February 11th, 2012
02:32 PM ET

O'Hanlon: Three military options in Syria

Editor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon was in Afghanistan earlier this month and is the author of the new ebook, The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.Michael E. O'Hanlon

By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN

As the violence worsens in Syria, the United States and international community are in a dilemma. Even more serious than the recent veto by Russia and China of a U.N. Security Council resolution criticizing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, there are no great options for how to respond.

The various Syrian factions and populations are far too interspersed for a Libya-like operation to work. Al-Assad and his army are far too strong, still, for a simple and small peacekeeping mission to succeed. It would be opposed by the regime if it tried to enter the country. And if we invaded, the specter of an Iraq-style imbroglio would loom given Syria’s size and given the multitude of nefarious actors there.

That leaves three main types of possible military options. All are limited in scale and scope; therefore, all promise only mediocre results. I do not favor any just yet, and we should only consider them in the event of strong Arab League and NATO support and participation. But if the situation continues to worsen, we cannot look idly by, either.

1) A punitive naval or air operation to encourage a coup against al-Assad.

The idea here would be to hope that al-Assad’s cronies could be persuaded to depose him and then forge a power-sharing deal with the opposition as a precondition for ending sanctions and the associated punitive military campaign. The two most viable options would be a naval blockade to prevent Syria from exporting oil or importing a number of goods, and a limited air campaign to deprive the regime of assets that it values (like palaces).

2) A broader Balkans-like campaign.

Building on the above air war concept, and also on Fouad Ajami’s February 10 Wall Street Journal oped about the “Kosovo model” for Syria, air strikes could be broadened to include targeting the heavy Syrian army weapons being used to shell cities. This could be combined with the creation of a no-fly zone for Syrian military helicopters and other aircraft. In addition to this, we could arm the Syrian opposition, though this could be expected to increase rather than decrease violence in the short term relative to what is occurring today.

3) Creation of a safe zone for Syrian civilians, using airpower and some modest number of outside ground troops, perhaps in the north near Turkey.

This would be modeled on the protection we afforded Kurds in Iraq throughout the 1990s even with Saddam Hussein still in power. Alas, it would be harder in Syria. There is no natural geographic or demographic logic to any particular possible safe zone in Syria.

Populations are too interspersed, and the killing is happening largely in central cities where it would be impractical to create such zones in all likelihood. Creating it in the northeast would be more practical, but less helpful for the threatened populations of the country. This kind of mission would therefore have only a limited ability to protect innocents. But depending on how the situation unfolded, it could perhaps be combined with the above options to create the nucleus of a stronger resistance that could ultimately challenge al-Assad’s rule using the safe area as a staging base and sanctuary.

None of these ideas look decisive. All are risky. As such, they should only be considered if and when things get worse. But it may not be too early to raise the ideas in public - if for no other reason than to signal to the murderous Syrian regime that we do have options besides just hoping that al-Assad will fall of his own weight like a piece of rotten fruit. While I hope for the latter scenario, we are collectively far too sanguine about the likelihood that it will happen anytime soon on its own.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Michael O'Hanlon.

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Topics: Military • Syria

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soundoff (249 Responses)
  1. Alex Tartanbion

    To Usawaraddict
    Enough of this no-sense excuse, al-Qaeda has no ground on the Syrian sole, the two blasts in Damascus in December were produced by a very cheap movie maker of Assad regime, the proof, the camera men of the national TV were ready before the blasts took place, just to put sights on the al-Qaeda. The rebels in Syrian are from all religions and ethnics, it s a popular revolution against tyranny and injustice.

    February 12, 2012 at 10:51 am | Reply
  2. Pierre, France

    Who's most frightened by Russia or the losses of service men in our armies ? I think that Russia is willing to regain it's lost territories, even with a war with NATO. Syria is one exemple, next step will be Iran and then in Europe with Baltic countries, Estonia, Lettonia, Lituania, members of Nato and EU . The main goal for Putin is to put West at odds, playing hard chess and hoping for our dismissing, as Ussr did during cold war. I served in a nuclear regiment in France, and I've been told by the officers that we can't win a war without losses. We have forgot it since the first gulf war.

    February 12, 2012 at 11:33 am | Reply



    February 12, 2012 at 11:50 am | Reply
    • Tahir

      Yes we should start fuking all of them, we need fresh blood otherwise we will die of hunger.I don't why Obama don't like fresh blood in breakfast.

