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As control of key cities in Syria seesaws between regime and rebel control, leaks suggest that the Obama administration is considering implementing a no-fly zone over the embattled nation. Why now? Good question.
Soon after Syria descended into chaos in 2011, it was clear that the country would become a proxy war zone – an extension of the growing Sunni-Shiite rift widening in the Middle East. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s allies in Iran and Russia quickly committed to doing everything necessary to aid their friend in Damascus, regardless of the toll on the Syrian people. Similarly, the rebels’ Gulf Arab allies doubled down on the forces opposed to al-Assad. And for a long time, it seemed the country would boil in self-destructive fashion, a decisive victory elusive to both sides.
In recent months, however, momentum had swung to the rebels. Key towns fell to the Free Syrian Army and other groups opposed to al-Assad. It was starting to look like the end was nigh for the Syrian president. In desperation, the regime is widely believed to have resorted to the use of chemical weapons, challenging President Barack Obama, who had suggested the use of such weapons would be a “red line” and a “game changer” for the United States. In fact, it was neither.
Team al-Assad, appreciating that the U.S. president’s credibility was of less value to him than his isolationist impulse, made a decision to do what was necessary to wrest momentum back from the rebels. In quick succession, Russia announced the transfer of the sophisticated S-300 surface-to-air missile system to al-Assad (and he, in turn, says he has it in hand), and deployed a dozen warships off the Syrian coast; Iran reportedly sent ground troops to fight alongside Syrian forces, and Iranian proxy Hezbollah poured in thousands of men to shore up al-Assad’s lagging forces. And in the waning days of May, al-Assad is again believed to have used chemical weapons against his own people.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry took time away from his number one priority – the Middle East peace process – to persuade Moscow of the wisdom of a Syrian peace conference. That conference, slated to take place in Geneva on June 5, holds out little help for a resolution of the Syrian conflict for several reasons. Al-Assad is unlikely to make any concessions at a moment he feels the tide is turning his way. Similarly, the rebels (who as of this writing have declined to join the conference until Iranian and Hezbollah forces stand down) have little to gain if they can expect less from diplomacy than from the use of force.
If the peace conference goes nowhere, the ball will once again be back in the Western court. Al-Assad’s supporters have made their bets. So have partisans of the Islamist extremists fighting Assad; al Qaeda’s friends in Qatar have demonstrated their commitment to groups like Jabhat al Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliated Syrian rebel group. Only the Free Syrian Army continues to struggle without decisive public assistance from either Europe or the United States. But this week, the European arms embargo on Syria expired, and France and Great Britain could soon step in to arm the rebels. That leaves the United States.
The White House has denied it is planning a no-fly zone over Syria, and the president appears more focused on “ending” the war on terror than in re-engaging the United States around the world. But events may force Obama’s hand. There is no returning to the status quo ante, and it is already clear that the conflict in Syria is spilling over into Lebanon, Iraq and Israel. Can Jordan and Turkey be far behind? It is possible for the United States and its allies to hobble al-Assad’s air power using stand-off weapons. Doing so would stop him from both resupplying his forces and from attacking from the air. A no-fly zone would require more effort, but careful study makes clear that al-Assad’s air defenses are little match for the U.S. or NATO aircraft.
Why now? Because now may be the last moment the United States can affect the course of the battle for Syria. The issue for the Obama administration is not how, but if. If the president wants to help oust al-Assad. If the president wants to end the bloodshed. If the president believes the future of the Middle East is a vital national interest to the United States. None of that is yet clear.
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