White House Sending Weapons to Syria, Considering No-Fly Zone

Syrian rebels will soon be fighting with American weapons, now that President Obama has authorized arming rebel militias with light weaponry in the wake of U.S. findings that President Bashar al-Assad's forces crossed the "red line" of chemical weapon use.

Obama is said to be also considering imposing a no-fly zone above some portion of the country, possibly near Jordan—an action that would require the destruction of Syrian air defense and therefore represent the first direct U.S. military action in the civil war (that we know of! Who knows what the CIA's been up to). Some 4,000 troops and war planes are currently in Jordan.

The Obama White House has been deliberating intervention since the Syrian civil war began two years ago. Last year, Obama said that the U.S. would not intervene unless Assad crossed a "red line" by using chemical weapons; since then, evidence has been found that both sides in the conflict have used chemical weapons and committed war crimes, though in all cases Assad has always been more extreme, and more brutal. Yesterday—after a week of suggestion that the U.S. was considering some kind of intervention, and pressure from Sen. John McCain and former president Bill Clintonthe White House announced that it had determined that Assad had used the "nerve gas" sarin.

If the U.S. does impose a no-fly zone, it may be too little, too late. Nearly 100,000 people have died in the civil war already; across Syria, towns and cities have been hollowed out or flattened. The regime, bolstered by fighters from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah—which, like its patron Iran and the Syrian government, is made up mostly of Shia Muslims—has likely gained the upper hand as the conflict takes on an increasingly sectarian tone. Russia's support for the Assad government has increased, and the rebels are at this point largely made up of private militias—exactly the kind of groups who are most likely to destabilize the country in the future. (Not to mention come back and haunt the U.S.) As Juan Cole points out, it's unclear there's a popular mandate within Syria for intervention; government targets like tanks and artillery are in civilian areas; and there are said to be stockpiles of chemical weapons lying around—not that we know where.

But hey. Why not send some guns over? What's the worst that can happen?

Update: A sentence saying that "something near half" of the Syrian population still supports Assad was amended to make it clear that there's no data to support the assertion.