As the Syrian civil war escalates, the United States and its allies must adjust to the likely reality of a protracted, multiyear conflict. Even President Bashar Assad’s eventual demise should not be taken for granted. Meanwhile, the Syrian civil war is spinning out of control and beyond its borders with mounting human carnage, increased sectarian overtones, and direct interventions by Iran, Hezbollah, and Israel. These trends have encouraged a parallel process of opposition radicalization, with segments of Syrian militancy aided by inflows of foreign fighters and financial support. Regional stability and US interests are increasingly strained by the disintegration of Syria.
The United States and its allies should adopt an approach that acknowledges mitigation and containment are, while decidedly suboptimal, the best results that can be hoped for at this juncture.
There is no solution to the Syrian civil war. With the Assad regime displaying renewed resiliency, near-term regime change is unlikely, short of an assassination or coup. The key challenge will be to fashion a sustainable policy with realistic goals. While the searing lessons of the American experience in Afghanistan and Iraq loom large, policy is not limited to the divergent poles of inaction or invasion.
Policy choices should be focused on civilian protection, humanitarian aid, and governance support, dealing with the de facto fragmentation of the country as an objective, albeit temporary, reality. This approach would have some hope of stemming uncontrolled refugee flows, tending to the humanitarian needs of a portion of the Syrian populace, and countering disturbing trends of radicalization. It would also begin to address the contradictory interests that have bedeviled US Syria policy. Diplomatic processes aimed at achieving a political settlement should be pursued aggressively and in parallel, but with an understanding that such efforts are unlikely to succeed in the near term.
A retooled approach should not be contingent upon direct military intervention. In light of the risks, costs, and lack of legal authorization for that type of escalation, the Obama administration’s caution is prudent. While technically feasible, imposing a no-fly zone over Syrian air space would be an open-ended and resource-intensive act of war. And imposing a no-fly zone would be unlikely to tip the internal balance of power. Similarly, attacking Syrian runways would only represent a momentary setback for the Syrian air force.
Furthermore, the Obama administration does not have the luxury of thinking through Syria policy in isolation. With respect to several critical issues, particularly on maintaining a semblance of United Nations Security Council unity on the Iranian nuclear program, the United States will require a functional relationship with Russia.
Despite the unsuitability of a no-fly zone, limiting the use of air power by the Syrian government will be critical to protecting civilians in opposition-held areas. This objective could be furthered by enhanced intelligence sharing with specified rebel groups. Such intelligence sharing and coordination could focus on creative targeting aimed at regime logistical networks, fuel farms, radars, and air crews. This could also serve as a trial to test the trustworthiness and effectiveness of fighting groups, potentially leading the way to more robust support if reliable partners are found or cultivated.
Despite its risks, sanctioned covert actions by regional allies could also play a part in limiting Syrian air power. Teams of special forces could be introduced discreetly to employ antiaircraft missile systems to harass and deter Syrian air power. This combination of tactics would not reproduce the effect of a no-fly zone, but there would be fewer costs and risks and diplomatic efforts would not be derailed.
In addition to protecting civilians, greater security in opposition-held areas would provide an important opening to redouble humanitarian aid within Syria and increase support to local governance. While opposition control remains patchwork and fragmented, there are opportunities to step up humanitarian relief, and reinforce successes, and such efforts could have major impact on civilian protection.
Such steps would help stem the destabilizing outflow of Syrian refugees and counter the attractiveness of militant groups that are filling the governance vacuum and providing much-needed supplies and services. The costs associated with governance support would be a more economical option than dealing with a burgeoning humanitarian crisis beyond Syria’s borders.
Supporting local governance efforts now would also help to buffer the turbulence of a post-Assad Syria when the fight for localized power would intensify. Beginning preparations for that possibility and bolstering nascent institutions could help minimize future instability.
The Syrian civil war represents a moral and strategic disaster for the region, and the United States has important interests at stake. Rash calls for US military action create a false binary of choices and confuse the current debate. There are no near-term solutions to this catastrophe, but the United States, in concert with its allies, should adapt to the protracted nature of the conflict and focus on limiting the most damaging effects of the war on Syria and the region.
Michael Wahid Hanna is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.