The situation in Syria seems to get worse by the day. Now the Assad regime is threatening to use chemical weapons against any foreign force intervening in Syria and is actually using fighter aircraft and helicopter gunships to bomb Syria’s second-largest city Aleppo. Bashar al-Assad is clearly growing desperate–his ground forces are not enough to suppress the uprising which has now spread to Damascus and Aleppo, and so he is having to resort to his air force to help.
This creates a fresh vulnerability. Early on in the conflict calls for a no-fly zone were rejected because this would have done little to impair Assad’s operations. Now, with the regime increasingly calling out the air force, a no-fly zone could make a difference tactically. It would also make a huge difference symbolically by showing that the world will not put up with the regime’s murderous misconduct and is prepared to act to stop it. That might well encourage more defections from the ranks of the Syrian armed forces.
And it could be done at scant risk to U.S. or other outside forces. Assad is bluffing when threatening to use chemical weapons–how will they stop an air campaign to destroy his air defenses and ground his aircraft? This would be a relatively low-cost way for the U.S. to call Assad’s bluff and help shorten his hold on power.
But to act, President Obama will have to break free of his obsession with obtaining UN Security Council approval, something that Russia and China will continue to block. Assad’s chemical weapons threats should make it easier to assemble a coalition of the willing, and one that should be able to obtain NATO and possibly even Arab League support for stronger action.