If these were coupled with providing special forces teams-which would not have to be U.S.-to help ensure such weapons stayed with the "better" opposition fighters, it would reduce the risk they would fall into extremist hands. However, this additional precaution would scarcely eliminate the risk, and the United States might well have to live with the fact that these weapons could someday be used against the United States or its allies.
At the same time, this has been a key option from the start, and since no progress seems to have been made in making the flow of such weapons easier to control, it risks the possibility they will fall into the wrong hands. Yet, the United States already has to live with the risk that massive numbers of such weapons already held by Syrian forces supporting Assad will fall into extremist hands once Assad falls.
The real issue is the incremental risk in the bad option of using such systems to help the "better" elements of the opposition win versus having the "bad" elements of the opposition take over without such support. It is not clear that the Obama administration has really thought this balance of risks out. It effectively means that the United States may be less damned if it does than if it doesn't.
Using Surface-to-Air Missiles to Create Sanctuaries in the Border Area
A second option is to work with Turkey and Jordan to provide some form of limited sanctuary using long-range surface-to-air missiles like the Patriot and ask Israel to extend such coverage from the Golan. One needs to be careful about acting on this option. It is not clear that it will do more than create uncertain sanctuaries and refugee centers near the borders of Turkey, Jordan, and Israel while triggering a major Iranian, Iraqi, and Hezbollah effort to support Assad. It could also create zones that become sectarian and ethnic or favor different opposition factions.
The Patriot has a maximum range of 160 kilometers at altitude and would have to be deployed in the rear away from the border. The Hawks with Jordanian forces have a maximum range of 25 kilometers. Their low altitude coverage against helicopters is much shorter and very limited where pop-up and ground-hugging tactics can be used. Moreover, even the PAC-3 Patriot has relatively limited antimissile defense coverage of around 20 kilometers from the launch unit. The end result could be pro-Assad forces using missiles and rockets as terror weapons against any such "sanctuaries."
It also could create far stronger incentives for the pro-Assad forces to use chemical weapons, unless the United States went from talking about vague "red lines" to a clear statement that it would in response use U.S airpower and cruise missiles to destroy Syrian chemical weapons stocks and the key facilities of Syrian military forces and regime power.
This may prove to be a necessary form of escalation. Even if the United States does not choose any new option now, it may have to take such military action later as the opposition closes in on Assad. It is not clear that Assad has the slightest willingness to "go gentle into that good night" if he as any option to escalate. However, it is also an option with an outcome that is extremely difficult to predict, and destroying chemical weapons stocks may well mean civilian casualties.
Using U.S. Cruise Missiles and Airpower in a No-Fly Zone
There is something to be said for a no-fly zone as long as the United States has access to Turkish and Jordanian bases, is willing to commit all the air power necessary to deal with the remnants of Syrian air and ground-based air defense, has allied support as political cover, and is willing to ignore opposition from countries like Iran and Russia and the lack of any UN mandate. And, if a "no-fly" zone is a support to the opposition.
This option would be easier to recommend in the "least bad" ranking if it was clear that the Syrian air force and Syrian ground-based surface-to-air missile (SAM) forces had lost enough combat power to be unwilling to challenge U.S. and allied air forces. This is a matter for intelligence assessments and cannot be made from the unclassified indicators, although it seems likely that Syria no longer has anything like its pre-uprising 365 combat aircraft, (including some 80 to 90 modern air defense fighters) and ability to deploy major SAM forces (including some 150 SAM batteries of SA-2s, SA-3s, SA-5s, and SA-6s). It is not easy to recommend as long as Syria remains is a far more capable power than Libya and without clear knowledge that the United States would have Turkish and Jordanian/Saudi support and allied political cover.
It also might not be enough to make a quick difference if it was a real no-fly zone, rather than one of the type implemented in Libya, in that the United States and its allies would attack any fighters or helicopters that became active, as well as their bases, and effectively prevent Assad's ground forces from deploying armor and major forces. This could require major amounts of U.S. air power if Assad's forces put up significant resistance and comes at a time the United States has other areas like the Gulf and North Korea to deal with and already faces major budget constraints.
It is possible that the very announcement of a no-fly zone or limited initial activity could cause the collapse of Assad's forces, but it is probably equally likely that Assad would escalate to make greater use of artillery, make selective use of air and SAM power to threaten the enforcement of a no-fly zone, and seek outside help. Not an option to reject, but one that requires threat and cost-benefit assessments based on the best intelligence available.
Using U.S. Cruise Missiles and Airpower in a Major Act of War
A final military option is to take this risk deliberately and use U.S. cruise missiles and airpower now to destroy the key facilities of the Syrian military forces and the regime's power directly, using whatever new abuse Assad inflicts on the Syrian people as the rationale. This option probably requires access to Turkish and Jordanian air bases. U.S. carrier forces would not have the numbers to be quickly decisive, and cruise missiles have limits. Any U.S. use of Israel for such actions would be so provocative in terms of Arab reactions as to be self-defeating and threaten Israel's future security.
Any such U.S. activity would also be a major act of war, with only a limited defensive rationale in terms of international law, and one the United Nations seems certain to reject. It would mean some level of confrontation with nations like Iran and Russia and more problems with Iraq and Lebanon. The politics of beginning such action would also commit the United States to the point where it would virtually have to press on to success once it started and fails to offer the United States any clear control over which element of the armed opposition actually takes control. Although, once again, the United States may have to take such action later if Assad escalates to chemical weapons or some other new attack on the population as the opposition closes in.
Preparing for the Grim Reality of the "Arab Decade" and Broader Clash within Islam
The option of transferring advanced man-portable surface-to-air missiles and anti-armor guided weapons seems to be the best of these "least bad" options, although no one should downplay the risks and the uncertainties surrounding such actions. The use of missiles based outside Syria to create "sanctuaries" seems far more uncertain. Any major use of air and missile power presents significant risks, although setting clear "red lines" would lay the groundwork for such an option if it becomes necessary-particularly if the United States can get cooperation in setting such red lines from Turkey and Arab states. It could also deter Assad from escalating the conflict.
The United States also needs to prepare for the reality that Syria is simply one more example of the fact that the "Arab spring" is in actuality either the "Arab decade" or the "Arab quarter century." Much of the Middle East and North Africa may muddle through the mix of political, economic, factional, demographic, and religious pressures that now threaten the stability of every regional state. However, it seems likely that at least one Middle Eastern state will be in the process of major political upheavals and often internal violence throughout this period. Moreover, Syria now symbolizes the growing level of violence in the broader struggle for the future of Islam that has become an all too real "clash within a civilization."
If Iraq and Afghanistan were not enough, Syria is yet another warning that it is a fantasy to assume that the fall of an authoritarian rule that involves massive economic and political inequalities in nations with deep ethnic, sectarian, and tribal divisions will somehow lead to stable democratic rule and economic development. Factions that fight their way to power violently and with a conspiratorial background with no practical experience in politics, no real unity, and no experience in governance and economics can at best be influenced by patient diplomatic efforts at nation building. Many will turn politics into a blood sport for at least several years after an authoritarian regime falls. These movements are scarcely the reformers that can bring the "end of history," and the United States will face a world of "least bad" options that will exist long after Assad finally falls.