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By Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, CSIS

24 Apr 13. Syria has become the land of bad options. The Obama administration has reason to hesitate in intervening, particularly when outsiders call for unilateral U.S. miracles. Low levels of initial violence can easily escalate into far more serious conflict. No one can predict who will gain power if Assad falls, and the same U.S. and foreign critics that call for U.S. action today have shown they can be even more forceful critics if the United States acts without instant success.

The problems and challenges in Syria cannot be overstated. The rebels have learned key lessons after two years of fighting, but so have the regime’s forces. The Assad regime seems ready to escalate in any way it can to either preserve power or effectively divide the country. Meanwhile, there is only the façade of rebel government; Syrian rebel forces are deeply divided and have extremist elements as bad as the Assad regime. Taken together, each passing day deepens Syria’s ethnic and sectarian struggle, brings in more extremists from the outside, produces more civilian casualties, and further damages a crippled economy.

At the international level, Russia and China will not support effective UN action. Iran and Hezbollah are turning the Syrian civil war into a sectarian struggle that affects the entire region, directly involving Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Meanwhile, the Gulf states that support opposition forces, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, continue to struggle with their own local and regional pressures. They also have deal with the fact that quick and favorable outcomes in Syria were always a case of hope in the face of reality.

At the same time, external inaction or near-inaction offer no real hope of making things better. The last year has shown that things can and do get steadily worse. Near-inaction is not bringing stability to Syria or the region. It is not bringing order to the rebel factions, or reducing the risk of a Sunni extremist regime replacing Assad, or taking shape alongside it. Near-inaction is not reducing Iranian influence or the steady spillover of the war into other countries. Calls for negotiating some compromise between Assad and his opponents have degenerated into farce. Moreover, U.S. near-inaction is reinforcing all of the fears of allies, and hopes of our enemies, that the United States is now a far weaker power.

However, the United States should not rush in where pragmatists fear to tread. The United States faces the grim reality that simply reacting to events like Assad’s possible use of chemical weapons is not a measured or decisive response. Any U.S. forces that tried to deal with the chemical weapons in Syria through ground raids would present the problem of getting them in, having them fight their way to an objective, taking the time to destroy chemical stocks, and then safely leaving. This may be a template for a possible plot for “The Expendables 3” but it is a truly bad real-world military operation. Major air strikes on chemical facilities might work if the United States accepted the risk of destroying and burning the facilities, but it would be a major act of war without a decisive impact on the trajectory of Syria’s civil war. Moreover, both options would fail if Assad has already distributed chemical weapons to his most trusted forces.

Creating limited protection zones for what are now millions of potential refugees would commit the United States to unstable half-measures—and the open-ended use of force to defend them—with the risks of either a continuing civil war or an unplanned process of escalation without allied commitments or support and the reality that the people in such zones would need massive amounts of emergency relief. As Libya showed, “no fly” zones are not enough to end a civil war or halt ground movements and escalation in the use of artillery, missiles, and carefull

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