The two-year-old Syrian civil war, which has killed at least 80,000 people according to the president of the U.N. General Assembly, has put the United States in a tough situation.
On a March 20 trip to Israel, President Obama publicly announced that the use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad would cross a red line and be a “game changer” for U.S. intervention in Syria. On April 26, the president acknowledged that the administration “[has] varying degrees of confidence” about the use of chemical weapons.
The apparent crossing of Obama’s red line by al-Assad makes it clear that the Obama administration should intervene militarily in Syria, but on a limited scale.
This would entail the use of long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles located on submarines and naval ships in the Mediterranean to weaken the Syrian air defense system. Patriot missile batteries in Turkey could, with NATO permission, also be employed to establish a no-fly zone in Syria.
Intervention in Syria, however, is not popular among the American people. According to a recent Reuters poll, 61 percent of Americans oppose military involvement in Syria. Americans are war-weary after long involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan, so, understandably, involvement—especially deploying ground troops—in another Middle Eastern conflict is not well supported.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel acknowledged that full military intervention in Syria “could embroil the United States in a significant, lengthy, and uncertain military commitment.” Like a full-scale military commitment, not intervening at all, apart from the $19 million in humanitarian assistance reported by United States Agency for International Development, would also prove to be highly dangerous.
Not responding to the use of chemical weapons would undoubtedly kill thousands more, and add to the 2.5 million refugees, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, flowing into Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, thus destabilizing the region
Our willingness to allow the destabilization of the region through inaction would also embolden hostile nations like North Korea and Iran to continue dangerous provocations.
Furthermore, the possibility of the spread of combat to other nations, in light of recent Israeli airstrikes and Syrian military operations dangerously close to Lebanese and Turkish border regions, threaten to turn this civil war into a regional war.
Another option being considered by the administration is the direct supplying of weapons to rebel fighters by the U.S. However, the influx of extremist groups pose the risk that American weapons would land in the wrong hands, essentially repeating what happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Limited military intervention through the use of long-range missiles and no-fly zones would weaken Syrian air power and infrastructure such as airstrips. Without this vital air dominance, rebel groups, such as the Free Syrian Army, and civilian populations would be shielded from the onslaught of government air strikes.
Obama’s prudence with regards to intervention in Syria is highly admirable because it shows that we have learned from our mistakes in Iraq to not rush to conclusions. We cannot, however, simply shrug off action in Syria. The consequences of doing that could be far worse than the consequences of intervening.