Crossing the ‘Red Line’
A recent Foreign Policy article by Aaron David Miller describes President Obama’s current Syria dilemma perfectly – damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. Recent reports describe that there is some evidence that Assad has in fact used chemicals weapons on his people. This, as some may remember, represents a “red line”, that if crossed, would result in serious US action in Syria. Well, serious thought about action in Syria. President Obama announced that if the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on its own people, then he would be forced to change his policy towards Syria. Now that reports confirm this has indeed happened, President Obama is in a difficult place. If the US does not act, we may seem weak or encourage further use of chemical weapons by the regime. If the US does act, there is a whole list of possible options with an even larger list of possible side effects, many negative.
So what are the US options now that Assad has crossed the red line? Establishing a no-fly zone is one feasible option. The United States and NATO allies did this successfully in Libya and it could be done again. The advantages of this would be to even the playing field and give rebels on the ground relief from Assad’s air support. This may, however, be more difficult to do than it was in Libya. Assad’s anti-air batteries would have to be removed either by bombing runs or by inserting tactical teams to destroy them. We would then have to enforce the no fly zone with US or NATO air power. To do this we would need a base of operations that would probably need to be in one of the countries neighboring Syria or we could launch these attacks from aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean or the Persian Gulf. Operating out of neighboring state might prove difficult because many are reluctant to allow US forces to set up shop in their territory and states like Turkey were not all that cooperative during the second Gulf War and US forces are currently trying to get out of Iraq. This makes a no-fly zone in Syria a more complex task than it would seem on the surface. Another option is to set up safe-zones for civilians but this too requires eliminating Assad’s air forces with a no-fly zone first and then enforcing the safe-zones with peacekeepers. Arming the rebels is another option on the table but given the current divisions within the opposition movement, it may be difficult to prevent weapons from getting into the hands of some of the more extremist factions, like al-Nusra, who have links to al Qaeda. A full-scale military intervention proves even more difficult and could be a political disaster given the public’s current stance on military intervention after two unpopular and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While these options are all on the table and could possibly manifest within the next several months, many in Washington are still uncertain whether the US should rush to intervene in the conflict. In a recent Foreign Policy article by Jeffrey Lewis, the author points out that there is still not enough evidence that Assad has used chemical weapons to warrant a US military intervention. Lewis also notes that it is unclear if whoever comes to power after the regime falls will be any better than Assad, not because Assad is great, but because the divisions within the opposition make it entirely likely that an unfriendly government will take power in Syria post-Assad. Lewis also discusses how there is a great deal of literature that suggests durable democratic systems rarely thrive after violent conflict with practically no evidence to suggest that one can “drop democratic processes on a country by JDAM” (Lewis).
Policymakers should be hesitant to get involved in a messy civil war because of still shaky evidence of chemical weapon use. Before the US escalates its Syria policy, we need more hard evidence. While there is legitimate concern that Assad has or will use chemical weapons on his people, who’s to say he won’t escalate this if the US were to escalate their policy. The chemical weapons also represent a dilemma for the US because if the Assad regime were to fall, these weapons would likely fall into the wrong hands, namely, terrorist groups who would not be as hesitant to use them. The US should evaluate the evidence closely and determine policy from there without rushing into one of the options listed above that could lead to unintended and negative consequences. The US options above could very well lead to the fall of Assad and the victory of the opposition but is it unclear who would take power and what the new government would look like. Implementing a no-fly zone or any of the other policy options is feasible, but could result in further escalation of the conflict and may lead to another state-building mission like we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the most important lessons from those cases is that problems facing a country do not end with the regime. In fact, they may only begin with the fall of the regime and get worse in the following year. The US should not rush into a military intervention in Syria without first knowing ALL the facts (see: Iraq). Overall, Obama’s declaration of the “Red Line” has left some in Washington asking, “What was he thinking?”