During the past four and a half years, the situation in Syria has moved back and forth. The emergence of the Islamic State has had a strong influence, but hasn’t turned the tide against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Instead, the ground war continues to act as a meat grinder, with hundreds of thousands of fighters killed on both sides—and with little indication of either side losing resolve.
Into this quagmire of death and destruction, Russian President Vladimir Putin has thrust the might of a resurgent Russia. Since the early days of the war, Russia has been aligned with Assad. Syria has represented the strongest bastion of Russian influence in a region where the United States has typically held sway, especially over Israel and Jordan.
Syria—like Crimea and the rest of Ukraine—has become the newest battlefield in which Putin caters to those in his government who hanker for a return to the “good old days” of the Cold War.
With roots in the Soviet KGB—the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency—the group actively pursues a Russian return to its status as the second global superpower. Additionally, they resent the democratization and westernization of Russia. Thus, Syria presents the perfect opportunity to follow the victory in Crimea with another blow to the West.
Against the backdrop of Russian involvement in support of Assad, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its allies in the Middle East face an important and urgent decision: they may either intervene in Syria to protect innocent civilians and strike a blow to bring down the Assad regime or they may continue to fiddle while the country burns, enabling Assad to kill more civilians.
These Russian strikes hitting the Free Syrian Army and other “moderate” groups also elevate the chances of a massive power vacuum forming in Syria as the civil war eventually concludes. Due to a continually unstable government, the degradation of the FSA will result in Assad’s enemies being forced to support the IS. The fall of the Assad government would bring about a strict Islamist government, similar to Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Soviet forces.
In considering possible NATO intervention in Syria, one must consider the current political climate in the United States. In today’s political world, to say the words “boots on the ground” without preceding them with “no” is one of the easiest ways to commit political suicide in a nation still well aware of the price paid in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While trying to put American soldiers in Syria will kill one's political career quickly, there is precedent for an alternative. Enforced with coalition air power, the no-fly zone in Libya in 2011 ultimately brought about the demise of Libyan leader Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and his regime.
While Syrian air defenses are more robust than those in Libya, they are concentrated around the capital of Damascus, making the creation of a no-fly zone in the outer areas a feasible task. Even the Damascus corridor is within range of U.S. Navy long-range surface-to-air missiles, which allow coverage of the entire country with the use of Turkish and Israeli airbases.
NATO intervention in Syria will not be easy, but it need not require a “boots on the ground approach”—just a rigid no-fly zone and some of the shock and awe that the American public loves to watch on the nightly news.