Although news reports this week about Syria's air defenses have fueled breathless speculation about the dangers of intervening in the spiraling conflict there, the truth is that the best options available to the United States today do not require placing American pilots in the sky over Damascus.
On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the White House is hamstrung over the "formidable deterrent" presented by Bashar al-Assad's air defense system. Carried by such leaks as the disclosure of new details about the 2007 Israeli airstrike against a nuclear reactor in Syria, the story built up to one unnamed official's conclusion that "the issue is can you take out the entire air defense system and keep it down."
By that evening, MSNBC's Chris Matthews elaborated on the political subtext of these leaks, warning that if the United States were to intervene in the Syrian conflict, Assad "can shoot anything that goes overhead. So if we get in there, we start losing pilots and start losing planes and start getting captives - how can you bail out over Damascus?"
While it is prudent for U.S. decision makers to weigh the risks posed by Assad's air defenses, this panicked response is unhinged from the actual debate over U.S. options to intervene in the Syrian conflict.
Advocates of greater U.S. involvement in Syria have described three basic options: vetting and supporting moderate members of the armed Syrian opposition; creating safe zones to protect opposition-controlled portions of the country from the Assad regime's air and missile attacks; and conducting limited military operations to degrade Assad's air power. None of these options necessarily requires an immediate, all-out campaign against Syria's air defense system.
Speaking to the first option, the Obama administration began this week to directly deliver non-lethal assistance to the Free Syrian Army and, according to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, is now deliberating the provision of lethal assistance as well. Here, Assad's air defenses are irrelevant to America's ability to deliver this assistance to anti-regime rebels, unless he plans to dramatically escalate the conflict by attacking U.S. aircraft over Turkey.
Where Assad's air power matters today is not in its ability to prevent the United States and its allies from aiding the opposition, but in the regime's use of aircraft and SCUD missiles to strike and destabilize rebel-controlled regions of Syria. It is because a stable and secure Syria cannot emerge from rubble that a growing number of lawmakers and experts have called for safe zones to end Assad's indiscriminate attacks against rebel-controlled areas.
At a bare minimum, the United States and our allies could use the Patriot missile defense batteries now deployed in southern Turkey to establish a credible threat against Assad's air power over parts of Aleppo and Idlib provinces, and even provide some limited defense against future SCUD missile attacks. This effort to establish a safe zone, like the effort to aid vetted Syrian rebels, would incur no immediate threat from Assad's air defenses, again unless Assad chose to directly attack our NATO ally, Turkey.
The last, immediately available option would be for the United States and its allies to conduct limited military operations to degrade and suppress Assad's air power, including his fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, ballistic missiles, and air defenses. As Senators Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ) recently wrote in a March 21 letter calling on the President to consider such an effort, such precision strikes against Assad's air power "would not require American or allied pilots to fly into the reach of Syria's air defenses."
In contrast to these options, there is one scenario in which Syria's air defenses would clearly pose a major obstacle-if we were to launch a large-scale military operation in order to secure or destroy all of the Assad regime's chemical weapons stockpiles.
Such an operation would most likely occur if Assad engages in large-scale use of those weapons or loses control of them, forcing President Obama's hand. Although Syria's air defenses would not hold U.S. forces at bay, they could buy just enough time for Assad to further utilize chemical weapons or distribute them to terror organizations like Hezbollah. This danger is punctuated by reports that the U.S. intelligence community has already lost track of Syria's chemical weapons.
Unfortunately, the longer the United States stands on the sidelines, allowing the Syrian conflict to spin out of control while the opposition is infiltrated by al Qaeda-linked extremists and Assad escalates to ever more deadly weaponry, the more likely this nightmare scenario will become.
The President has said for almost two years that he believes Bashar al-Assad's days in power are numbered. If that is the case, the question is not whether Assad will eventually use or lose control of his chemical weapons arsenal, but when and how.
The day that Assad finally falls, Syria may feature a U.S.-vetted and backed opposition, safe zones out of which American forces can operate as needed, and significantly weakened air power under Assad's control. Or, if we continue on the present course, the Syrian opposition will be further fragmented and radicalized, and we will have wasted the opportunity to degrade Assad's air defenses before it is too late.
Facing these options, the prudent course would be to utilize the options that have been debated in Washington for nearly two years: aiding the opposition, establishing safe zones from which a new Syria can emerge, and working to degrade Assad's air power before the United States and its allies may be forced to take direct action against his arsenal of chemical weapons.
For now, exaggerating Assad's air defenses to justify inaction will only serve to diminish our ability to shape the outcome of the conflict in Syria and will increase the likelihood that the war will end in the nightmare we all fear.