What Are The United States’ Options In Syria?

CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

obama phone

CREDIT: White House/Amanda Lucidon

The world’s focus is currently on Syria and how the United States will respond to last week’s reports of a massive chemical weapons attack against civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghoula. Members of the opposition fighting against the Syrian government claim that more than 1,000 men, women, and children perished in the attack, with ghoulish photos circulating the internet of corpses piled together.

A team of United Nations inspectors is currently on the ground to verify whether or not chemical weapons are being used, though their mission is fairly limited in scope and they are already on the receiving end of violence meant to prevent their efforts. As that is ongoing, President Obama has been meeting with his top national security advisors to come to a conclusion on how to move forward in Syria. Just over a year ago, Obama called the use of chemical weapons a violation of a “red-line” that would change U.S. calculations. With that in mind, here are details of at least three of the options that Obama has before him:

Stay The Course

Contrary to at times heated rhetoric, the United States has not exactly been sitting on its hands over the past three years with regard to Syria. So far, the U.S. has provided more than one billion dollars worth of humanitarian aid to the chronically underfunded effort to feed and house Syria’s millions of refugees and internally displaced peoples. On top of that is the non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels for years, including training and material support, Washington has provided. The U.S. has also committed to delivering small arms and other lethal aid to the Syrian opposition’s fighters, with a reported 400 tons worth reaching them just yesterday.

Sticking to the current strategy of limited direct engagement regarding Syria also has the added benefit of not introducing U.S. forces and assets directly into an unknown theater. A recent Reuters poll shows that 60 percent of the public is opposed to intervening in Syria, a number that could perhaps give the White House pause. On the other side of the equation, however, there could potentially be greater political fallout from inaction. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have called for strikes against Syria should the use of chemical weapons be confirmed amid arguments of lessened U.S. credibility should it not back up its “red-lines” rhetoric.

Limited Strikes

After U.S. naval assets were repositioned within the Mediterranean last weekend, talk began to grow of possible limited strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Such an action could come in the form of cruise missile strikes from naval ships or air strikes from one of the U.S. nearby military bases, aimed at taking out Syria’s remaining chemical weapons facilities and possibly other government targets. Adding to the likelihood of such strikes, a senior official told said on Sunday that Syria’s agreement to allow the U.N. team to inspect possible chemical weapons attacks is “too late to be credible.”

There would appear to be growing international support for such a move, as evinced in the President’s recent call sheets. Phone conversations between Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande have both yielded a sense that action is forthcoming. Even Germany and Turkey appear to have changed their tune regarding the use of force against Assad, with the latter stating that it no longer would require U.N. approval before joining a coalition to take action.

While they may be able to prevent further use of chemical weapons, it is unclear that such strikes would be able to change the overall course of the war. And limited engagement still might not satisfy many of the advocates for large-scale intervention in Syria, leaving the door open for a form of mission creep. “If the United States stands by and doesn’t take very serious action, not just launching some cruise missiles, then again, our credibility in the world is diminished even more — if there is any left,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a longtime advocate for large-scale intervention in Syria, recently said.

The ‘Kosovo Model’ and No-Fly Zone

A third option for Obama would be a lengthier air engagement, designed to break the Syrian government’s momentum and aiding in the eventual overthrow of Assad’s government. According to the New York Times, the White House is currently examining the 1999 NATO incursion into Kosovo to help end Serbia’s ethnic cleansing and force concessions from President Slobadon Milosevic as a possible model to emulate. As well as being a possible greater window to a long-term solution, it would fulfill the requirement many have put forward of not putting U.S. ground forces into Syria while still being a determined action.

A longer air campaign could also finally see the enactment of a No-Fly Zone (NFZ) over Syria, which U.S. allies and members of Congress alike have long expressed an interest in. Should an NFZ be put into place, the U.S. and other allies would enforce it through threatening to shoot down any Syria military aircraft who take to the skies. Human Rights Watch earlier this year reported an increase in the use of air strikes in the Syrian government’s assaults against rebel strongholds and associated high civilian casualties, which an NFZ may reduce.

Several problems emerge from using Kosovo as a model, however, militarily and politically. A longer air engagement as would be required for a No-Fly Zone and would potentially expose more American pilots to Syria’s still quite formidable air defense capabilities, increasing the chance of casualties. While Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey has said the U.S. could defeat Syria’s air forces, he also warned of the troubles that Syria would face the day after Assad’s fall, given the fractured nature of the opposition.


With Russia and China likely to veto any action on Syria in the United Nations Security Council, both limited and lengthy strikes against Syria would also draw legal scrutiny, as under international law, the Security Council is the only venue for approving the use of force, absent an argument for self-defense. The U.N. also never approved the use of force in Kosovo, due to Russia’s support of Serbia, but U.S. officials at the time said that the intervention would not serve as a precedent.

The U.S. is apparently aware of the contradiction between the letter and spirit of international law, which also forbids the use of chemical weapons, and are examining their legal options. “If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work?” President Obama rhetorically asked during an interview with CNN last week. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel likewise told reporters on Monday that “if there is any action taken it will be in concert with the international community and within the framework of a legal justification.”

Domestically speaking, there’s also the matter of Congressional approval to consider. The Executive and Legislative Branches have feuded over which holds the reins over the use of force for decades, most recently during the Libyan intervention in 2011. The War Powers Resolution is intended to tip the balance back into Congress’ hands, requiring its approval before any use of force absent an attack on the U.S. or its territories and assets. Obama went ahead with the strikes anyway, notifying Congress as the WPR intended, but never receiving explicit Congressional approval. Obama could wind up countering that any action he takes in Syria would be legal under his power as Commander-in-Chief under Art. II of the Constitution, as all administrations since 1973 have rejected the WPR’s constraints.