Since the very start of armed resistance to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad there have been demands that US President Barack Obama declare and impose a no-fly zone over parts of Syria. Over the past several months these demands have increased exponentially, as the regime has established a deadly pattern of terror: when populated areas are lost, the reflexive response is to subject urban neighborhoods and towns to artillery, air, and even missile assaults.

There is no pretense of targeting military forces. The intent is to sow terror, produce mass casualties, and promote popular resentment toward the presence of rebel forces. The result is a humanitarian catastrophe that is expanding rapidly, killing and maiming thousands of noncombatants in homes, hospitals, shops, and bakeries, while sending thousands more into internal displacement and across borders as refugees. While Obama administration remains committed to a negotiated transition of political power in accordance with the June 2012 Geneva Agreement, the Assad regime calculates that the combination of terror unleashed by its own air, missile, and artillery forces and ground counterattacks by Iranian and Hezbollah units will keep it afloat long enough for its sectarian strategy to work: for the opposition to become completely dominated by jihadists and for the West to see Assad as the bulwark against al-Qaeda in the Levant.

At present the armed Syrian opposition has no reliable defense against regime terror tactics. Yes, a few fixed and rotary winged aircraft have been shot down. Yes, some regime airbases have been seized. Yet the regime has been largely free to pursue its tactics without regard to rebel military capabilities and without fear of outside military intervention. Indeed, Assad seems to have taken the measure of the West and concluded he has not much to worry about. The latest statement of NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen ruling out NATO military intervention in Syria will inevitably, if unintentionally, encourage the regime to do its worst. Regardless of what senior Western leaders may think about the merits (or lack thereof) of military intervention in Syria, taking into account the human costs of gratuitous public statements would be a positive service to the long-suffering people of Syria.

The political objective of the United States, its partners, and any civilized party with an interest in this matter is to stop the terror campaign. The deliberate targeting of civilians for murder and mayhem to produce political results is unacceptable and condemnable in all circumstances. Yes, this includes car bombings by antiregime jihadists lured to Syria by the regime’s blatant use of sectarianism. The United States need not apologize for its attitude toward people engaged in sectarian slaughter and terror, irrespective of which side they may take in the struggle for Syria. And yet the activity that is producing far and away the greatest human toll in Syria, one that will also produce at least four million refugees by year’s end according to the United Nations, is the air and ground bombardment of residential areas by the regime. If Assad physically survives that which he has unleashed, he will spend the rest of his days either fleeing accountability or paying the price for his crimes. The excuse he once offered Barbara Walters—by suggesting in his interview that that the President of the Republic could not possibly know everything that is going on—will not suffice.

Hypothetically, the terror campaign can stop without outside intervention. This could be done without destroying on the ground everything the regime owns that flies militarily, without eliminating Syria’s multilayered air defense system in order to enforce a conventional no-fly zone, without providing selected Free Syrian Army units (through the Supreme Military Council) with Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS). Assad can direct that the terror campaign stop. Yet he is not likely to do so, due perhaps to some combination of his belief in the campaign’s efficacy and his reluctance to appear weak in the eyes of others who see the human cost as the justifiable price of political survival. US Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken, albeit in the context of transition negotiations, of changing Assad’s calculation. Can Assad’s calculation be changed diplomatically with regard to the terrorizing of Syrian civilians? Perhaps not; indeed, probably not. Should an attempt be made nonetheless? Yes, provided there is no bluff.

President Obama has already indicated that regime use of chemical weapons would cross a red line; it would be a game changer. He has been criticized for this formulation on the grounds that it implicitly permits everything up to but not including the use of chemical munitions. What has not been universally acknowledged, however, is that the president crossed a Rubicon of sorts by even suggesting there are circumstances that would justify the use of armed force in Syria, something previously regarded by the Obama administration as sufficiently unthinkable as to rule out even the arming of carefully vetted opposition units. Although the administration has judiciously refrained from defining the consequences of crossing the chemical red line, it is unthinkable that such a warning would be issued absent an accompanying decision to employ deadly force were the Assad regime to defy President Obama.

Having already crossed the deadly force Rubicon (irrespective of the specific trigger), the president can consider conveying a quiet message to Assad; either you stop the artillery, aerial, and missile bombardment of populated areas or we will stop it. Obviously such a message would have to be preceded by intense diplomatic consultations with allies, partners, and others (especially Russia). This would not be Pearl Harbor in the Levant. While the specific ways in which US power would be employed would certainly not be advertised, there should be no aim for strategic surprise per se. Again, the political objective is to stop the terror campaign. If the Assad regime opts to stop voluntarily, fine. If (as is likely) it persists, there are several options available to the United States. As long as the warning message is not a bluff, there is no downside to giving the regime an opportunity to end its program of state terrorism.

In a recent essay on the topic (“Syria: the Search for the Least Bad Option”), Anthony Cordesman noted quite aptly that the United States is confronted “with having to choose between ‘bad options’ in finding better alternatives” to its current policy, because “The only thing that is now predictable is that the longer Assad lasts, the worse things are likely to get in every possible dimension. Every current element of the present conflict is having a steadily more crippling effect and is more polarizing both within Syria and the region around it.” Cordesman’s considered view is that arming opposition elements with MANPADS, antitank, and counterbattery weaponry is the best of the least bad options available to the Obama administration. Various opposition figures have also endorsed this approach, arguing that antiregime forces inside Syria should be given the tools to beat the regime without having to rely on the intervention of external air (manned and/or unmanned) forces.

The fact that the step Cordesman recommends could have most usefully been taken in the summer of 2012 need not deter the administration from making up for lost time. Indeed, time is of the essence. Putting aside profound and relevant concerns about end use and potential proliferation—concerns mitigated by thorough vetting that surely has taken place—the operational question is whether opposition elements can (in the case of MANPADS in particular) be armed and trained quickly enough to make a significant difference before the regime succeeds in running up the body count and provoking an even greater stampede for the borders. This is less an argument against arming the opposition than it is a case for serious consideration of near-term direct US assaults on regime military air assets, including Scud missiles. Quite aside from the fact that such assaults would put to rest the various bizarre, but widely believed conspiracy theories centering on some kind of US-Israel-Assad secret handshake, they would save many lives and slow down, if not stop, the tsunami wave of refugee flight toward Syria’s borders.

Destroying regime military air assets on the ground is no silver bullet to end Syria’s travails, much less guarantee opposition victory. Indeed, the responsibility for putting an end to a regime that is destroying the country while blackmailing its neighbors rests entirely with Syrians. A decisive, life saving intervention by the United States would not enjoy the benefit of an authorizing UN Security Council resolution; if the Russian president has any objection to the ongoing slaughter of innocents he has hidden it well. Ideally there would exist on liberated Syrian territory a government recognized by the United States and others: a government capable of officially requesting defensive assistance against a well-armed and ruthless militia (augmented with foreign fighters) doing the bidding of a family business. There is nothing ideal or even good about this problem from hell. Yet to wait patiently for something good to turn up while the Assad regime burns Syria and imperils the neighborhood is hardly the epitome of caution. Indeed, holding Syria at arm’s-length makes other options including the destruction of regime air and missile assets seem cautious and risk averse by comparison.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the former special advisor for transition in Syria at the US Department of State. 

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