Already a disaster within Syria, the civil war has the potential to disrupt the surrounding region and any state with interests there. But there are a few broad issues that outside actors must consider when formulating their policy on how to handle the situation.
The Complexity of Outside Involvement
First, with many of the rebel groups composed of jihadists, there is a fear that they will gain prestige, members and fighting experience the longer the fighting lasts. However, without getting directly involved, the transfer of weapons to select rebel groups is the only viable way that outside actors can attempt to have a degree of influence on events in Syria. By overseeing the arming of the rebels, the United States (and its allies, including the ones transferring the weapons) hopes to strengthen the more nationalist secular groups to counterbalance the growth of extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra.
However, there are no easy solutions to the Syrian crisis. There are hundreds of Syrian rebel groups, each with its own social and political characteristics and all of which have complex relationships with one another — whether cooperative or hostile. The result is that the groups cannot simply be separated from one another; a country cannot choose to arm a specific group without inadvertently arming several others, some of which may be less than desirable recipients. For the same reasons, any terrain, resources or arms seized by these groups cannot be expected to end up under the control of a preferred group.
Another major issue is the loyalist forces' weapons. Relatively advanced (and mobile) air defense systems, anti-ship missiles and armored vehicles, as well as huge amounts of rockets, mortars and theater ballistic missiles, could fall easily into the hands of extremists within the country or similar groups in the nearby region, such as Hezbollah. Israel is suspected of having conducted an airstrike earlier in 2013 in Syria to prevent precisely this eventuality. Most troublesome is the Syrian regime's vast chemical weapon stockpiles. The United States has made clear that any use or loss of control of these weapons would provoke an intervention.
Finally, whatever happens in Syria has direct implications for its neighbors, which complicates policymaking. The most obvious example is Lebanon, which is a natural extension of Syria. Under the regime of President Bashar al Assad, Syria played a political role in helping to stabilize internal and militant rivalries in Lebanon. Now that Syria itself is in flux, the status quo within Lebanon could come undone, a process that to some extent has already begun. Likewise, an influx of armed, battle-hardened fighters into Iraq or Jordan could immediately upset the delicate calm within those states. The Islamist opposition in Jordan has already condemned the Jordanian government for hosting U.S. forces.
Israel has a choice between increasing the number of asymmetric threats on its northern border in Syria or significantly increasing the capabilities of existing threats (in particular, by giving Hezbollah access to more advanced weaponry). And Turkey is concerned not only with potential militants and arms but also the Kurdish dilemma, which is directly influenced by events in Syria. All of these countries are already dealing with refugees, but at any moment a massive humanitarian crisis could erupt in Syria — even worse than the one that is already under way — and spill over into the region. In other words, a number of outcomes in Syria could destabilize the entire region for years.
Careful U.S. Policy
The United States is purposely avoiding intervention because it has borne the enormous costs and unintended consequences in Iraq, Afghanistan and, most recently, Libya. Yet it has become clear that the consequences of not taking greater action in Syria must be addressed. Washington must choose between continuing to stand by and letting the war resolve itself or directly intervening.
At first, the United States (and several other Western governments) took a seemingly contradictory approach, appearing hawkish at one moment and acting as if all is normal within the region the next. In recent months, the United States has settled on a middle ground approach. It directly supplies communications and medial equipment to the rebels but refuses to send weapons or provide air support as it did in Libya. To compensate, Washington has helped vet rebel groups for other states willing to arm them, and there is strong evidence that the United States has assisted in combat training in Jordan. These are policies designed to assist the rebels and gain favor without giving extremists capabilities that could have serious blowback.
The deployment to Jordan of 110 soldiers in the regular army headquarters is a pragmatic twist on the United States' middle-of-the-road policies. The headquarters unit will not significantly support the Special Forces training mission already under way in Jordan; they have their own chain of command. Instead, the unit's official tasking is to help with influxes of refugees, though it can offer much more than that. Namely, it can provide the foundation for a potential intervention, and it gives the United States more options for the projection of force into Syria.
Pentagon planners already have multiple contingencies for different scenarios that could arise in Syria. They have established plans for a scaled response for these scenarios, from peaceful humanitarian assistance to massive combat operations such as seizing Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. Any of these operations would require dramatically different force structures and logistics. A headquarters already in theater can plan for several different operations, including a small number of special operations forces doing limited raids or multidivisional combined arms seizing territory. Each would require logistics including but not limited to food, water, billets, planning facilities, command and control facilities, fuel, ammunition, supporting assets (and their requisite logistics) and actionable intelligence.
A small headquarters unit offers two other benefits. First, it provides a consistent presence that can collect, monitor and assess intelligence from Syria that can be passed on to any intervening units sent into the region. Second, it is more permanent and cheaper to operate than a carrier task force or amphibious landing ship with a Marine contingent aboard over a long duration.
The United States will continue to approach Syria with measured policies as long as the status quo is maintained because the consequences of a misstep are enormous. Although Washington is concerned about the potential growing radicalization of the rebels in the absence of stronger foreign support, it cannot be sure that accelerating the al Assad regime's downfall would clear the way for a moderate government with any hope of asserting its authority over hundreds of groups divided by ideological, sectarian and ethnic interests. For now, the United States is being cautious and is laying the groundwork for immediately scalable military options. It is a small step, but it opens up several options in the event that Syria's civil war endangers the region.