      February 13, 2012 at 9:39 am | Reply
  4. gary

    –I have option 4: DO NOTHING. the billions we will spend trying to spare a people we obviously don't care about (or we would have done something by now...I mean its only been going on for about close to a year now) and re-invest in the Crumbling education system in the United States, or the aging infrastructure. Here's a thought, take that money and pay off some of our debt to china. Balance the check book a bit. Or maybe (and i know my republicans out here may cringe a bit when i say tihs) put that money into some kind of welfare for the homeless...give us tax rebates. Anything but another war that will just leave us even more unpopular and broke. The USA has its own problems. We can't run around fixing everything for everyone. Here's an Idea...how bout the Canadians step up and handle it...I mean they are as advanced as we are...let them have a go at it.

    February 12, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Reply
    • Pierre, France

      Oh yeah and your problems have crumbled Europe ! Wake up, we are in a globalised world, when you get a cough in USA we get the flu in Europe. Your option is no more available. Try another one

      February 12, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Reply
  5. nori al maleki of iraq and bashar of syria are evil killers


    عودة المجرم الارهابي المدعو ( ابو علي البصري ) المستشار الامني لنوري المالكي


    بعد هروبه بطائره خاصه وبدون تاشيره الى خارج العراق بعد افتضاح عملية هروب الارهابيين من تنظيم القاعده المرتبطه باستخبارات الحرس الثوري وعددهم ( 12 ) ارهابي معتقلين في سجون القصور الرئاسيه في البصره حيث اشرف على عملية هروبهم الى ايران باشر المجرم ابو علي البصري في مهامه كمستشار امني لنوري المالكي بعد عودته السريه مع تكليفه بمهام جديده هي الاشراف على الخلايا الخاصه لحزب الدعوه وهي مليشيات مسلحه مقرها الرئيسي في محافظة بابل والجدير بالذكر ان ابو علي البصري تم تعينه مديرا للامن والمعلومات في مكتب المالكي بناءا على توصيه من قاسم سليماني كون المذكور عمل في جهاز السافاك سابقا وعمل فتره طويله في جهاز استخبارات الحرس وبعد تعينه كلف حصرا بالاشراف على عمليات التعذيب للسجناء من اهالي نينوى وديالى وضباط الجيش العراقي السابق والبعثيين المعتقلين في السجون السريه التابعه للمالكي وكان هذا المجرم يمارس التعذيب بحق السجناء حتى الموت وترمى جثثهم خارج حدود مجافظة بغداد .

    الخبر الثاني :


    المرافق الشخصي لابراهيم اشيقر الباكستاني وحقيبة ( Emergency bag )


    وردتنا معلومات من مصدر مقرب من مرافق ابراهيم اشيقر الملقب ( الجعفري ) مفادها ما يلي :

    سئل المصدر مرافق " الجعفري" عن سر حمل هذه الحقيبه عند مرافقته للجعفري في كل تنقلاته اجابه بما يلي :

    1- الحقيبه تحتوي على مبلغ قدره ( 200 ) الف دولار .

    2- اقلام ذهب .

    3- ساعات يدويه ثمينه .

    4- مستمسكات شخصيه خاصه بالجعفري ( منها عدة جوازات سفر ) .

    وتبين للمصدر من خلال الاستفسار من مرافق الجعفري ان حمل هذه الحقيبه تحسبا من وقوع امر طارئ وبدورنا نفسر هذا الامر الطاري ( تحسبا للشلعه السريعه )

    هؤلاء هم قادة العراق " الجديد " الحراميه ولا نستغرب ما يفكرون به لانهم اشباه رجال جعل منهم المحتل " رجال" .

    February 12, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Reply
  6. Deep blue ocean

    We have no choice;to fight a conventional war today or to fight a nuclear war tomorrow.
    The West must strike before it's too late.

    February 12, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Reply
    • Tahir

      Yes westerns should strike immediately, we are hungry for fresh blood. If we will not get fresh blood on time we may die of hunger.

