Syria Intervention: Arming Anti-Assad Rebels Could Level the Playing Field

For over the past two years, Syria has been ensnared in a bloody civil war between forces loyal to the Syrian government and the rebel factions seeking to overthrow the al-Assad regime. The main armed opposition in Syria is organized into an umbrella organization labeled the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The complete composition of the various groups that compose the rebellion remains uncertain, but there are reports that the FSA includes units affiliated with Al-Qaeda and other extremist organizations. The pathway to influencing an end outcome could take numerous routes, each burdened with unique risks and perils, but the ability to stand by ideally is no longer prudent for American interest.

On June 13, 2013, President Obama announced that a "red line" had been crossed and that the U.S. intelligence community had "high confidence" that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons on a small scale against opposition forces. This statement was followed with the announcement that the United States would begin supplying light arms to vetted rebel groups. Furthermore, the administration emphasized that no decision had been made to supply the rebel groups with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry or whether the U.S. would establish a no-fly zone, but that all options were still on the table.

President Obama, along with the American people, has had a deep reluctance to be drawn into another war in the Middle East. Supplying weapons to the rebels has been fiercely supported by pro-intervention politicians, and additional action such as a no-fly zone has been advocated by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). However, a no-fly zone has serious ramifications and several drawbacks.

The establishment of a no-fly zone would mean U.S. aircraft penetrating and patrolling Syrian airspace and a significant escalation of U.S. involvement in a sectarian civil war with no clear end in sight. The likelihood that an aircraft could be engaged in air-to-air combat or shot down by anti-aircraft batteries supplied by Russia, would dramatically increase. What would be the U.S. response if either rebel or al-Assad forces captured an American pilot?

The United Nations estimates that the conflict has already taken more than 93,000 lives and displaced 1.5 million refugees, threatening to destabilize a fragile region. This has created spillover clashes in Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan, who itself is estimated to have over 500,000 Syrian refugees and neighbors our critical ally Israel. The United States is the single-largest contributor of humanitarian aide, nearly $815 million since the crisis began, in an effort to help feed, shelter, and provide medical care to children, women, and men affected by the ongoing crisis in Syria.

The president's stated objective is "Assad leaving because he delegitimized himself by what he did to his people." The administration believes it is in our national interest to support a stable, non-sectarian representative government that will address the needs of the Syrian people, but the path to that end goal is unclear. It appears that the United States will continue its mission to support both the political and the military opposition, in an effort to provide a counterweight that can potentially leverage a peaceful political negotiation.