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What Are Our Military Options in Syria?

As the violence worsens in Syria, there are no great options for how to respond. The various Syrian factions and sectarian groups are far too intermingled for a Libya-like operation to work. Assad and his army are still too strong for a simple and small peacekeeping mission to succeed. And if we did invade, the specter of an Iraq-style imbroglio would loom, given Syria’s size and the multitude of nefarious actors there.

It’s important, though, to think through the available military options. (Though I do not favor any just yet, and we should only consider them in the event of strong Arab League and NATO support and participation.) These are three possible types:

A punitive naval or air operation to encourage a coup against Assad. These measures would reinforce existing economic sanctions. The two most viable tactics would be a naval blockade, to prevent Syria from exporting oil or importing a number of goods, and a limited air campaign to deprive the regime of assets that it values (like palaces). The hope would be that Assad’s cronies could be persuaded to depose him and then forge a power-sharing deal with the opposition, as a precondition for ending sanctions and ending the associated punitive military campaign. 

A broader Balkans-like campaign to help depose Assad. In this option, air strikes would also target the heavy weapons that the Syrian army is using to shell cities; this could be combined with the creation of a no-fly zone for Syrian military helicopters and other aircraft over much or even all of the country, which could require up to a couple hundred aircraft operating in various bases on land and at sea in the region. This approach could also involve arming the Syrian opposition—though that would likely increase, rather than decrease, violence in the short term.

Creation of a safe zone for Syrian civilians. Safe zones are easier to declare than to enforce—and the Syrian army would surely contest any effort to establish one or more. But they might be accomplished using airpower and some modest number of outside ground troops. They could be partly modeled on the protection we afforded Kurds in Iraq throughout the 1990s, even while Saddam was still in power. Alas, this task would be harder here. There is no natural geographic or demographic logic to any particular possible safe zone in Syria. Populations are too interspersed, and the killing is happening largely in central cities, where it would likely be impractical to create such zones given the size and cohesion and capability of nearby Syrian army forces. Creating a safe zone in the northeast, near the Turkish border, would be more practical, but less helpful for the threatened populations, who predominantly reside in the western part of the country. This kind of mission would therefore have only a limited ability to protect innocents. But depending on how the situation unfolded, it could perhaps be combined with the above options to create the nucleus of a stronger resistance that could ultimately challenge Assad’s rule using the safe area as a staging base and sanctuary.

To be sure, all three of these approaches are limited in scale and scope, and all promise only mediocre results. None of these ideas look decisive, and all are risky; as such, they should only be considered if and when things get worse.

But the alternatives are not pretty. Alas, perhaps the most likely outcome is that Assad will brutally reestablish control over the country, in a way that might end the war, or at least prevent it from becoming an all-out conflagration. But it is also quite possible that things will continue to get more chaotic on the battlefield. Meanwhile, some Sunni Arab states are probably considering arming the opposition themselves—this would likely not be enough to overturn Assad, but just enough to stoke the conflict further.

As the death toll from the year-old conflict rapidly approaches 10,000, it may not be too early to raise these types of military possibilities in public—if for no other reason than to signal the murderous Syrian regime that we do have options besides just hoping that Assad will fall of his own weight. Ideally, down the line the credible possibility of their implementation will persuade Assad’s cronies to demand that he go into exile. Perhaps it could even convince them to form a new power-sharing government with the opposition. That may not be a utopian solution, but, under the current circumstances, it may be the best we can hope for—even if it requires uncomfortable talk of military intervention.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at Brookings and coauthor with Martin Indyk and Kenneth Lieberthal of Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy.