No Good Option
President Obama laid a trap for himself and it worked. His political practice of fecklessly moving the goalposts has crept into foreign policy with regrettable results. “The use of chemical weapons in Syria will be a game-changer,” he famously remarked last month. Israeli and British intelligence have stated that they have seen evidence of sarin having been used in Sunni neighborhoods (typically aligned with the rebels). And the president’s response was a resounding “I stand by my statement that the systematic use of chemical weapons will be a game-changer.” Except that’s not what he said. By adding the word “systematic,” he has moved the goalpost from “don’t use them” to “don’t regularly use them.”
The Syrian regime called Mr Obama’s bluff and he blinked.
This has Britain and the EU scratching their heads, and has terrified Israel (who now wonders if “we will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran” really means “we will not tolerate a ‘systematically’ nuclear-armed Iran”). Many of our allies are pressuring Washington to action. The two-year civil war in Syria has pretty much outlived its ability to be ignored by the West – counter-population air strikes against cities, the occasional mass execution of citizens in Sunni areas, siege-by-artillery of cities, and now mounting evidence of gassing their own citizens. The United Nations will be of no help (the Chinese and Russians will stop any meaningful Security Council measures from going forward). Everybody is looking to see what America does, especially after Mr Obama’s edict about chemical weapons use.
If he’s forced out of the corner into which he has painted himself, he has three general options. None good. The United States could hasten the fall of the regime – most probably by instituting a no-fly zone over Syria; we could increase the capabilities of the rebels – most probably by arming them; or we could secure/destroy the chemical weapons in Syria – involving boots on the ground. As I say, none good.
A no-fly zone would require neutralizing Syria’s air-defense network before our pilots could begin flying combat air patrols, and there would be no hope of eliminating even most MANPADS. Once CAP operations begin, we would almost certainly need to involve a 6th Fleet carrier strike group in the eastern Mediterranean. As the CAP becomes more effective, Assad will come to rely more and more on tanks and towed artillery tubes to assault suspected rebel concentrations, which will almost ensure mission-creep of the no-fly zone into striking concentrations of artillery pieces (as it did in Libya). Look for Iran to pump missiles into Syria – bound for Hizbollah in Lebanon – between the establishment of the no-fly zone and the creep into paying attention to road traffic. This could cause yet another rift between Washington and Tel Aviv as the no-fly zone would foreclose Israeli interdiction of these missile shipments before they enter Lebanon. This situation could actually lead to forcing our hand into mission-creep as Mossad shares its evidence of Iranian involvement with CIA and White House.
The lowest cost option is to allow lethal aid to the rebels – equip them well enough to tilt the stalemate in their favor. This comes, of course, with all the nightmares of 1980s Afghanistan. CIA insists that al Qaeda “didn’t get one dime” from the assistance that went to the mujahedeen, and though true, that didn’t stop them from getting their hands on countless Stingers, Kalashnikovs and tens of thousands of 7.62mm rounds. Almost any turning out of the Assad regime will be a Sunni victory (which we prefer – to act as a buffer between Shi’ite Iran and their Shi’ite Hizbollah ally in Lebanon), but it must be remembered that al Qaeda is Sunni, and that they are not above working with Shi’ite interests in pursuit of American interests. We also don’t know to what lengths Iran will go to shore up the Assad regime when they realize that American arms are going to the rebels – they could send in battle-hardened Hizbollah fighters from Lebanon; they could step up arms supplies to loyalist fighters; they could heavily bolster Savak assets already in Syria; they could step up attacks on American interests in the Greater Middle East; on and on. Particularly if we choose this low-intensity route, Tehran would have little fear of reprisals for anything they choose to do. There is no respect for American power, short of platform-centric force-on-force conflict, among the ruling Mullahs in Tehran.
The direct approach to the corner Mr Obama has painted himself into would be to control or destroy the chemical weapons in Syria themselves, but this is fraught with hazards. Taking control of Syria’s chemical stockpile would require many, many troops on the ground, and we would have to guard it against both sides (al Qaeda and its affiliates would go to great lengths to acquire these weapons). With imperfect intelligence – and intel is always imperfect – we won’t know where all of the stocks are being stored, so we would have to augment the arsenal guardians with special operators tasked to find what we don’t yet have. This would be tantamount to joining the rebels in combat operations against the regime. It would make no sense to go in hard and not overthrow the regime in any case. This just isn’t an option under the current situation. Destroying Assad’s chemical stockpile shifts the body count from us to Syrians in that you won’t incinerate all of the sarin during an airstrike, meaning that some will be released into the air. We would, in essence, be doing what the president said he wouldn’t abide – gassing the Syrian people. All of the same imperfect intelligence concerns are present with this option as well.
The most probable course taken, assuming that any course is taken, is the providing of lethal aid to the rebels, probably resulting in a proxy war between the United States and Iran, with the Syrian people caught in the middle and terrorists reaping a bounty of American-made arms.
No good options.
 MAN-Portable Air Defense Systems, an example of which would be our FIM-92 Stinger or Russian supplied 9K38 SA-18 Igla. These systems tend to be heat seekers, and can be deployed by a single soldier against rotary-winged or fixed-winged targets.