslim and Christian. Today, Hezbollah is dominant, but staying dominant will make it more dependent on Iran and Syria if Assad or his regime survive.

Iraq is caught in the middle at a time it is moving back toward a sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shi’ite and Arab and Kurd. A weakly manned and funded—but highly competent—U.S. country team tends to be locked in the Green Zone in Baghdad, while Iran has freedom of movement and regularly moves arms across Iraqi air space. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Iraqi Shi’ites may have no great love for Iran, but they see the United States as increasingly weak, most of their Arab neighbors (except Kuwait) as hostile, and Iran and Assad as an important counterbalance to threats from their own Sunni minority.

Our friends in the Arab world—and many in Israel and outside the Middle East—see the United States as having been defeated in Iraq and having to “retrograde” from Afghanistan. They see a weak U.S. economy and a national fiscal crisis, war fatigue and defense cuts, and focusing far too much on what they perceive as a U.S. “pivot” to Asia. Key Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar question the U.S. role and determination in the region. More broadly, for all the talk of U.S. energy independence that may emerge in a decade, they see Iran as “gaining” and the United States as “losing” at a time when Gulf oil exports are critical to the world economy, Asian exports, U.S. gas prices, and U.S. trade and jobs.

The grim reality is that the Syrian civil war is part of a far broader power struggle that now ties the Levant and Gulf together, can greatly aid Iran, can further divide Islam between Sunnis and minorities like Shi’ites and Alewites, and affects every U.S. friend and ally in the region. This does not, in any way, eliminate the risks in supporting and arming the Syrian rebels or guarantee that Assad’s fall will end every aspect of the broader humanitarian crisis in Syria. But this set of worst cases is now far more acceptable than an Assad (and Iranian) victory.

The question then emerges as to what the United States should do? To begin with, trying to remain half pregnant is not a strategy. There is a good case for making a final effort to negotiate with Russia, talk to China, and use the G8 meeting to seek broader support. There is a good case for official U.S. silence and even implausible deniability in transferring arms, providing in-country advisers, and actively supporting rebel forces in addition to the U.S. civil aid, which press sources estimate at more than half a billion dollars in support to Syria.

There is no case for not quietly taking immediate action to provide far more mortars, light artillery, antiaircraft guns, antitank weapons, and all the ammunition it takes. Letting Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia arm and supply Assad and making limited efforts to fly arms from Croatia to Turkey has clearly failed. At a minimum, the United States should go this far immediately.

The next step may also be necessary despite the serious risks that such weapons could fall into extremist hands. Unless the United States goes much further and can establish the kind of “no fly zone” to cripple Assad’s airpower and make it hard for his ground forces to advance, the key equalizers are manportable surface-to-air missiles that can stop Assad’s fighters, helicopters, and armor from advancing and helping to retake cities and key positions.

These are also the weapons that would give the more moderate and national elements of the Syrian rebels status and power and make them the most effective fighters, rather than the Sunni extremists. The United States may have to risk Special Forces or CIA personnel to provide some degree of control, but such weapons can tilt both the military balance and alter the political balance within rebel forces.

The most decisive action would be no fly zones. The U.S. public will not tolerate any serious U.S. ground presence. As Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, doing it that way leads to major problems rather than stable outcomes, and we might well end up alienating Sunni hardliners, as well as Alewites and a good part of the Arab public.

However, one needs to be careful about the kind of no fly zone that emerges. Simply using long-range U.S. surface-to-air missiles to shield Jordan so the United States and Jordan can train moderate rebel forces now seems likely to take too long and do too little. It may well mean rebel defeat or giving the Assad regime control over so much of Syria that little is left to the rebels except for the equivalent of armed refugee camps at Syria’s margins or borders. Such a no fly zone, like supplying too few arms of too little lethality, falls in the half-pregnant category.

So does the idea of using surface-to-air missiles to protect humanitarian zones in Turkey and Jordan. Given the unfortunate reality that the world is round, their real-world low- to medium-altitude range is too limited to cover enough of the country to create a zone large enough to solve the humanitarian problem and allow the rebels to keep their gains. Moreover, Assad’s armored forces, militia, and Hezbollah would still have a decisive value on the ground. As a worst case, they might also end up shielding Syrian refugees near the border area without offering any real hope for the future.

For a no fly zone to work, it has to be at least serious enough that Assad cannot fly fighters or helicopters without losing them and without losing his air bases if he persists. This takes fighters, AWAC-like aircraft, drones, and other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets. It means a clearly observable commitment without UN (and almost certainly without Russian and Chinese) support. It may well mean U.S. combat losses.

It is questionable whether a single carrier task force and cruise missiles could enforce this option safely with the level of deterrence and intimidation required, and it might well require access to Turkish and Jordanian air bases. It would also require hard decisions as to whether the United States would lead a no fly zone that covered all of Syria or just rebel gains. The former might decisively tilt the balance; the latter is more of a status quo option.

The word “lead” is critical not only because the United States needs bases, but because it needs European and Arab allies—a mix of British, French, Saudi, and UAE support. Qatari air forces would send a far more powerful signal, somewhat defuse a Russian or Chinese focus on the United States, and provide far more international legitimacy. In fact, taking a week to 10 days, and the time before the G8 meeting, to accomplish this offers a far higher probability of success that negotiating a meaningful deal with the Russians.

It also could lay the groundwork for the most decisive option: making a no fly zone a de facto “no move zone.” This is the quickest and most effective way to allow the rebels to defeat Assad if they can. It is the most costly, involves the most forces, and carries the highest risk of serious air combat and escalated Iranian and Hezbollah intervention (although these seem certain to occur in any case). However, it also means that Assad cannot use armor, move artillery, or even use civilian vehicles. As Libya showed all too clearly, it cripples the key advantage Assad’s forces now have. Given the timing involved, it might be best to begin with the more limited no fly zone discussed earlier and escalate—again, as happened in Libya. Escalating half way does not alter the suffering, and it gives Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, and all of the United States’ critics more time to react and find military countermeasures.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy