The U.S. does have nonmilitary options in Syria. Here are four of them.

August 23, 2013

A Free Syrian Army fighter mourns at the grave of his father, who was killed by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

This week's suspected chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb, which Syrian activists believe was launched by the Bashar al-Assad regime and may have killed hundreds of civilians, has re-energized debate over whether there's anything that the United States can do. Those often-painful questions are apparently now being asked even in the Oval Office, with President Obama telling CNN that his administration is considering a response.

Obama hinted at a struggling conversation within the White House that sounds an awful lot like the one outside it, which now, as for the last two years, has gotten stuck in the same deadlock. Some are calling for some form of military escalation while others argue that this would be counterproductive, worsening an already bad situation and sucking in the United States.

But there are a few possible options in the middle ground, between military escalation and the status quo, that could potentially improve things, if only marginally, in a conflict that's believed to have claimed more than 100,000 lives.

The middle-ground options begin with two premises: first, that the crisis has gotten too awful for the United States to continue doing so little, and second, that military escalation would probably have more costs than benefits.

Shipping in arms would likely empower extremists and worsen long-term instability. A no-fly zone would likely change little on the ground but commit the United States to a costly, open-ended engagement. And after Afghanistan and Iraq, the prospect of full military intervention is just not on the table. But with so much suffering and instability, with things getting worse every day for Syria's civilians and for its neighbors, the U.S. strategy of occasionally prodding the United Nations Security Council for a toothless resolution no longer looks sufficient.

You wouldn't always know it from hearing a conversation divided between "arm the rebels" and "don't arm the rebels," but there are middle-ground options between military escalation and the status quo. They're not terribly inspiring, and they're not going to end the killing or resolve the war. But they can help make things a little bit less terrible, according to Century Foundation scholar Michael Wahid Hanna, who laid them out most recently in a May Boston Globe column.

Here are three of Hanna's ideas for what the United States can do in Syria, followed by a fourth that I've added to make the list a touch more current. I e-mailed Hanna to ask whether these were still applicable; he wrote back and said they were, but that, as time goes on, "this continues to get harder." He stressed, as he did in the Globe column, that these suggestions "can only be ameliorative in the sense that it might result in a 10 to 20 percent improvement in the overall situation." And even then, he said, they "would still require an important shift in rhetoric that acknowledges all the ways in which the war has changed."

Here they are:

1. More humanitarian aid, within Syria and in refugee camps

There are more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees who've fled the country, into camps where conditions can be awful. They're also worsening instability in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. They're easier to reach than the suffering civilians within Syria, but there's just not enough money.

The United Nations announced in June that it needs $5 billion just to cover the most basic Syrian humanitarian needs until the end of the year. The United States announced in August that it would contribute an additional $195 million to humanitarian aid, a big step but far short of what's needed.

Of course, it's about more than just dollars. As Hanna notes, support for local governance within rebel-controlled areas of Syria, many of which have seen local institutions completely shattered, could go a long way to helping civilians. It might also make these areas more resilient against extremist influence.

2. Intelligence-sharing with rebels

This has the benefit of bringing U.S. technology and military know-how to bear against the Assad regime, whose forces have been making recent gains, without the long-term dangers that come with arming the rebels. The United States did some of this in Libya and it seemed to help, not insignificantly.

Hanna explains: "Intelligence sharing and coordination could focus on creative targeting aimed at regime logistical networks, fuel farms, radars and air crews." That would help erode the Assad regime's military edge. Intelligence-sharing could also help, he writes, to "test the trustworthiness and effectiveness of fighting groups, potentially leading the way to more robust support if reliable partners are found or cultivated."

3. Covert antiaircraft action

Hanna suggests that slipping in teams of Special Operations Forces to "employ antiaircraft missile systems to harass and deter Syrian air power" could slow Assad's march into rebel-held areas without risking costly U.S. involvement. My caveat here would be that, after the costly political backlash in Washington against the deaths of U.S. officials in Benghazi in September 2012, it's hard to imagine that the Obama administration is eager to risk cable news coverage of Navy SEALS killed in Syria. (To be clear, Hanna specifically suggests sanctioning covert action by regional allies, not U.S. forces.)

4. Make up with Russia (or even Iran!)

It's no secret that U.S.-Russian relations are in dire straits, partly for lack of much mutual interest and partly due to big disagreements, such as over NSA leaker Edward Snowden. But Russia plays a big role in Syria, where it opposes any Western intervention and supports the Assad regime, and on the crucial U.N. Security Council. Swallowing hard and reaching out to Moscow might be distasteful, but a bit of U.S.-Russian goodwill could certainly help to bring around Moscow's support, or at least chip away at its opposition.

Assad's other major ally, of course, is Iran. But even peace-minded Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has signaled that he's content with the status quo on Tehran's Syria policy of backing Assad. So there's not much promise of Iran significantly changing policy. Still, Rouhani has made it clear that he wants to try for peace with the West, which gives the United States a bit more leverage than usual — if not to reverse Tehran's pro-Assad policy in Syria, then perhaps at least to soften it a bit.

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Max Fisher · August 22, 2013