The United States remains essentially on the sidelines of the Syrian Civil War, providing generous humanitarian “nonlethal” assistance to the rebels challenging President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and robust diplomatic support, but no arms or troops. Its allies in Europe are growing increasingly restless, however, as demonstrated by their decision not to extend an embargo against the flow of weapons to the country on Monday. So far, Britain and France — the E.U. nations leading the charge for more Western involvement in the bloody two-year conflict — have announced no plans to take advantage of the new rules and actually ship arms to the Sunni fighters bogged down in the country, but it may only be a matter of time now.
The same might well be said for the Americans, whose military has begun drawing up plans for the logistics of a no-fly zone over Syria, as The Daily Beast‘s Josh Rogin reported Tuesday. That the United States is contemplating the various military scenarios in the country is no shock, per se, but the revelation could serve to light a fire under peace negotiations with Russia scheduled for next month in Geneva. The Kremlin is already warning that the E.U.’s refusal to extend its embargo could sabotage the conference, but how it reacts to the fresh news of U.S. military strategizing will be more telling. On the one hand, Moscow might decide the West means business and the rebels’ demand that Assad step down as a precondition for talks cannot simply be brushed off anymore. On the other hand, the Putin government may find it can use the prospect of American military intervention to justify its generally pro-Assad posture and in particular the controversial shipment of S-300 air defense missiles (not that it was waiting for justification to proceed with the lucrative contract in any case).
Prodding Obama to do more, as always, is U.S. Senator John McCain, who in addition to having been the president’s opponent in the 2008 election is regarded as something of a national security guru by the American press corps. McCain took things a step further Monday when he became the first sitting member of Congress to visit free Syria and meet the rebels, and his pained calls for action — lest the rebels be overtaken by Hezbollah, whose Shiite fighters are pouring in from across the border in Lebanon to boost Assad in key cities like Qusair and Homs — are growing harder to ignore. Rather than simply slamming Obama with partisan broadsides, McCain has taken to complaining of the slow-moving American defense establishment. He is intent on removing any institutional obstacles to action, and now that the gears have gone into motion, delay from the White House under the auspices of planning will not be an option for much longer.