David Barno

The Road to Nowhere Good

The Road to Nowhere Good

The decision by the Obama administration to arm select Syrian rebel groups marks a tipping point in the U.S. involvement in the country’s 27-month long civil war. Partly in response to new evidence of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime — a U.S. "red line" — the United States is now rapidly moving to provide small arms, ammunition, and possibly mortars and antitank rockets to the rebels — but for now holding the line short of antiaircraft missiles.

With video and stories pouring out of Syria for months about the growing loss of civilian life — over 90,000 dead at most recent count — international pressure on the United States to "do something" has steadily mounted. Despite deep reservations, a shaky case for U.S. vital interests, and with next to no American public support, the United States has now signed on to a much deeper intervention in the Syrian civil war.

But the provision of lethal aid to the rebels is unlikely to be enough to turn the tide against Assad — and it may actually prolong a bloody conflict. The bulk of the light weaponry the United States plans to provide will probably take weeks to arrive and will provide only limited firepower in the face of deadly Syrian tanks and artillery. It may be just enough to prevent a knockout blow by Assad, but in the end it has next to no chance of changing the fundamental balance of power between the warring sides.

Perhaps worse, providing the rebels with lethal weaponry deepens the American commitment to their success. When they are next on the brink of catastrophe, calls for the United States to take the next step and impose a no-fly zone will be loud — and even more difficult to resist. Sen. John McCain and others have touted this idea for months, and the Obama administration has so far resisted this major escalation of U.S. involvement. But if arming the rebels fails to end the conflict — as is most likely to be the case — a no-fly zone looms large as the next probable choice on the menu of military options.

So just what is a no-fly zone, and what would it mean for the United States to impose one in Syria?

In the simplest terms, a no-fly zone is some piece of geography over which no military flights are allowed. No-fly zones require the continuing application of significant military power to be effective — not just a few quick air strikes to crater runways and shoot up warplanes sitting on the ground. The Syrians have one of the world’s most robust air defense systems, chock full of missiles, radars, and heavy anti-aircraft cannons — and they will fight with it. Moreover, these air defenses have been maintained and modernized with Russian support — and Moscow would not only object to its destruction, but also unquestionably (along with China) block any U.N. Security Council resolution to authorize such a move. In a worst-case scenario, Russia might even resupply its Syrian clients, dramatically expanding the scope and risks of the conflict. The Iranians are likely to do the same for all manner of weaponry, opening the possibility that a civil war could morph into an even more deadly proxy war among outside adversaries fighting for regional influence.

The unvarnished truth is that imposing a no-fly zone over Syria requires attacking the Syrian military — and, in effect, making war on the Syrian regime. No one would suggest that hastening the demise of this murderous dictatorship is anything but a worthy endeavor. But starting down this path — especially with U.S. airpower — demands we think about both the costs along the way, and the destination at the end. We have done little of either.

Very simply, establishing a no-fly zone over Syria would require the U.S. military (perhaps joined by a few stalwart allies) to conduct a prolonged air campaign that consists of: 1) attacking and destroying Syria’s entire air defense network (think lots of bombs over days, perhaps weeks, of air strikes); 2) attacking the Syrian air force on the ground, and if it comes up, in the air — and fighting until it is destroyed; and 3) bombing (and then re-bombing) military and "civilian" airfields to render them unusable for enemy warplanes. (Of course, armed Syrian helicopters can take off and land anywhere.) Should a U.S. warplane be shot down while enforcing the no-fly zone, the campaign might also involve the launch of search-and-rescue teams to retrieve downed pilots.

Which leads us to the slippery slope of the seemingly clean, quick, and even humanitarian argument for imposing a no-fly zone. It will be neither clean, nor quick, nor humanitarian.

U.S. bombs dropped on Syrian air defenses (some located in cities) will kill civilians. Allied aircraft will get shot down. U.S. rescue teams will get in firefights with Syrian forces. And with American airplanes in the skies over Syria, Iran will almost assuredly seize the opportunity to slip more advanced anti-aircraft weaponry to Assad to help knock them down. Days of air operations will stretch into weeks, and weeks could stretch into months. The rebels will still be fighting deadly battles for survival with Assad’s forces — and screaming for air support from American airplanes overhead enforcing the no-fly zone. But ideally, at the end of this air campaign — after some days or weeks — Syria would not be able to attack the rebels from the air.

And then what?

Even after we have successfully imposed a no-fly zone over Syria, Assad would still retain more than enough military power to relentlessly pound the rebels while successfully suppressing his restive population. With legions of tanks, artillery, rockets, infantry battalions, and myriad irregular militias, he could continue to hold off the rebellion indefinitely — if not crush it outright. Much like arming the rebels, imposing a no-fly zone will do little to alter the balance of power decisively in favor of the Syrian resistance. That reality all but guarantees even more pressure for deeper direct U.S. military intervention to topple Assad.

A no-fly zone is only the first step on a descending staircase toward deeper U.S. military involvement in the Syrian civil war. Close air support and transport for the rebels comes next, then U.S. special operations forces to help rebels direct air strikes. U.S. forces would soon be inserted to secure chemical weapons sites, with others searching for hidden weapons of mass destruction. And, eventually, substantial military support would be required to aid whatever fractious new government emerges from the ashes of the Assad regime. None of these serial steps may appear imminent today, but all flow in small increments with an inexorable, and ultimately tragic, logic from any direct involvement by U.S. military power — starting with a no-fly zone.

President Obama’s decision to arm rebel groups fighting Assad is a fait accompli. Now is the time to step back and take a deep breath before doing anything further. Arming one side of a civil war in a major Middle Eastern nation is a gargantuan step for the United States. If it fails to save the rebels, pressure on the United States to impose a no-fly zone over Syria will be immense. But despite the tragic loss of life, U.S. interests are far better served by exercising restraint, supporting Syria’s neighbors, and performing a humanitarian role. After 10 years of bloody and inconclusive U.S. involvement in the wars of this region, slipping into another military intervention in this part of the world defies both common sense and broader U.S. vital interests.