To get a sense of how rapidly beltway opinion on Syria is shifting, look no further than the debate over a no-fly zone in the country. Back in March, the idea of creating a no-fly zone, which requires the bombing of Syrian air defenses and an international fleet of fighter jets, was considered highly risky. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey rattled off the reasons why:
[Dempsey] pointed out that Syria’s air defenses were five times more sophisticated as those in Libya, making airstrikes riskier and more complicated. Panetta, for his part, said that the systems had been set up in heavily populated areas, which meant that American strikes could cause “severe collateral damage.” ... In addition to the size and sophistication of Syria’s air defenses, they pointed out that Syria has a large military; the active assistance of Iran, which is shipping antitank missiles and other armaments into the country; and a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons a hundred times larger than that in Libya ... The secretary and the chairman stressed again and again that using the American military to push Assad from power would be far more challenging than similar humanitarian interventions into Libya and Bosnia.
In other words, it would be really, really risky. But while that view held sway for a number of months, the tide has shifted to a point where elite policymakers are openly embracing a no-fly zone and urging the Obama administration to start supplying rebels with heavy weaponry. This morning, two articles, a report in Reuters by Tabassum Zakaria and an opinion piece by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times, spotlighted the growing camp of mainstream interventionists advocating a no-fly zone or other military support:
- William Perry, Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, told The Times' Kristof, "if he were in the Pentagon today, he would be recommending a military intervention in Syria — conditioned on Turkey’s participation and without ground forces. Specifically, per Kristof, he said "he would favor imposing a no-fly no-drive zone in northern Syria." Perry himself said, "This isn’t a full strategy, but it could facilitate the overthrow of Assad and have a real humanitarian benefit."
- Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, is speaking rather bluntly on the subject. "I'm for intervention," she said. "We do have to get more involved in this.”
- Anne Marie Slaughter, the Obama administration's former Director of Policy and Planning at state, says the U.S. should provide "provide antitank and antiaircraft weapons and perhaps air cover to commanders who protect civilians and eschew sectarian or revenge killings."
- John Brennan, Obama's senior counter-terrorism adviser, fed speculation of a no-fly zone when he told Reuters' Zakaria the plan is on the table. Brennan "did not rule out on Wednesday the eventual creation of a no-fly zone over a patch of Syria.” He added "These are things that the United States government has been looking at very carefully, trying to understand the implications, trying to understand the advantages and the disadvantages.” The words of caution previously emphasized about a no-fly zone were nowhere to be seen.
Nick Kristof, The Times international affairs correspondent, collected the statements from Slaughter, Albright and Perry to push hard for intervention. "Look, I’m no hawk," he said in today's column. "But Syria, like Libya, is a rare case where we can take modest steps that stand a good chance of accelerating the fall of a dictator. And after 17 months, there’s growing agreement that Obama should no longer remain a bystander."
The club of interventionists are increasingly sounding like Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham who've been calling for more military support for months. It's not clear if the Obama administration would wait until after the elections to establish a no-fly zone, but it is apparent that an elite consensus is beginning to back an intervention. As Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell tweets " Liberal interventionists largely [on] the fence up to now."