Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are pounding their fists for intervention in Syria after reports of chemical weapons being used. They have called for bombing Syrian air bases, arming the rebels and readying an international force to secure chemical weapons stocks. McCain was quick to say, though, he did not want American boots on the ground because that would be “the worst thing the United States could do right now.”
Although McCain and Graham hide under the pretense of humanitarian intervention and securing national interests, they are paving the way for another war in the Middle East. Bombing Syrian air bases to create a no-fly zone would have little effect on saving civilian lives. The Syrian Air Force has 555 combat capable aircrafts, but they have not been used against civilians. Helicopter gunships have attacked civilians, but an NFZ would have to be far more extensive to protect against them. Unlike regular aircrafts, helicopters can quickly depart, attack, and land necessitating more surveillance and striking capabilities to remove them.
Moreover, as Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations explains, “the NFZ in Libya did not protect civilian populations; it was actually the use of close air support against Qaddafi regime forces on the ground.” Close air support (CAS) requires trusted intelligence agents and forward air controllers on the ground to protect civilians and attack regime assets. That is, Western boots would have to be on the ground to actually secure civilian populations.
Additionally, General James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, told Congress that Syria has advanced air defense weapons from Russia that would make it difficult to establish any NFZ. Also consider that Libya’s no-fly zone required a 7-month long bombing campaign. Syria’s army is much stronger than Libya’s was, and its cities are denser than Libya’s which increases the possibility of civilian collateral damage.
Next, arming the rebels will only prolong the conflict and further ignite religious fragmentation. The Syrian army is well-equipped and has much better training than the rebels. If rebels gain heavy weaponry, Assad’s forces could escalate their own attacks or further drive moderates to pick a side. Weapons can also be traded from group to group. Attempts may be made to transfer weapons to "secular" or "moderate" groups, but they could easily end up in the hands of Jubhat Al-Nasra, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda in Syria. Previous disastrous experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia should be enough to swear off the idea of funneling arms to proxies.
Involving American forces in Syria will also antagonize Russia, who is providing arms and supplies to Assad. At a time when Iran is developing nuclear weapons and North Korea is more belligerent than ever, it would be diplomatically foolish to isolate a powerhouse like Russia.
In regards to chemical weapons, intervention would be necessary if there is strong evidence of systematic use. The Pentagon has already drawn up plans in case of this worst scenario, but even Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, have warned against using chemical weapons.
The U.S. should remain focused on coordinating arms from Gulf countries and Turkey so that shipments go towards less radical groups. Further, more humanitarian relief must be offered to refugees suffering in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. By the end of 2013, 11.5 million Syrians will likely be in need of assistance, and arrangements must be made to provide them with food and shelter.