      February 13, 2012 at 9:36 am | Reply
  7. justice766

    Hopefully this time the US will get it done right. They should build a strong cohesive syrian opposition before toppling the regime. it is a golden opportunity that won't come twice. Do not dismember the syrian army just improve their pay and get good people in high levels, smart people who would be the basis for a future democratic Syria and then tackle Iran who would be fatally isolated after the fall of the cowardly tyrant of Damascus.. That's what Obama should do. I bet Fouad Ajami would agree with this.

    February 12, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Reply
  8. Dusan

    I think it is ungrateful to judge situation based on news reports.Gouvernment of US and the west.e. made military intervention in Kosovo and helped to criple and old civilisation and create ilegitimate state on its land.It will create a problem for some century,but if Kosovo stayed Serbian from year 1000a.d. to 2000,it will be again in 2700 etc.
    Does ANYBODY here ask himself this question: if you shoot a police officer in US, or any european country,you can LEGITIMATELY get shot on the spot.
    But if Syrian police shoots back,they are criminals,and thugs are "rebels" making "a revolution" so they should be imune..I am sorry,I disagree...

    February 12, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Reply
  9. jorjitop

    Two points about Syria and the Russian veto.
    First, Assad is following the lesson that everyone says was learnt from the Arab spring events. That is that if one runs a dictatorship, you are more likely to lose power by easing up on the opposition than by squashing them. If you crush them, and ignore outside intervention, the unarmed populace cannot fight back. As soon as you give an inch, they will sense weakness and come back for more.
    Secondly, with regard to the Russian veto. You said yourself just how dependent the Russian economy is on a high price of oil. Hence, it is in Russia's interest to maintain high tension and potential conflict in the Middle East. They do not want negotiations with Iran, nor peace with Syria or Israel. The uncertainty keeps the price of oil up and the Russian economy growing.

    February 12, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
    • Tahir

      I think US must try and end this right of veto and so Russia and China will not be able to do veto. In this way world matters can be decided in a democratic way.The big democracies will have no problem in leaving this veto right, after all they love democracy and can even die for democracy.

      February 13, 2012 at 9:31 am | Reply
  10. Mister Peace

    The analyst failed to see one big problem – Syria has a land border with Israel meaning Syria can send ground troops into the Golan heights and forcibly drag Israel into the equation. How can the west ask Israel not to respond when Syrian troops are entering the Golan Heights?

    February 12, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Reply
  11. Mister Peace

    Unlike Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan etc. NONE of these countries are on Israel's doorstep. The difference is that Syria has a border with Israel and furthermore, Syria has two proxies who also border with Israel – Hamas and Hezbollah, meaning that any military action by NATO will have to protect Israel as well which Turkey and Saudi Arabia may not accept.

    February 12, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  12. Mister Peace

    When the USA attacked Iraq, Saddam Hussein fired scuds into Israel and NATO had to persuade Israel not to retaliate. This was possible because the civilian casualties caused by the scuds was minimal. However, Syria is close to Israel meaning it can fire a barrage of artillery on Israeli cities and it can also get Hamas and Hezbollah to fire missiles as well and the civilian casualties in Israel would simply be intolerable and Israel would have no choice due to public pressure but to attack Syria thus breaking up the NATO-Turkey-Arab League anti-Assad military coalition.

    February 12, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Reply
  13. Peikoviany

    What forces are battling the Syrian regime? How could they maintain power in a post-Baath Party era, how could they maintain power against al-Qaeda, how could they maintain power against the Ayatollahs funding Hezbollah to cross over from Lebanon, this all seems like another quagmire Americans do not need. The Russians have tens of billions of dollars at stake in the al-Assad govt, many industrial jobs that service those contracts as well as a Mediterranean port. Let the Russians fight and die on their own behalf. Just help good Syrians to get out of that mess and relocate to the civilized world.

    February 12, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  14. justice766

    the syrian army, shabiha and intelligence have served the regime as thugs for decades. This is not new. What is new is that they are turning against their own people this time. The good thing is that defectors numbers are on the rise so the longer this continues the more soldiers will defect and the tighter the noose gets around Bashar's neck. Now the arab league has made a decision to publicly support the opposition with money and weapons the tides will turn soon in a matter of months the opposition will have the upper hand and more senior officers will be looking at 2 options either defect or face the Hague tribunal. You may not even need Obama' snail pace reaction.

