An Israeli soldier drives an armored personnel carrier near the border with Syria on May 7. Israel's recent skirmishes with Syria may show that Syrian air defenses are stronger than U.S. officials had previously thought. (Ariel Schalit/AP)
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Pressure is mounting on the U.S. to change its hands-off approach toward the 2-year-old civil war in Syria. Despite a strong reluctance from the White House, the Pentagon and the American public, events in recent weeks are rapidly recalibrating the strategic dynamics involved and appear to make some involvement from U.S. troops appear more likely.
Here’s what you need to know about the current situation in the heart of the Middle East:
'Red lines' have been crossed
The geopolitics for the White House have grown increasingly uncomfortable amid reports that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against the rebels. About nine months ago, President Obama described that as a “red line” that would result in more aggressive U.S. action. Now the White House appears to be confronted with a choice between backtracking on that comment or wading deeper into the messy conflict.
Weapons could wind up in the wrong hands.
The basic fear that underpins U.S. decision-making is that any U.S. money, weapons or military support would fall into the wrong hands.
The Syrian rebel forces that the U.S. ostensibly supports are disorganized and rife with internal divisions. Intelligence reports suggest that some — perhaps many — are drawn from the same extremist Sunni Arab groups that were killing U.S. troops in Iraq’s Al Anbar province just a few years ago. The potential for unintended consequences is high, officials warn.
Officials are considering their options
U.S. officials have publicly discussed military options ranging from providing rebels with offensive weaponry — such as artillery and portable surface-to-air missiles — to sending in U.S. military assets to impose a “safe zone” on the ground inside Syria. That could give rebels a safe haven to plan military operations against the Syrian regime.
But top Pentagon officials have warned about the size and scope of that mission, saying it would require strikes to knock out Syrian air defenses and maintaining air superiority over a safe zone, as well as controlling a buffer zone to prevent ground-based artillery strikes and protecting ground-based logistical supply lines connecting the safe zone to a neighboring country.
Syria's air defenses may be stronger than thought
Pressure on the U.S. may intensify after the reports in early April that the Israeli military conducted airstrikes on several Syrian targets. The strikes may undermine claims from the Pentagon’s top brass about the strength and effectiveness of Syrian air defenses. Many advocates for military action in Syria have pointed to the successful six-month operation over Libya in 2011 that helped bring down Moammar Gadhafi. But for the past two years, many military experts inside and outside the Pentagon have suggested Syria has substantially more formidable air defenses.
No boots on the ground for now
Despite the pressure mounting in recent weeks, President Obama and other U.S. officials remain adamant that there will be no U.S boots on the ground in Syria.
“As a general rule, I don’t rule things out as commander in chief, because circumstances change,” Obama told reporters on May 3. “Having said that, I do not foresee a scenario in which boots on the ground in Syria — American boots on the ground in Syria — would be good for America but would also be good for Syria.”