U.S. options lim­ited on Syria despite weapons report

The White House dis­clo­sure that the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment has twice used chem­i­cal weapons still leaves the Obama admin­is­tra­tion stuck with a lim­ited choice of mil­i­tary options to help the rebels oust Pres­i­dent Bashar Assad.

Arm­ing the rebels runs smack into the real­ity that a mil­i­tary group fight­ing along­side them has pledged alle­giance to al-​Qaeda. Estab­lish­ing a no-​fly zone poses a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge as Syria pos­sesses an air defense sys­tem far more robust than what the U.S. and its allies over­whelmed in Libya two years ago.


Pres­i­dent Barack Obama had declared that the Assad régime’s use of chem­i­cal weapons in the two-​year civil war would be “game changer” that would cross a “red line” for a major mil­i­tary response, but the White House made clear Thurs­day that even a quick strike wasn’t imminent.

Reflect­ing a strong degree of cau­tion, the White House said the intel­li­gence com­mu­nity assessed “with vary­ing degrees of con­fi­dence” that the Syr­ian régime had used chem­i­cal weapons on a small scale. The White House said in a let­ter to two sen­a­tors that the “chain of cus­tody” was unclear and that the deter­mi­na­tion was based on phys­i­o­log­i­cal samples.

The infor­ma­tion had been known to the admin­is­tra­tion and some mem­bers of Con­gress for weeks despite pub­lic pro­nounce­ments from the White House. The rev­e­la­tion on Thurs­day strength­ened pro­po­nents of aggres­sive mil­i­tary action, who chal­lenged the admin­is­tra­tion to act and warned that going wob­bly would embolden Assad.

Yet it also under­scored the dif­fi­cul­ties of any step for war-​weary law­mak­ers hor­ri­fied by a con­flict that has killed an esti­mated 70,000 but guarded about U.S. involve­ment in a Mideast war.

“There’s no easy choice here,” said Demo­c­ra­tic Sen. Claire McCaskill, a mem­ber of the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. “All the alter­na­tives are flawed. It’s just find­ing the least flawed among them that will get Assad out.”

The next move on Syria was high on the agenda for Obama’s meet­ing Fri­day with King Abdul­lah II of Jor­dan, as the U.S. ally has strug­gled with the influx of hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees escap­ing the Syr­ian vio­lence. Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden and Abdul­lah dis­cussed the best path to “a peace­ful, demo­c­ra­tic post-​Assad Syria where mod­er­ates are empow­ered” on Thursday.

“I think it’s impor­tant for the admin­is­tra­tion to look for ways to up the mil­i­tary pres­sure on Assad,” said Demo­c­ra­tic Sen. Carl Levin, chair­man of the Armed Ser­vices Committee.

One of the most pow­er­ful of the rebel groups in Syria is Jab­hat al-​Nusra, which recently declared its affil­i­a­tion with Qaeda. Last Decem­ber, the State Depart­ment des­ig­nated the group a ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion, and the administration’s oppo­si­tion to directly arm­ing the Syr­ian oppo­si­tion stems from con­cerns about the weapons end­ing up in the hands of Islamic extremists.

Arm­ing the rebels, said Repub­li­can Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, is a “lot harder that it was before.”

“We’ve got­ten to the point now where the oppo­si­tion has been affected by the rad­i­cals,” Gra­ham said in an inter­view. “Right weapons in right hands is the goal. The sec­ond war is com­ing. I think we can arm the right peo­ple with the right weapons. There’s a risk there, but the risk of let­ting this go and chem­i­cal weapons falling into rad­i­cal Islamists’ hands is the great­est risk.”

Sev­eral law­mak­ers, includ­ing Repub­li­can Sen. John McCain, have called for the U.S. to cre­ate a nar­row, safe zone inside Syria, along its bor­der with Turkey.

Either a safe zone or a no-​fly zone would require neu­tral­iz­ing Syria’s air defenses. Accord­ing to a report by the Insti­tute for the Study of War, Syria’s largely Soviet-​era air defense sys­tem includes as many as 300 mobile surface-​to-​air mis­sile sys­tems and defense sys­tems, and more than 600 sta­tic mis­sile launch­ers and sites.

“You can estab­lish it [safe zone] by tak­ing out their air­craft on the ground with cruise mis­siles and using the Patriot [mis­sile] also. No Amer­i­can manned air­craft in dan­ger,” McCain said.

The U.S. has taken only min­i­mal mil­i­tary steps so far, lim­it­ing U.S. assis­tance to non­lethal aid, includ­ing military-​style equip­ment such as body armor and night vision goggles.

The U.S. has deployed about 200 troops to Jor­dan to assist that country’s mil­i­tary, and par­tic­i­pated in NATO’s place­ment of Patriot mis­sile bat­ter­ies in Turkey near the bor­der to pro­tect against an attack from Syria.

It’s unclear, how­ever, what arm­ing the rebels or patrolling a no-​fly zone over Syria would accomplish.

“The options are all bad,” says Aram Ner­guiz­ian, senior fel­low at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic & Inter­na­tional Stud­ies. “Arm­ing the oppo­si­tion doesn’t do any­thing regard­ing chem­i­cal weapons or solv­ing pro­lif­er­a­tion con­cerns in Syria.”

Tar­get­ing a facil­ity, he added, might send a mes­sage to the Assad régime. But it does lit­tle to address the larger direc­tion of the civil war, which is tilt­ing back toward gov­ern­ment forces again after a counteroffensive.

“Here’s one thing you can do,” argues Andrew Tabler at the Wash­ing­ton Insti­tute for Near East Pol­icy in a sim­i­lar vein. “If they load this stuff into bombs or mix the stuff, we can hit it,” he said, but agreed that wouldn’t elim­i­nate the larger stock­piles or address the larger con­text of a con­flict that is destroy­ing Syria.

Source: The Asso­ci­ated Press

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