As the violence worsens in Syria, the United States and international community are in a dilemma. Even more serious than the recent veto by Russia and China of a U.N. Security Council resolution criticizing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, there are no great options for how to respond.
The various Syrian factions and populations are far too interspersed for a Libya-like operation to work. Al-Assad and his army are far too strong, still, for a simple and small peacekeeping mission to succeed. It would be opposed by the regime if it tried to enter the country. And if we invaded, the specter of an Iraq-style imbroglio would loom given Syria’s size and given the multitude of nefarious actors there.
That leaves three main types of possible military options. All are limited in scale and scope; therefore, all promise only mediocre results. I do not favor any just yet, and we should only consider them in the event of strong Arab League and NATO support and participation. But if the situation continues to worsen, we cannot look idly by, either.
1) A punitive naval or air operation to encourage a coup against al-Assad.
The idea here would be to hope that al-Assad’s cronies could be persuaded to depose him and then forge a power-sharing deal with the opposition as a precondition for ending sanctions and the associated punitive military campaign. The two most viable options would be a naval blockade to prevent Syria from exporting oil or importing a number of goods, and a limited air campaign to deprive the regime of assets that it values (like palaces).
2) A broader Balkans-like campaign.
Building on the above air war concept, and also on Fouad Ajami’s February 10 Wall Street Journal oped about the “Kosovo model” for Syria, air strikes could be broadened to include targeting the heavy Syrian army weapons being used to shell cities. This could be combined with the creation of a no-fly zone for Syrian military helicopters and other aircraft. In addition to this, we could arm the Syrian opposition, though this could be expected to increase rather than decrease violence in the short term relative to what is occurring today.
3) Creation of a safe zone for Syrian civilians, using airpower and some modest number of outside ground troops, perhaps in the north near Turkey.
This would be modeled on the protection we afforded Kurds in Iraq throughout the 1990s even with Saddam Hussein still in power. Alas, it would be harder in Syria. There is no natural geographic or demographic logic to any particular possible safe zone in Syria.
Populations are too interspersed, and the killing is happening largely in central cities where it would be impractical to create such zones in all likelihood. Creating it in the northeast would be more practical, but less helpful for the threatened populations of the country. This kind of mission would therefore have only a limited ability to protect innocents. But depending on how the situation unfolded, it could perhaps be combined with the above options to create the nucleus of a stronger resistance that could ultimately challenge al-Assad’s rule using the safe area as a staging base and sanctuary.
None of these ideas look decisive. All are risky. As such, they should only be considered if and when things get worse. But it may not be too early to raise the ideas in public – if for no other reason than to signal to the murderous Syrian regime that we do have options besides just hoping that al-Assad will fall of his own weight like a piece of rotten fruit. While I hope for the latter scenario, we are collectively far too sanguine about the likelihood that it will happen anytime soon on its own.