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.