Despite a lack of conclusive evidence, the U.S. intelligence assessments that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale intensified pressure Thursday on President Barack Obama to give more help to rebels fighting President Bashar Assad.
But he confronts no easy choices and all are fraught with risk, experts said.
“This is a case where there is nothing but bad options,” said Anthony Cordesman, an expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
One overriding consideration: Anything the United States does to weaken the Assad regime could aid Islamist groups that have emerged as the most effective fighting forces of the divided and poorly organized Syrian opposition. Those groups include Jabat al Nusra, or the Nusra Front, a branch of al Qaida in Iraq, that has been joined by foreign jihadists and seeks to impose Taliban-style Islamic rule on Syria.
Moreover, Americans are weary of foreign entanglements after the more than eight-year U.S. occupation of Iraq and the 12-year war in Afghanistan, the longest in the country’s history. Even among the most ardent proponents of greater U.S. help for the Syrian opposition, there is no support for sending in U.S. troops.
Still, Democrats joined Republicans on Capitol Hill in decrying the inconclusive U.S. intelligence assessments of small-scale chemical weapons use by the regime as evidence that Assad has crossed a “red line.” Many urged Obama to act, but few spelled out specific steps.
“It’s time that he (Obama) come forward with a plan that will help stem the violence and demonstrate to Assad that his barbaric actions will have consequences,” said Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
As the slaughter in Syria has intensified, the Obama administration and European and Arab powers have stepped up efforts to bolster the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, an amalgam of moderate groups divided by ideology and personal rivalries.
Secretary of State John Kerry, attending a conference in Turkey of the coalition and its 11 main foreign supporters, announced Sunday a doubling of non-lethal U.S. assistance to the group to $123 million. Some of that assistance reportedly will be supplies of night-vision equipment, armored vehicles, body armor and radios to the group’s military wing.
The NATO alliance also has deployed missile-defense batteries in neighboring Turkey to dissuade Assad from attacking Syrian rebel bases and refugee camps there.
Obama, however, has rejected calls for the United States to join Saudi Arabia and Qatar in sending arms to the Syrian rebels because of concerns that they could end up in the hands of the Nusra Front and other Islamists who could use them against Israel, the U.S.-backed government of neighboring Jordan or U.S. targets.
U.S. officials also are concerned that sending in more weapons could just intensify the bloodletting between the regime controlled by Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and the opposition dominated by Syria’s majority Sunni Muslims.
The administration has said that the United States is closely monitoring Syria’s chemical weapons stocks, which are said to include the deadly nerve agents sarin, VX, as well as mustard gas. There also are undisclosed contingency plans for preventing those stocks from falling into the hands of Islamist groups, the administration has said.
Cordesman, however, warned that sending U.S. special forces into Syria to destroy the regime’s chemical weapons stocks before they could be stolen or used in major attacks is too risky and would likely end in disaster. “It’s a great movie, but that’s where it ends,” he said.
U.S. airstrikes could destroy the stocks – if they haven’t been dispersed to hidden locations – but they wouldn’t end the country’s bloody civil war, which the United Nations estimates already has claimed at least 90,000 lives, forced more than 950,000 Syrians to flee the country and left millions living in devastated cities and towns, Cordesman added.
The White House disclosure of the U.S. intelligence assessments brought renewed calls from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others for the administration to steer arms supplies to moderate opposition groups.
Arms intended for moderate forces, however, already have ended up in the hands of Islamist fighters.
McCain and others also have advocated the establishment over rebel-controlled areas along the border with Turkey of a no-fly zone in which opposition groups could forge a government-in-exile, conduct military training and establish bases.
Obama, however, rejected that option long ago because Russia and China would veto any U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing such a zone.
Moreover, the United States and its allies would have to conduct a lengthy, intense and risky air campaign to knock out Syria’s extensive air defense system.
Randa Slim, an expert with the Middle East Institute, said that Obama will have to take some kind of action or risk large-scale regime chemical attacks on opposition enclaves that Assad’s forces appear to be carving out around Damascus, the city of Homs and the border with Lebanon.
If it is eventually confirmed that Assad’s forces did stage small-scale chemical strikes, she explained, they wouldn’t have been for military purposes but intended to test “Obama’s resolve” to enforce warnings to Assad that the United States would act if Assad used chemical weapons.
If Obama doesn’t “do something now,” she said, “we will see Assad upping the ante and using CW (chemical warfare) on a larger scale.”
One option, she said, could be U.S. airstrikes on the barracks of the regime forces that used the chemical weapons.
But she agreed that Obama’s choices are “between bad and worse.”