While Syrian civil war rages, the US has taken almost no action in helping resolve the conflict aside from calls for Bashar Al-Assad to step down. As the death toll exceeds 60,000 and the possible use of chemical weaponry has come to light, it is time for the US to take decisive action. To combat this dictatorship, the United States should first focus on establishing close ties with the Free Syrian Army. The FSA is the main bastion of opposition to the Syrian government. However, its communication, leadership, and logistics are severely lacking. Providing humanitarian aid to this rebel group is welcome but is simply not enough.
Democrats and Republicans alike have pushed to have Syrian rebels supplied with U.S. weaponry, but president Obama refuses such actions, “One of the things we have to be on guard about, particularly when we start talking about arming opposition figures, is that we’re not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks who would do Americans harm or do Israelis harm or otherwise engage in actions that are detrimental to our national security.” However, if the U.S. does not aid the rebels, then the rebels could be armed by Qatar, the Saudis, or the United Arab Emirates, all who have no problem with creating a Muslim state after the fall of the Syrian government. By not arming the rebels, the U.S. is missing out on key opportunities to develop close ties with the FSA.
Max Boot, Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, explains the missed opportunity, “The United States should also provide weapons directly to the rebels. This would not only help to shorten the war, but increase U.S. influence with the rebel forces. Washington could provision the supply of weapons on pledges from rebel groups to work together and respect democratic principles in a post-Assad Syria.” Thus, supplying the rebels is key to developing a relationship that will ensure a democratic future for Syria that is not dominated by extremist Muslim sects. Jabhat al-Nusrah, an al-Qaeda-affiliated militant network, is already known to aid the FSA. Without close and direct diplomatic relations with the FSA, the future of Syria could be in the hand of al-Qaeda.
The current problem with extremist Muslim groups having such a large influence on FSA is the fear that it will cause fear in much of the civilian population of Syria. According to Rula Jebreal, journalist for MSNBC, “The main fear among Christian, Alawite, Kurd, and Druze minorities is that the hardcore Islamist element within the Free Syrian Army will not guarantee the safety and rights of all Syrians in a post-Assad era. They foresee retaliation and exclusion from the system.” Despite Assad’s many crimes against his own citizens, many minority groups within Syria stay unopposed to the Syrian government simply out of fear for the future of a new regime, especially one that could be Muslim dominated.
Christopher Dickey, Paris Bureau Chief and Middle East Regional Editor for Newsweek Magazine, gives some possibilities of what a future regime could be without US involvement, saying, “Some of the possibilities are a pure nightmare: a disintegrated country with havens for terrorists, Kurdish nationalism spreading through the region, a resurgence of Sunni rebellion in Iraq.” By getting involved with the FSA, the US can effectively remove extremist groups from the rebel forces, ensuring a democratic future for the country. This action will likely encourage many of the minority groups that still support Assad to desist and join the rebel side.
Without the support of Alawites and the business class, Assad’s time as ruler will be immensely shortened. Thus, military aid to the FSA will not only ensure success against Assad’s military now, but could also prevent Syria from becoming the next Libya.
Once the US has established appropriate diplomatic relations with the Syrian rebels, the next key step would be to establish a no-fly zone in Syria. By initiating a no-fly zone, the US can provide Syrian rebels and civilians a safe haven to regroup, resupply, and recuperate. The importance of the government’s air force is evident in the frequent bombing of suburbs throughout Syria, especially those in Damascus.
Helicopters and various air strikes have been used not only against the rebels, but also against bakeries, bread lines, and routes for humanitarian aid. The air strikes have been well-known for killing rebel forces and innocent civilians alike. The AP’s Hamza Hendawi explains the situation, “Its forces stretched thin on multiple fronts, President Bashar Assad’s regime has significantly increased its use of air power against Syrian rebels in…causing a spike in civilian casualties.”
The rebels have no anti-aircraft capabilities, so Syrian aircraft can operate unfettered, wreaking havoc on rebels and any civilian supporters. Establishing a NFZ can be done one of two ways, or a combination of the two. First, the US can utilize Patriot missile batteries stationed on the border of Syria and Turkey to keep aircraft out of the sky. NATO has headed the effort of placing the missile batteries on the border. As a senior NATO officials explains, the Patriot missile batteries not only prevent aircraft from flying, but also are efficient in taking down the SCUD missiles Assad often uses to attack rebel strongholds. Senior NATO officials explain that such missiles “will protect up to 3.5 million people from any potential missile threat” and that the missiles “have a range of 160 kilometers (100 miles) and…closer to something on the 40-60 km level in terms of providing a secure no fly zone.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin is a strong proponent of the missile system, saying the US “could protect that kind of a zone with these Patriot missiles, leaving the missiles in Turkey but having the zone inside the Syrian border.” The Patriot batteries would allow the establishment of a safe zone for the rebel forces without actually having any US forces enter Syria. Such a safe zone would prove hugely important for the FSA and surrounding countries. Many Syrian civilians would no longer have to flee, cutting down the flood of refugees into surrounding Turkey and Lebanon.
However, the problem with the Patriot missile batteries is their limited range. The batteries would only be able to create safe zones near the border of Turkey. The only other way of creating a NFZ is by directly using American aircraft in Syria. American aircraft would first take out anti-aircraft missile batteries in Syria, thus keeping Syrian aircraft grounded. Max Boot again suggests, “The United States would have to take the lead in dismantling Syrian air defenses, but could then hand off the enforcement of the NFZ to allies, as was the case in Libya.”
US aircraft crippled the Libyan air force, giving the rebel forces the upper hand in the country. Doing so in Syria would produce the same effect. Boot continues, “It would also interdict Assad’s main supply artery from Iran—flights over Iraq. If the Syrian air force is grounded, rebels will be able to establish liberated territory from the Turkish border to Aleppo. Eventually, coalition aircraft could provide close air support for rebel operations, with air strikes being called in by coalition commandos on the ground.”
Establishing a NFZ via aircraft would provide many other possibilities on how to handle the situation. First, it could be used to keep Iran, Syria’s largest supplier, from flying its many supply craft into Syria. With Syrian air space dominated by American aircraft, the FSA and the air force could work closely together to take out ground troops and vehicles which are Assad’s strongest assets. Finally, with the anti-aircraft batteries out of the way, deployment of ground troops in the case of a chemical weapons threat would be speedy and efficient. Senator John McCain supports the idea, “establishing a safe haven inside Syria would also serve the important goal of delivering humanitarian assistance more effectively.”
Not only would humanitarian aid come more quickly, but needed weapons and armaments would reach rebels much faster than before. Thus, a combination of Patriot missile batteries and aircraft involvement would not only hamper Assad’s aircraft and supplies, but would also provide much needed support to rebel soldiers and civilians. With civilian casualties approaching 100,000, it is obvious that the Syrian Civil War has gotten out of hand. The US must intervene, but intervene appropriately. By sending troops in, the US risks another war that will drain the economy and lives of the American people. It also risks tarnishing the face of the revolution in the eyes of surrounding Muslim countries, but that does not mean that the US cannot help.
Direct aid of weaponry and training combined with establishment of a no fly zone could give the Free Syrian Army the edge it needs to topple Assad’s corrupt government. There are various options the US can take, but these two are the most viable, limiting American casualties and defense spending while effectively facilitating the fall of Assad.