It wasn't his first choice, but he'll have to take it. President Obama is looking at the possibility of setting up a no-fly zone in Syria, according to The Daily Beast's very well sourced Josh Rogin. What now?
No decisions have been made — this could be the most difficult foreign policy decision of Obama's presidency — but it's been looking more and more like an international military response may be necessary to bring transition to more than two years of civil war. And now Rogin reports that Obama asked the Pentagon to draw up plans for a potential no-fly zone over Syria last week, just before John Kerry went on a tour of the Middle East. The plan would be enforced by the U.S. along with nations like France and the U.K., leaders from which have encouraged the institution of a no-fly zone, which the U.S. last instituted in full force in Libya. Of course, none of this complex backup-plan formulation means the White House is giving up on a potential peaceful solution. "The White House is still in contemplation mode but the planning is moving forward and it’s more advanced than it’s ever been," an administration source told Rogin.
Indeed, the military option is far from the only one. There's the peace conference in Geneva next month, and both the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime have agreed to send representatives. Rebel leaders want the end of the Assad regime as a precondition for their attendance, though, which is unlikely to happen.
President Obama has been hesitant about entering the Syrian conflict for a while. The Pentagon drew up designs for a no-fly zone, in April but military officials never showed them to the president because of his staunch position against getting involved. Even after evidence of chemical weapons use appeared, and the White House said they have proof chemical weapons were used, Obama still decided not to enter the fray. The President's (off the cuff) remark about chemical weapons being a "red line" for engagement didn't result in action, and the White House has treaded carefully.
It appears Obama didn't want to resort to a no-fly zone because of the lessons he learned in Libya, as The New Yorker's Dexter Filkins explained in a length report earlier this month:
With Qaddafi’s forces closing in on Benghazi, Obama asked his military advisers whether a no-fly zone would protect the Libyan people. When they told him it would not—Qaddafi’s Army was likely to kill more people than his Air Force would—Obama instead asked the United Nations to authorize air strikes against Libyan ground forces, a much more ambitious step than Sarkozy and Cameron had proposed. “The President said that the no-fly zone was basically an empty gesture,” one of his aides told me. “So he decided to go much farther.”
But now that we're in this new reality of the Syrian conflict, where chemical weapons are almost assuredly being used by the Assad regime, and John McCain is sneaking into the country to speak with rebel leaders, Obama may be ready for new action. There would be bombs, Filkins reported, and missile strikes as well as anti-aircraft missiles, and Obama has told aides that setting up the no-fly zone "would require a much larger military operation than its proponents believe." Speaking at a House Armed Services Committee hearing in April, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said the U.S. would be ready to act if it ever came to that point. "If asked to do something, we absolutely have the capability," Dempsey said. "We're prepared with options, should military force be called upon and assuming it can be effectively used to secure our interests without making matters worse," he said. "We must also be ready for options for an uncertain and dangerous future. That is a future we have not yet identified."
Now, it appears, is the time for identification. But Tuesday's word of Pentagon plans won't come without concerns about those other big lessons learned in war of late. As David Bromwich writes in the new issue of The New York Review of Books:
Our rehearsals of our own good intentions, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya, and now in Syria, have swollen to the shape of a rationalized addiction. What then should the US do? Nothing, until we can do something good.