The Obama administration’s tepid and ambivalent response to the Syrian revolution was under the microscope at a panel discussion of a potential no fly zone in Syria at the United States Institute of Peace on Wednesday morning.
The Obama administration is making a false comparison between the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, said Ambassador Frederic Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, who formerly worked in the State Department on Syria. As a result of that false comparison, it is very hesitant to get involved in Syria.
"Let’s consider what’s going on right now. Let’s consider what’s staring us in the face," Hof said. "A country being utterly laid waste by a family regime well known for its corruption, its incompetence, and its brutality, fully supported by Iran and Hezbollah, fully enabled by Russia."
Over 70,000 people have died in the Syrian war thus far and over a million refugees have flooded the neighboring countries, including Turkey and Iraq.
The Obama administration does not have the same commitment to a particular outcome as Iran and its allies have, Hof said.
"The administration is not at present committed to a rebel military victory. Iran, Hezbollah, and arguably Russia are committed to a regime victory," he said.
"We need to ask ourselves, I think, whether a victory in Syria by those three is acceptable to us, or whether it would have destabilizing consequences far transcending Syria," Hof said, noting that it is still conceivable for the Assad regime to win outright or retake large portions of the country.
Many have called on the Obama administration to get more involved in Syria, with Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) among the administration’s most outspoken critics on this issue. Pressure on the administration has intensified over the past month as numerous countries have found that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons—a "red line" for American action in the conflict, President Barack Obama has claimed.
While Hof criticized the Obama administration’s false comparison between the Iraqi and Syrian wars, the other panelists, discussing the mechanics of a no fly zone’s implementation, drew positive comparisons between the two wars.
Retired Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula discussed the lessons he learned while leading operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He participated in Operation Northern Watch in northern Iraq from 1998 to 1999, which set up a no fly zone north of the 36th parallel.
A no fly zone would require significant planning and asset deployment, Deptula said. It involves far more than just flying fighter planes over a country: refueling aircraft, deployment bases, clear rules of engagement, negotiations with the region’s neighbors, and a clear mission goal.
While the United States could incorporate lessons learned from Iraq, there are also significant differences between the two conflicts. Syria’s air force and air defenses are intact, hostilities are ongoing without American intervention, and Syria has allies.
The Assad regime has a significant number of air force and air defense assets placed around the country, although many of these are placed in the south to guard against an attack from Israel, while the rebels’ stronghold is in the north, said Joseph Holliday, a fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. The Assad regime still controls many of these bases and assets
However, rebels have cut off many of the Assad regime’s resupply routes, which means it is getting much of its supplies through flights from Iran, Holliday said.
Holliday also emphasized the additional complications that would come from striking targets on the ground. Unlike in Libya, which had a much simpler battlefield, Syria’s terrain is far more complex, and the likelihood of civilian casualties is far higher.
Civilian casualties have already been high. The Assad regime has bombed bakeries and hospitals in order to prevent the opposition from effectively governing the areas it controls and prevent it from becoming a viable alternative government, Holliday said.
If the United States and its allies do decide to institute a no fly zone over all or part of Syria, they will likely have either no international authorization or a very contentious one, Hof said. Russian and Chinese obstruction on the United Nations Security Council would prevent that body from authorizing a military intervention.
The lack of international sanctioning would require deliberate action from Obama.
"What would be required would be a decision by the president in consultation with the Congress to go to war," Hof said.
"There is no point, in my view, in sugarcoating what is involved here," he said.