Showing once again the difficulty of keeping any “covert action” truly secret, the news media have been full of stories in recent days about how the U.S. is providing assistance to arm and train the Syrian rebels.
The New York Times actually tracked the flow of aircraft delivering arms bought by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and channeled through Turkey and Jordan with American advice and assistance. The Wall Street Journal, in the meantime, reports that the American intelligence community is sharing information with the rebels, while the Associated Press writes of the CIA training effort going on in Jordan for secular rebels.
These are significant steps in the right direction–toward helping to overthrow Bashar Assad–even if they do raise questions about why the U.S. isn’t maximizing its influence by providing arms directly. There is, however, a large missing element: No one is providing aid to the rebels to stop Assad from bombing them. With the regime having lost control of much of northern Syria, its best bet to keep the rebels off balance and to prevent the establishment of an alternative government on Syrian soil is to use aircraft and missiles to spread indiscriminate terror in rebel-held areas. The rebels lack the capacity to down Syrian aircraft or to stop missile launchings.
In part this is because the U.S. has lobbied its allies not to provide portable anti-aircraft missiles such as the Stinger to the rebels for fear they could wind up falling into the wrong hands. This is a legitimate concern, but if we are not going to allow the rebels to defend themselves, this argues all the more for the U.S. and our allies to take action ourselves to stop the Syrian air force.
This would not be hard to do, the most direct and effective option simply being to create a no-fly zone across the entire country and shoot down any Syrian aircraft that take to the skies. This could be complimented with air strikes on missile launchers and would probably necessitate the suppression of Syrian air defenses. This could be done without significant risk to American and coalition aircraft–witness how easily Israeli aircraft have penetrated Syrian airspace to bomb a nuclear reactor or, more recently, a convoy apparently transporting weapons to Hezbollah.
A less robust approach–but still better than nothing–would be to use Patriot missile batteries in Turkey to enforce a more limited no-fly zone along Syria’s northern border. These batteries could not only stop Syrian aircraft but also Scud missiles. This was the option advocated in a letter sent last week to the administration by Senators Carl Levin and John McCain, who also urged President Obama ”to provide more robust assistance directly to vetted opposition groups.”
Such steps are long overdue. Otherwise, the killing will simply continue and Syria will sink deeper into chaos, with extremist groups gaining ever more sway and the conflict spreading ever farther afield.