President Obama has said the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be a “game changer” that would require a stronger response.(Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)
Each of the major options has significant risks
Sanctuaries in Syria mean occupying Syrian soil
Arming the rebels means weapons could get into the wrong hands
(PhatzNewsRoom / USA Today) — WASHINGTON – When it comes to intervening in Syria, the Obama administration faces a choice between robust but risky military operations that could turn the tide of war and more limited moves that may deter the Syrian regime but probably won’t change the balance of power, analysts say.
The military options include establishing a no-fly zone and sanctuary for refugees, arming the rebels or launching targeted airstrikes on a few military objectives.
Many analysts now see the Obama administration taking a more limited approach that would not draw the country into a wider war. “It’s unlikely we would do anything open-ended like a no-fly zone,” said Kenneth Pollack, an analyst at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
A push for taking military action gained momentum last week after the Obama administration acknowledged in an intelligence assessment that Assad’s regime had probably used chemical weapons on a couple occasions.
The U.S. is supplying rebels with non-lethal aid. The Pentagon might broaden that to providing equipment such as night vision goggles and protective armor vests but stop short of weapons, said a U.S. official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.
The White House said no decision has been made.
The developments highlight the difficulties the administration faces as it struggles to come up with an effective response.
President Obama said the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be a “game changer” that would require a stronger response. “By game changer I mean that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us,” he said.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress in February they had recommended arming the Syrian rebels. The White House rebuffed the idea at the time. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are already arming some opposition groups.
But any move by the United States to arm rebels would require a significant vetting process, analysts said. “The problem is separating the wheat from the chaff,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official now at the American Enterprise Institute.
Another option under consideration is limited airstrikes aimed at military targets in Syria.
Cruise missiles launched by long-range bombers, for example, could be carried out without having allied aircraft breach Syrian air defenses, said Kenneth Pollack, an analyst at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Pollack said this might be the most attractive option for the administration because it is lower risk than the other options and is not an open-ended commitment. It would likely not be enough to seriously degrade the regime’s power, analysts said.
The advantage to such strikes are that they might deter Assad from additional use of chemical weapons by raising the prospect of future allied strikes, Pollack said. But he said if Assad felt desperate as the opposition gained strength, the deterrence might not work.
Sen. John McCain, a leading foreign policy voice in the Republican Party, has been advocating for a more robust response, including creating a no-fly zone over a portion of Syria to protect refugees and an air campaign against military targets.
The administration has so far resisted such actions. “I don’t see that happening,” Pollack said. “That gets you into an open- ended commitment in Syria.”
Any allied air campaign in Syria would face a fairly extensive Syrian air defense system.
Among other actions an extended air campaign would require setting up bases in the region that could be capable of launching aircraft to rescue pilots who ejected from their cockpits.
Analysts say U.S. and allied aircraft could ultimately disable the Syrian air defense system but it could come at a cost in lives and aircraft.
Syria has weapons that can take down planes at higher altitudes and longer ranges than Libya had. A NATO-led air campaign helped opposition forces topple Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
“It’s a much denser and more sophisticated system,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of Syrian defenses.
Syria has “five times” the air defenses that Libya possessed, and they are concentrated in the western third of the country, Dempsey told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor event.
Analysts and military officials say that America has fewer options as the civil war drags on. The government institutions weaken and al-Qaeda will likely make more inroads into the opposition.
“The longer it goes on the more potential there is that it will fragment,” said Marine Gen. James Mattis, who recently stepped down as the head of Central Command.
Arming the rebels
Pro: Anti-tank and anti-air weapons and other equipment could give the rebels a military advantage without committing U.S. troops.
Con: Many of the most effective rebel groups have al-Qaeda ties and those weapons could ultimately be turned on the United States.
Establishing a no-fly zone
Pro: This could neutralize Assad’s ability to use airstrikes and shuttle his troops around the country. It could also be used to establish a sanctuary for refugees and opposition forces.
Con: It would mean penetrating Syria’s thick air defense system and potentially drag the United States and its allies into an open-ended commitment.
Pro: It might deter Assad’s regime without significant risk. Air-launched cruise missiles could be launched from far outside Syrian airspace.
Con: It probably would not damage Assad’s military enough to shift the balance of power.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday the Obama administration is rethinking its policy of opposing providing weapons to the Syrian rebels.
Hagel’s acknowledgment – after weeks of the U.S. resisting arming the opposition, for fear the weapons could end up in the wrong hands – comes days after the White House sent a letter to two U.S. senators saying the intelligence community assessed “with varying degrees of confidence” that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government had used the chemical agent sarin on a “small scale.”
President Obama, asked about Hagel’s remarks, said he was only reiterating a position the administration has held for months. “We are continually evaluating the situation on the ground working with our international partners to find the best way to move a political transition that has Assad leaving, stabilizes the country, ends the killing and allows the Syrian people to determine their own destiny, ” the president said during a press conference in Mexico.
“As we’ve seen evidence of further bloodshed, potential use of chemical weapons inside of Syria, what I’ve said is that we’re gonna look at all options,” Obama said.
But for months the administration has resisted calls by some members of Congress and U.S. allies to send lethal aid to the Syrian opposition.
Hagel and other officials stress that no decision has been made to send such assistance.
(Hagel’s remarks Thursday were prompted by questions from CNN’s Barbara Starr.)