Details about the Israeli air strike in Syria last week remain elusive, with various reports describing an attack on both a Syrian military research center on chemical and biological weapons and a convoy carrying SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah. It is quite possible, indeed likely, that both were targeted by the Israeli Air Force. Either way the Israelis are doing a good turn, not only for themselves but also for the U.S. and other regional allies by trying to limit the fall-out from the Syrian civil war. Would that we were doing as much.
The ease with which the Israeli Air Force penetrated Syrian air space–which replicates a similar Israeli bombing mission in 2007 to take out a Syrian nuclear reactor–shows that it would not be all that hard for the U.S., acting with NATO and Arab allies, to likewise intervene to establish a no-fly zone. The U.S. military has been opposed to such a mission, for understandable reasons, because it could bring about considerable complications and because resources are already being strained by budget cuts. But from a military standpoint there is little doubt that a no-fly zone could be established relatively quickly and easily–the Syrian air defenses, which have raised such alarms in Washington, are not all that formidable after all when attacked by a U.S.-equipped air force.
And the Israelis did not even bother to take out the missile-defense system; they probably used electronic warfare to jam the system for a period to allow their aircraft to get in and out. The U.S. and our allies, if we were to undertake a campaign in support of the rebels, would take out the entire air-defense network, as they previously took out similar networks in Iraq and Libya. That would make follow-on sorties as close to risk-free from the American standpoint as anything gets in the inherently risky and dangerous realm of warfare.
Yet, despite the military feasibility of such a project and the strategic imperative of ousting Assad to end his nation’s suffering and deal a blow to his Iranian backers, there is basically no chance that such an operation will take place. A no-fly zone would require American leadership and there is no sign of such leadership in the second Obama administration, which has lost the most forceful advocates for a strong American role in the world: Secretaries Gates and Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus. The Syrians are on their own, it seems, and the conflict shows no sign of burning out anytime soon.