    February 12, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Reply
  15. Peikoviany

    Defections from the Syrian Army would be the only thing that makes a difference. Someone to be the game-changer. But would he consolidate power? Would he change anything about the way Syria does business with Russia or Iran? Most likely he'd be a more competent version of al-Assad, and the Baath Party would approve his new status the same way a meeting of important mob families can stop a turf war. The rackets will continue, but without so much internal fighting. It's bad for business.

    February 12, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Reply
  16. george

    The US should be helping Syria fight AlQaeda and other terrorist groups in the country.

    February 12, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  17. Peikoviany

    The US should be bankrupting our enemies, starting with those that are the greatest threat, which right now is Iran.

    February 12, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Reply
  18. george

    The greatest threat to the US is Israel which can steamroll the US into another middle east war.

    February 12, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Reply
    • Peikoviany

      If you're merely another Jew-crazed mo fo I'd rather see you take swastika up the chute than hear your opinion.

      February 12, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Reply
    • Peikoviany

      Three men of my family in uniform, one of them on Normandy Beach, all of them treated at some time by Jew doctors. You're talking to the wrong guy. In my view Israel represents in their region what the UK represented in Europe during WW2, an outpost of sanity in a war that would be raging with or without them. There are terrorists beheading people from Africa to the Philippines, and these terrorists would like us all to believe their side of the story. They have none.

      February 12, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Reply
    • Tahir

      The real threat to US is sick US mentality and nothing else.

      February 13, 2012 at 9:42 am | Reply
  19. justice766

    as long as you have a Shia president in this country Hussein Obama who claims to be christian and goes to "church" on sundays you can bet that the only country that would take on Iran is Israel. He should be impeached for writing letters to Iran. he is not doing what is in the best interest of the US. Congress should act and demand that Obama do something concrete about Iran. We've heard enough of "all options remain on the table" which means in his dictionary flurting with the Mullah's. So pathetic !!

    February 12, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Reply
    • Tahir

      i think Obama need a pure US adviser.I don't know who advises Obama. He should hire an adviser from Bush. American are hungry for some fresh blood.

      February 13, 2012 at 9:24 am | Reply
  20. Matt

    I would not advise it, on one can set foot inside the country now, the Jihadists will turn their weapons on the occupiers just like Iraq. So the military option is off the table, which it was never going to be used.

    al-Qaida has a supply of logistics, al-Qaida operatives can be placed among the FSA brigades to funnel money and weapons from the Arab world. As occurred during Iraq, part of the problem is the FSA does not have a established supply of logistics network no one knows who to send weapons and money to, the tribes from Iraq and al-Qaida already have that connection to arms and rich Arabs from the Gulf. It could take years to establish a logistics network, so it is logical that they will use an already established one.

    See all they have is their belief in God, defending yourself against a butcher with only the words Allahu Akbar tends to radicalize people. Being abandon by the world leaves them only with their faith to survive. So they become radicalized, in such a situation Arab money from donors and al-Qaida baring gifts will gain local support on the ground. It is logical that if only people come to help you, people willing to die for Islam is the Mujahedin then it does gain al-Qaida support.

    Assad released al-Qaida prisoners to turn against the west and why not put terrorist back on the streets to help justify it is al-Qaida. Unnamed officials blame al-Qaida for the car bombs with no evidence that helps give Assad cover to keep killing and Obama cover not to stop the killing. Al-Qaida are terrorists, Assad is a state sponsor of terrorism, so what is the difference.

    What al-Qaida lacked was manpower, increased donations, and localized support on the Arab street. Syria gives them all three, more fighters, increased revenue and support among the Arab street. Is that enough for them to turn on Assad depending how it goes yes.

    The rich Arabs in the gulf that fund al-Qaida and the Taliban want strict Wahhabism enforced not democracy.In the end the US will be giving intelligence to Assad because of al-Qaida involvement, but what cause the al-Qaida involvement inaction. WHAM is how you defeat terrorism and limit radical groups, al-Qaida was on it's death bed, but Syria will give it rebirth, how important will killing OBL be, history will be the judge. Instead of destroying it, the exact opposite will occur. It is all perceptions. The last 10 or so years may well prove to be a waste of time and al-Qaida could become stronger than before. A known unknown.

    Assad wanted this to scare the west, so he was the lesser of two evils, the west can be easily manipulated, but it is a Genie and when you rub the bottle you do not know what will happen once it is out of the bottle.

