Israel’s massive strike on military targets near Damascus early Sunday morning paired with its earlier strike on surface-to-surface missiles at the airport on Friday that were presumably destined for transfer to Hizballah has reopened a furious debate in Washington over U.S. intervention in Syria. Proponents of intervention, such as Senator John McCain, are pointing to the seeming ease with which Israel has been able to hit Syrian targets as an argument that the U.S. should be intervening in Syria and at minimum setting up a no-fly zone. The logic employed is that if Israel can use American-made weapons to penetrate Syrian air defenses seemingly at will, it shows the ineptitude of Syrian air defenses and eliminates the argument that setting up a no-fly zone will be dangerous or stretch U.S. capabilities. I am certainly no expert on the relative efficacy of Syrian military capabilities so I will not deign to wade into the argument over whether or not the Syrian army would present a legitimate military threat to setting up a no-fly zone, although I am as confident as I can be that any Syrian air defenses, no matter how robust, aren’t anything that the U.S. military can’t handle. We are talking about the most formidable fighting force with the best technology in the history of mankind, and as Steven Cook has pointed out, the difference in U.S. military resources vs. Syrian military resources is laughable, so I don’t think anyone serious is making an argument about U.S. military capabilities in warning against setting up a no-fly zone. Rather, the opposition to a no-fly zone that centers on the dangers of maintaining one is concerned with the costs of doing so and not arguing that setting one up is an impossibility. In this vein, I’d like to make a few points on why what Israel has just done over the past few days holds very few lessons for a hypothetical U.S. intervention in the form of a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace.
First, the types of strikes are different. Israel has now conducted three one-off strikes in Syria since the conflict between Assad and the rebels began, and each has been an independent operation aimed at keeping what Israel terms “game changing” conventional weaponry out of Hizballah’s hands. A no-fly zone, in contrast, would consist of constant daily sorties along a predictable schedule and route. Dan Trombly this morning has done a much better job than I could ever hope to do of laying out exactly what a sustained no-fly zone would entail so rather than attempting to get into the specifics of it, just go and read his post instead. That is not to say that the U.S. cannot do so; we maintained a no-fly zone over Iraq for more than a decade. My point is that holding up three Israeli strikes, one of which happened in January and two of which happened two days apart last week, as definitive proof that a Syrian no-fly zone would present absolutely no logistical quandaries seems premature to me.
Furthermore, it is unclear whether Israel even penetrated Syrian airspace. The strike on the airport on Friday apparently took place from Lebanese territory with guided missiles that can skim along the ground for miles after being fired before reaching their intended to target, so the question of whether Syrian air defenses presented a challenge or not is moot. As of this writing, I have not seen any definitive statement as to whether the much larger strike in the wee hours of Sunday morning also came from Lebanese airspace or not. Even if it did not, I would surmise that it took the Syrian regime by surprise given that Israel has not been conducting constant strikes in Syria by any means and that Israel had already struck targets two days before. In any event, assuming that Israeli planes flew over Syria for the second strike, a solitary sortie again does not provide the evidence needed to draw any firm conclusions about Syrian air defenses against a long-term no-fly zone.
Third, even if Israel did launch the second strike from Syria itself, keep in mind that Syria has a long history of not responding to Israeli incursions while not extending the same courtesy to other countries. Israel flew eight planes in and out of Syria to destroy its nuclear reactor and extract its commandos on the ground in September 2007 without a shot being fired. Israel also conducted a strike in Syria through Syrian airspace in January, as noted above, and possibly again this past weekend, all without running into any resistance at all. In contrast, Turkey had its F-4 downed over Syria last summer, and whether it was brought down by Syria or – as has been widely rumored – by a Russian anti-aircraft battery, the fact remains that Syria generally keeps its head down when Israel is involved. In fact, a former Syrian air force major now with the rebels has claimed that Syrian air defenses were actively ordered to stand down during the Israeli raid on the al-Kibbar reactor once the planes were detected and it became clear that it was an Israeli operation. The reason might be that Israel has a carefully cultivated reputation for responding to provocations with overwhelming and even disproportionate force, which smartly deters retaliatory action. If Syria thinks that Israel will bomb it back to the Stone Age if it shoots at Israeli planes, it has every reason to stand down. Indeed, if the reports of the massive explosions in Damascus on Sunday are to be believed, Israel is still making sure to employ its own version of shock and awe. I am not sure that the U.S. reputation in the region is quite the same as Israel’s, and so extrapolating from Syria’s turning a blind eye to Israeli incursions that it will also ignore sustained U.S. incursions is, in my view, a bridge too far.
Finally, and most importantly, Israel has a clearly defined and limited goal in mind when it strikes Syrian targets. As Brent Sasley emphasized today, Israel is engaging in finite operations specifically designed to avoid reprisals by only targeting a specific category of weaponry that is in danger of being transferred to outside parties. The U.S., on the other hand, is dealing with a very different kettle of fish. If the U.S. sets up a no-fly zone, what is the objective? Is it to remove Assad? Even the playing field to give the rebels a better chance? Protect civilians without putting our thumb on the scale on behalf of one side? Israel can more easily carry out its objectives in Syria because they are simple – prevent chemical weapons or new missile technology being given to Hizballah. The U.S.’s objectives will be murkier, particularly since President Obama’s “red line” comment was apparently unplanned. When you don’t have a sense of what exactly you hope to accomplish, nor how long it will actually take to accomplish this hazy objective, taking lessons from a country that has an actually clear red line and knows that it does not have to commit many resources to enforce it may not be the best idea. If we have learned anything from our excursion in Iraq, surely it should be that predictions of a cakewalk should be cast aside in favor of a strategy that hopes for the best and plans for the worst.
Again, none of this is to say that the U.S. is not up to the job, or that the Syrian military is an awesomely fearsome fighting force, or that our capabilities are anything short of allowing us to do pretty much whatever we set out to do. What I am saying is that pointing to what Israel has just done and using that as definitive proof of anything related to a potential U.S. no-fly zone is taking the wrong frame of reference as a lesson.
One last related note: to those who incessantly insist that Israel is of absolutely no strategic worth to American interests and is nothing but an albatross around the neck of the U.S., I’d submit that having the Israeli military around to prevent transfers of Iranian-furnished weapons to Hizballah and to make sure that Assad’s delivery systems for chemical weapons also stay right where they are, all while battlefield-testing American weapons in the process, is pretty useful right about now. Just sayin’…