Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., has called for setting up safe zones inside Syria, while also providing support to the opposition, reports Foreign Policy. He would not rule out the use of U.S.- or NATO-led air strikes if the killings continued. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has also called for providing weapons. "There is a strategic component," he told ABC's This Week.
Radwan Ziadeh, a spokesman for the largest opposition network, the Syrian National Council, and a senior fellow at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, would go even further. Disappointed with the U.N.'s failure to sanction the Assad government, Ziadeh says that the U.N. has not acted properly to prevent further humanitarian crises. Forced out of his country in 2007 for outspoken positions, leaving his family behind, and now living in the U.S., he said that a no-fly zone is the only way to get Assad out of power.
"It's important for the international community to demonstrate using the force against the Assad regime, because it's the only language the Assad regime will understand," Ziadeh said.
The opposition is not calling for boots on the ground — a position that no one in Washington wants to take in the wake of Iraq, and with thousands of U.S. troops still in Afghanistan. What is needed more, Ziadeh argues, is a no-fly zone, similar to the one in Libya. The problem is that the situation in Syria is far more complex than the one in Libya. Both Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey have warned of Syria's anti-aircraft missile capabilities. Further, the opposition is not organized, as it was in Libya; there are more than 100 separate opposition groups with no clear leadership.
Daniel Byman, director of research for the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, said providing arms is a limited role that has both humanitarian and strategic advantages. "It is good for the United States to be seen as on the side of the Syrian people on this," Byman said. "The alternative options, to me, are worse."
Syria is Iran's sole Arab ally, and U.S. officials have long believed that forcing Assad from power could insert a wedge between the two nominal American adversaries. Washington envisions a second substantial benefit from Assad's fall: Syria is a prime source of funding and armaments for Hezbollah, a staunchly anti-Israel militia based in Lebanon. A new regime in Damascus might be willing to sever those ties and leave Hezbollah to largely fend for itself.
This has attracted several hawkish groups in Washington to the issue, including the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. The group has been on the conservative end of many foreign-policy positions in the past 10 years, harshly criticizing the Obama administration's handling of Israel and Iran. Cliff May, the group's president, has called on the administration to act with "leadership" in this area.