The attack on Idlib province, the last remaining rebel stronghold, has produced a good deal of commentary but not very many specific and strong options. There are both humanitarian reasons and a compelling strategic reason to be involved in Syria. It makes a good soundbite to provide an easy answer such as leave them alone, or stop protecting terrorists, but that is not possible given the many stakes. As a result, these are some options for what is a delicate and dicey situation.
The U.S. should be willing to use air assets for attacks on Syria. Its true that America often has an overreliance on airpower, but there is a specific strategic purpose behind these attacks. Bashar Al-Assad has already used chemical weapons even after he crossed the redline in 2013, and it is likely he will do so again. Specifically targeting Syrian air assets, particularly those used in the attack on Idlib province, will deter al-Assad from further war crimes. It will show American commitment to the region, and force al-Assad to proceed with at least some concern for the effect his attacks have on the civilian population. This has potential danger to the pilots and will inspire the usual protests from Russians and Iranians. These are inconsequential as the U.S. will have moral high ground, and this will be a fait accompli that the Russians and Iranians can only complain about after it was done.
The U.S. can go a step further and provide strikes against the terrorist groups in the region, and provide humanitarian no-fly zones. The no-fly zone has numerous advantages. Its humanitarian purpose and nonmilitary value would decrease the risk of confrontation and incidents with Russia. It has a history of working, as NATO implemented humanitarian no-fly zones during the Bosnian civil war.
This option is not risk-free, however. A single shot-down, tortured pilot would turn American opinion against the action, and a rapid withdrawal would damage American credibility. This almost happened in the Bosnian no-fly zone when Bosnian Serbs shot down Scott O’Grady’s plane; he dodged Serbian hit squads for six days before being rescued. Relations with Russia remain tense, and they already vigorously oppose and test an American presence in the region. A single incident has the potential to start a war that Americans don’t seem to want. Ironically, an iron commitment to wage war if necessary might actually prevent it. The credible threat of war could prevent the Russians from provoking one. Overall, this could strike the terrorists which are the biggest reason we are back in Syria and Iraq, and it could provide safe havens for refugees that prevent another crisis.
Moving away from air power, there are yet further options. The United States should work with Turkey to conduct counterterrorism strikes. This will help Turkey create buffer zones of locally led areas with Turkish control that deny terrorists and Kurds (often the same thing in Turkish minds) key border crossings. It will also prevent the Kurds from developing a strong state in this region which would be unacceptable to Turkey.
The United States should keep its current military forces on the ground. This will continue to train local, non-Assad, and non-terrorist forces to provide a measure of self-governance and stability. Combined with the airpower this should prevent enough influence in the region to prevent al-Assad from creating the conditions for ISIS 2.0 and forestalling the prominence of Russian- and Iranian-backed groups.
Finally, remember to ignore people like Tucker Carlson and Ron Paul. They have very good soundbites based on an over-simplistic view of the battle as one of terrorists versus Syria. The inaction during the Obama years has created a good deal of chaos and few good options. But with a skilled use of American airpower, soldiers, and humanitarian aid we can prevent a final battle from being a strategic and humanitarian catastrophe and we can still fight terrorists.