    February 13, 2012 at 12:40 am | Reply
  21. Muin

    #3 is absolutely necessary for humanitarian reason. It could be combined with #2 if majority of power players ever wants to free this people out of misery.

    February 13, 2012 at 3:23 am | Reply
  22. Awabnavi

    "I think US must try and end this right of veto and so Russia and China will not be able to do veto" - Very bad idea. If so how can the US use its 1001 vetoes in support of Israel. The CIA, Mossad and FBI will have you executed for suggesting such a terrible idea.

    February 13, 2012 at 10:06 am | Reply
  23. Tahir

    No matter which option to use. USA needs fresh blood in breakfast.I don't know why Obama don't like fresh blood in breakfast.He should take an adviser from Mr. Bush. Long live Mr Bush

    February 13, 2012 at 10:49 am | Reply
  24. Leader2050

    Syrian activist in the video said "Help us, we need help from any one, including Israel ! " . Please President Obama help these innocent people from evil Syrian dictator. I agree to the aerial bombardment to destroy the weapons the dictator Bashar al-Assad to stop the massacres. But I refuse to send ground troops.

    February 14, 2012 at 4:15 am | Reply

    yes 3 items we called the evil iran, evil syrian thugs bashar, and evil hizboallah with iraqi shiia killers. get red of them
    Thaier Souri
    لقد أثبتت روسيا أنها بلد محكوم بمجموعات مافيوية لا يعنيها من أمر البشر الا مقدار ما تجققه من مكاسب, و أثبتت أن لا منظومة أخلاقية تحكمها و ربما تحكم شعبها, و ربما كانت هذه خطوة أخرى حاسمة في انحسار الدور السوفييتي السابق الذي اضمحل الى حجم روسيا و لا ندري الى ماذا سيضمحل لاحقا, و كل ذلك بسبب غياب الركيزة الخلقية الداعمة للمواقف المعلنة أو الغير معلنة

    73 MOURAD
    روسيا و الصين تشعران بتواطؤ اوروبي امريكي يهدد مصالحهما الاقتصادية

    72 عفوا سوريا ومعذرة
    النظام السوري وما يرتكبه من مجازر بحق شرفاء سوريا الشام العظيم ما هو الا الفساد والبطش بعينه وما هو الا للحفاظ على مصالح فردية لفئة علوية طغت وتجبرت وتقمصت دور الممانعة والقومية العربية وهي تلك الفئةهي التخاذل والجبن متمثل على وجه الخصوص بشخص بشار الاسف وزبانيته. شلت يمينك يا من تطلق القذائف والقنابل على شعب حمص الاعزل ودرعا وريف دمشق ودير الزور فوالله رجالهم رجال ونساؤهم خير الحرائر . الله على ظالم جبان

    71 الفجر

    يا لها من مهزلة يا جماعة كل هذه الجرائم منذو ١١ شهرا انتهت بكلمة في الجمعية العامة بادانة .هدفهم جعل من سوريا صومالا اخر.على فكر هل اسرائيل ايضا نددت ام كانت مع...سعودية تصيغ القرارات ومصر توزعه وروسيا تعدل بالقرارات والمعارضة الخارجية مشغلون برئاسة المجلس الوطني والشعب يقتل على يد من لا احد يعرف

    70 ليث
    لافروف زود عميله بشار بالاسلحه وهو والصين يديرون عمليات قتل الشعب السوري وبشهود احد الضباظ المنشقين..روسيا اصبحت في الجانب المخزي من التاريخ ..ولافروف يتحجج يالقاعده وكانه القذافي ..لا ينقصه الا ان يصيح ..زنكه زنكه دار دار..بس يقوله بالروسي مافي مشكله المترجم موجود.

    69 عربي حر
    اعرفوا يا عرب ويا مسلمين ان نظام السوري ونظام الحاكم في ايران وحزب الله واسرائيل هي جميعا اوجه لعمله واحده افهموووووووووووووووووو

    68 سوري
    كم اكره اي انسان يقول سوريه الاسد يا اخي دوله كامله تربط بشسخص يوجد في سوريه امكانات رهيبه وسوريه لجميع الطوائف والاديان الذي يقول ذلك هو انسان لايعيش الا ياكل او امي حتى ولو كان متعلما

    February 16, 2012 at 11:03 am | Reply
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