U.S. Options in Syria, Scrutinized

For action to be taken on Syria, it is not the options or the feasibility that are lacking; it’s the political will and the realization that action not taken now is simply an action deferred. As the problem grows, the U.S. will find itself compelled to act.

On July 19, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, reported to the Senate Armed Services Committee the following military options in Syria, along with a price tag attached to each: Training, advising and assisting the opposition—$500 million; Conducting limited strikes—$ 1 billion monthly; Establishing a no-fly zone—$ 1 billion monthly; Creating buffer zones inside Syria—$ 1 billion monthly; Controlling Damascus’ chemical arms— $ 1 billion monthly.

He added this qualification after his presentation: “It would be better if they [military options] were assessed and discussed in the context of an overall whole-of-government strategy for achieving our policy objectives in coordination with our allies and partners.”

There is no whole-of-government strategy for the war-torn country. Frederic C. Hof, former special advisor to the State Department on Syria, noted politely that Dempsey’s turn of the phrase sheds light on Washington’s main obstacle to action in Syria. “It would have been easy enough for him to have said, ‘These options are currently under review in the context of an overall strategy for achieving policy objectives,’” Hof wrote in an Atlantic Council blog post. It is productive to finally see a set of options outlined by a high level U.S. official, even if it’s cast in as a political retort to Republicans asking for action on Syria. It’s good to know that the full spectrum of options is being considered, in or out of context, because no serious discussion of a Syria policy could be undertaken without them.

However the price tag is only part of the picture. There are political and military risks, in addition to the economic cost of any military undertaking in such a volatile region as the Middle East. The flip side of the coin, equally critical to a serious discussion of the issue, is calculating the cost of non-engagement in Syria. The question of a U.S. intervention in Syria needs to begin with answering the elephant in the room: What are the U.S. national interests in Syria and are they sufficient to justify a military role?

Three main interests are involved here. The first is humanitarian: The U.S. has always been committed to assisting in relief efforts where natural human disasters have taken place, and to helping prevent or end them where they are man-made in the various killing fields around the world. It is part of an international mandate bestowed on the U.S. by its super power status, and inevitably accepted by all administrations since Woodrow Wilson. The next interest is political. Starting with President Obama, all senior policy makers have now gone on record stating that assisting democratic transition in the Middle East is in the best national interest of the United States. A democratic Middle East would be, ultimately, a more stable Middle East. The third issue relates to strategy. The proxy nature of the war in Syria has by now become evident to all. The Iran, Hezbollah and Asad regime axis is a major player in the Middle East and one whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of the United States and Europe. A victory by this axis would be a net loss for U.S. allies and a threat to U.S. national interests.

In terms of the long game, there are two scenarios to consider: The Assad regime emerges victorious; or the war drags on for several more years with no clear victory for either side.

If the Assad regime manages to pacify the country (even if by leveling it), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Jordan, Turkey and the pro-Western faction in Lebanon all lose. This informal anti-Assad bloc would suffer the consequences of vengeful acts by Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. What the GCC countries fear in particular is an activation of Iran’s regional Shia militias against them. Bahrain, northeastern Saudi Arabia and Yemen would likely be the next targets. Politically, dictatorship would have won the day, putting off for years to come any hope of democratization in Syria. The humanitarian situation does not necessarily improve with Assad’s victory as most refugees would be reluctant to return for fear of retaliation, not to mention the destruction of their homes and villages that would take years to rebuild under the best of circumstances.

If the war drags on, a very likely prospect given the current balance between the warring factions, the humanitarian situation exacerbates by the day and the political opposition is further marginalized. Radical Sunni forces within the country would thus thrive and prosper, giving them time and ammunition to act against other regimes in the region. As refugees continue to flow, internal problems will mount in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

Assuming that sometime in the near future Washington reaches the conclusion that action is warranted, the options and concerns outlined by General Dempsey would be put under fresh scrutiny.

  1. Training and assisting would have made an impact in the first six months of the conflict. It is now too little and too late, given the multiplicity of actors who have entered the fray and the total commitment of Iran and Hezbollah to the Assad regime. Nevertheless, this option would need to be exercised if rebel forces are to survive for the long haul.
  2. Conducting limited strikes is even now urgently needed in order to degrade the regime’s offensive forces. At a minimum, the regime’s airports could easily be damaged by remote strikes, making it impossible for fixed wing missions against the rebels. Obviously, should Turkey, Jordan, and Israel decide to lend a hand, this option would be much more effective and less expensive than if the U.S. undertook it on its own.
  3. A no-fly zone would not be needed if the second option is employed effectively.
  4. A buffer zone inside Syria is already partially in place because of the Free Syrian Army’s dominance near the Turkish border. With a green light from the U.S., the Turks could further enforce and protect such a zone. The presence of U.S. troops on the Jordan side of the border make a buffer zone in Syria’s southeastern border feasible. In fact, the continuing flood of refugees across that border makes such a zone imperative for both political and humanitarian reasons.
  5. As for chemical weapons, the need to secure them is a separate security concern for which special and limited operations might have to be taken regardless of the options listed above—though such operations become more feasible as the other options are undertaken.

Not to neglect the international law factor, the Russians would not likely accept any of the options outlined above. Moscow has thus far failed to show the leadership necessary to bring the Syrian conflict to a peaceful resolution. If the Russians and Chinese fail to act, and keep preventing the international community from acting, the U.S. and its allies will have to act unilaterally.

In the end, for action to be taken on Syria, it is not the options or the feasibility that are lacking; it’s the political will and the realization that action not taken now is simply an action deferred. As the problem grows, the U.S. will find itself compelled to act. By then, the cost and the risks will also have grown. The Syria crisis is a case of, “pay me now, or pay me later,” as the old muffler commercial used to say.

Nabeel Khoury is Senior Fellow for Middle East and National Security at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He previously served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Yemen (2004-2007), Deputy Director of the Media Outreach Centre in London (2002-2004), and Consul General in Morocco (1998-2002). In 2003, During the Iraq war, he served as Department spokesperson at U.S. Central Command in Doha and in Baghdad.