The Syrian civil war is a land battle. Comparisons with Libya and talk of no-fly zones (NFZ) as some kind of low-risk game changer ignore this fact. As the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff noted recently, 90% of the casualties inflicted by the regime (and 100% of those killed by the opposition) have been from land-based weapons.
So unless the NFZ becomes close air support for the opposition, it will do little if anything to stop the killing. And when you have the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt calling for the imposition of a NFZ, you know very well that a US-imposed NFZ will be perceived by many in the region as further evidence that the US and Sunni Islamists are engaged in a war against the Shi'a community.
The Americans realise this. President Obama has done everything he can to resist accepting the poisoned chalice of Syrian intervention that many are thrusting upon him. His recent decision to provide 'enhanced' military assistance to the Syrian opposition was a long time coming, and when it did come the President made sure he was somewhere else. Of course the term 'weapons' was never used in Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes' announcement, but the background-briefed news organs such as the NY Times and Washington Post filled in the gaps from 'well placed sources'.
The most remarkable thing about the whole announcement, though, is that nowhere is there any rationale given as to why Washington is arming the rebels, which tells you that the Administration doesn't know or it simply wants to contain the conflict. The announcement talked of the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons, which have killed 100-150 people, and how this had changed the president's calculus.
But why is Washington arming the rebels? To allow them to defeat Syrian government forces? To entrench a military stalemate? To entice the opposition to support peace talks? The president spoke about the policy challenges in this recent interview, where he enunciated all of the difficulties he faces in addressing the Syrian issue. But he still didn't really say what the point of the weapons supply was meant to be.
As the President said, it's not as if the US contribution is going to tip the balance, particularly as there are already private donors aplenty. The issue, as it has always been, is how to ensure that the weapons don't end up in the wrong hands. Once the recipients cross the border they are free to sell or barter them, or they may get killed or lose them. One way or another the donors lose control over the weapons, so the concept of a vetting process is flawed from the start. There were already concerns about the vetting process prior to the White House announcement.
America's provision of lethal support to one side of the Syrian conflict has now made Washington a player. For better but more likely worse, it now owns part of a violent, sectarian civil war. I trust the Washington hawks know how this one ends, because their understanding of regional dynamics has been spectacularly flawed in the past.
Photo by Flickr user FreedomHouse.