Micah Zenko

The No-Plan Zone

Modest measures to aid the Syrian rebels won't topple Assad. And despite protestations, even Washington's hawks don't want to go further.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, the Daily Beast published an "exclusive" news story supported by comments from two anonymous administration officials: "Obama Asks Pentagon for Syria No-Fly Zone Plan." The newsworthiness and hype surrounding such reporting was puzzling given that the military’s operational plans for a no-fly zone (NFZ) in Syria were completed many months ago and have been refined as new information has become available. Of course, versions of these plans have also been briefed in detail to the White House on multiple occasions. Soon after the Daily Beast story ran, Pentagon spokesperson Dave Lapan felt compelled to declare: "There is no new planning effort underway." This failed effort to plant a story about White House interest in NFZ options for Syria is perhaps the most perfunctory effort ever to coerce a foreign leader — in this case, Bashar al-Assad, before the forthcoming diplomatic discussions in Geneva.

The Obama administration’s leaks should not be surprising — they are representative of the theatrical and half-hearted nature of America’s debate over military intervention in Syria. On March 27, 2011, just one week after a U.S.-led coalition began selectively enforcing an NFZ over Libya, then-Senator Joseph Lieberman endorsed a similar measure for Syria, in case Assad "turns his weapons on his people and begins to slaughter them, as Qaddafi did." Over the subsequent 27 months, every plausible military tactic and mission has been exhaustively analyzed and deliberated by policymakers, active-duty and retired military officials, pundits (including myself), journalists, and others.

Civilian officials have requested a range of military options, the Pentagon’s planning process has responded, congressional committees have held multiple hearings, the media has covered the unfolding fighting in and around Syria, and interested commentators have offered their opinions.

Seven months ago, State Department spokesperson Toria Nuland told reporters: "On the no-fly zone itself, you know that we’ve been saying for quite a while we continue to study whether that makes sense, how it might work." As those "studies" have continued, the American people have been polled repeatedly to gauge their opinion — the latest two polls demonstrate that less than a quarter of Americans think the U.S. military should intervene in Syria.

At this point, it is safe to say that — short of definitive evidence of large-scale regime-directed chemical weapons use, or threats to Turkey, a U.S. treaty ally — it is highly unlikely that the United States will intervene militarily in Syria’s civil war. There are many reasons for this, including an American populace exhausted with nearly a dozen years of continuous warfare, senior military officials deeply opposed to an open-ended mission while still fighting in Afghanistan and confronting the threat of Islamic militants regrouping in southwest Libya, and a president who adheres to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s semi-serious dictum: "Every administration gets one preemptive war against a Muslim country."

However, the most significant explanation of America’s unwillingness to attack Syria is that the level of military force that officials and policymakers are willing to employ would not materially change the outcome of the civil war. The threshold of force that would have to be used — as well as the sheer numbers of advanced, lethal weapons that would have to be supplied to the armed opposition — to assure the toppling of Assad, will not be forthcoming. The course and outcome of Syria’s civil war is simply not that important of a national interest for the United States to take the lead and catalyze a military coalition or weapons-supplying role.

Even the most prominent and vocal advocate of intervention, Sen. John McCain, has proposed military options that would be wholly insufficient to defeat the Syrian Army, associated paramilitary forces, and foreign fighters. McCain has repeatedly emphasized that no U.S. ground troops should be committed to this effort, declaring in April: "The worst thing the United States could do right now is put boots on the ground in Syria." On Sunday, he also endorsed a NFZ and a "safe zone," but added: "We don’t have to risk our pilots… I would not send U.S.-manned aircraft over Syria." McCain said that these zones could be enforced with Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, though Turkish officials have told their American counterparts that they do not support the use of the missiles or their sovereign territory to enforce a NFZ.

Sen. McCain also stated on Sunday: "I would use stand-off cruise missiles to crater the runways." For the tepid interventionist, cratering runways has always been a leading tactic to recommend — somewhere below drone strikes, but above NFZs. What is problematic for McCain’s phrasing is that the U.S. military cannot effectively crater a runway with cruise missiles, which Air Force weaponeers often deride as "ground scrapers." It is a military mission that uses many manned aircraft to release runway-penetrating weapons at a low altitude. The November 1994 NATO raid on the Serbian-held airfield in Ubdina, Croatia lasted 45 minutes, and required a force package of 39 aircraft to drop 80 gravity bombs and make five "major craters." Within two weeks, the Ubdina airfield was repaired and working again. While aerial munitions have advanced markedly in the past decades, the principles of physics and military logistics would still require manned aircraft to conduct this proposed mission in Syria.

When it comes to enhancing the lethality of the Syrian rebels — beyond deciding who receives the weapons, or wondering where they go after Assad falls — intervention advocates are also unwilling to provide the advanced weapons that could tip the battlefield in their favor. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez, has introduced legislation that would permit a range of lethal and non-lethal support to "properly vetted" opposition members, but "no man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) will be transferred as part of the assistance." Meanwhile, former State Department Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter has proposed: "The key condition for all such assistance, inside or outside Syria, is that it be used defensively — only to stop attacks by
the Syrian military." Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice endorsed arming unified rebel groups "with defensive weapons," while Truman National Security Project president Rachel Kleinfeld proposed sending "antitank weaponry calibrated to pierce lower-grade Syrian armor, not higher-level Israeli, NATO, and U.S. tanks." I am not aware of a definitive categorization for "defensive" battlefield weapons, but providing them while withholding the MANPADS that the rebels demand does not increase the likelihood of a march on Damascus to end Assad’s rule.

Syria intervention advocates rarely describe how modest military options or defensive weapons transfers would plausibly achieve some strategic objective — which is almost never articulated. Rather, the goal of intervention is to "do something," while limiting America’s exposure — in troops, treasure, and reputation — to the outcome. The U.S. military is exceptional at planning and conducting regime change campaigns, and the CIA could ensure that the rebels were supplied with the advanced offensive weapons necessary to defeat security forces loyal to the Assad regime. However, most advocates remain unenthusiastic about recommending that President Obama authorize any of the steps that would ensure Assad is removed from power. We are deluding ourselves if we believe that we need more time to "think through" U.S. military intervention options for Syria. We have an excellent understanding of what those options are, and a vast majority of officials, policymakers, and the American people do not believe they are worth the effort.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.