The crisis in Syria is now into its second year, and the death count, now nearing 8,000 according to rebel sources, continues to rise. Despite public declarations by the Obama administration that Bashar Assad's regime was at an end, it remains unclear exactly what the U.S. is prepared to do, other than conduct diplomatic initiatives, which have been rendered useless by Russian intransigence.
While policymakers, and indeed the general public, continue to debate the role of the United States, the Syrian regime continues its bloody work driving rebels from a handful of urban strongholds. Both private-sector assessments (such as the one conducted by the JCPA) and U.S. officials, such as head of U.S. Central Command Maj. Gen. James Mathis, have concluded that Assad's forces are in the ascendancy against an ill-equipped "Free Syrian Army" (FSA), which is really a disparate group of militias united only by a commitment to Assad's overthrow and by a brand name. Some FSA units have proven effective, while others are largely ineffectual or exist essentially in name only.
The president has requested that the DOD consider available options, including humanitarian airlifts and no-fly zones. Other basic military plans are being prepared, and 10 million dollars in humanitarian assistance was pledged on March 7. All air-based contingencies must take into account that the Syrian air defense network is substantially more robust then the Libyan one, and the U.S would likely need a widespread campaign against air defense, radar, and command-and-control installations in order to safely control the skies above Syria.
Most of Assad's military advantage so far has come from using artillery to shell the lightly armed defenders, so a mere no-fly zone would probably be of minimal value without also targeting Assad's forces on the ground, in the same manner as eventually occurred in the Libyan campaign. Strikes from aircraft, or a no-fly zone, while helpful to the Syrian opposition, also do not provide the U.S. with any ability to influence which elements of the Syrian opposition play the leading role in a post-Assad Syria, nor to insure that a post-Assad Syria is more likely to support U.S. interests in the region. Additionally, an air campaign would not provide the force on the ground necessary to secure Syria's stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, one of the largest in the region.
An air campaign, unaccompanied by some form of assistance to the rebels, is in some ways the most public, most expensive option, with the smallest ability of the United States to insure a desirable outcome.
To reach the most desirable outcome may require arming elements of the Syrian opposition, an option which so far appears out of consideration. General Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs said, "If we ever do reach a decision to arm the opposition, it can't simply be arming them without command and control, without any communications, because then it becomes a roving band of rebels."
There is also a concern, voiced by critics of intervention, regarding the presence of Islamist and jihadist elements -- including al-Qaeda-linked elements, and notably the Al Nusrah Front, which claimed responsibility for a series of suicide car bombings. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades and al-Qaeda in Iraq also have a presence in Syria. The armed opposition does contain Salafist elements, which would be a natural fit for cooperation with al-Qaeda, and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has a great deal of influence among the political opposition. There are also, however, secular political and armed opposition members, particularly represented among those who have defected from Assad's armed forces. Additionally, the Syrian regime's intelligence apparatus has its own al-Qaeda ties and may be utilizing them in an effort to dampen the West's enthusiasm for intervention. It's worth noting that some in the administration who have noted the possibility of al-Qaeda in Syria, such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, downplayed the role of AQ-affiliated groups in Libya (such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group).
If the United States and its Western allies do not participate in arming and training the Free Syrian Army, it is almost certain that the armed opposition will turn to the Gulf States, most notably Saudi Arabia, which have already given indications that they intend to see the opposition armed. They will almost certainly choose to support Islamist and especially Salafist elements at the expense of secular ones. Additionally, the Syrian insurgency may choose to turn to al-Qaeda and other jihadists for training and tactics, if it cannot find assistance elsewhere. This does not bode well for the United States.
If the United States should choose to engage in arming, training, and supplying elements of the opposition, we should do so with our own eyes on the ground in Syria and in the Syrian refugee camps so we can make the determination as to which elements of the Syrian opposition are most advantageous for the United States to support. It would be a grave error for the U.S. to provide funding for arms only to allow regional powers like Turkey or Saudi Arabia to direct who the recipients are.
The United States may decide to forgo providing arms but supply humanitarian supplies and possibly communications equipment to the rebels. While this would be of some value, without some force to provide security for Syrian civilians, it becomes difficult to see how the U.S. will ensure that its supplies reach the affected populace. Assad has already shown a willingness to deny access to international humanitarian organizations, or to delay their entry in order to buy time to conduct his violent reprisals against protesters. Additionally, with the Gulf States still assuredly providing arms assistance, the U.S. is still likely to be faced with its least favorite option among the Syrian opposition in control of Syria, in the event the Syrian opposition should in fact triumph.
In conclusion, the regime of Bashar Assad is determined to literally kill its way to victory, through a brutal suppression of the uprising. The Syrian opposition is widely diverse, with both effective and ineffectual units made up of both secular and jihadist elements. If the United States does not provide arms to the elements of the Syrian opposition which seem most favorable to U.S. interests, other regional powers will certainly intervene with arms on their own, to their benefit and to the U.S.'s detriment. If the U.S. provides arms, it has some ability to determine who the recipients will be, allowing the U.S. to minimize the role of jihadists in the Syrian uprising. Additionally, it provides for contact within the militias who can provide intelligence and security to help ensure that Syria's stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons can be accounted for. These abilities are lacking from a policy which would either provide just humanitarian aid and no arms or be based solely on the air campaign option.
Certainly, with the administration having already declared that Assad is finished, the United States is not served by failing to take action to see that declaration come to fruition. If Assad should succeed, the U.S. loses credibility, as well as an opportunity to weaken the greater strategic adversary in the region, Iran.
Kyle Shideler is the Senior Research Fellow for the Endowment for Middle East Truth, a 501(c)3 nonprofit think-tank and policy center dedicated to preserving and defending the national security of the United States and its ally Israel in their joint struggle against the forces of radical Islam.