The White House is in a difficult spot when it comes to Syria. Not only is the United States at war with Islamic State, one of President Bashar al-Assad’s foes, but U.S. aircraft are also flying through the same airspace, and focused on part of the same mission, as the Syrian Air Force.
Even stranger, President Barack Obama came close to ordering airstrikes against Assad last year after a chemical attack in a Damascus suburb. Meanwhile, opponents in Congress want the president to go farther — either invading Syria outright or imposing a no-fly zone that would target the regime’s warplanes.
“I think that we would want to see an all-out war, shock and awe,” Representative John Fleming (R-La.) said. “We put troops on the ground, we put all of our assets there after properly prepping the battlefield, and in a matter of a few weeks we take these guys out … and we leave a stay-behind force to keep our friends up and going, and also maybe a no-fly zone in Syria over the area Assad controls.”
But neither the U.S. government nor Assad wants war with the other. The Assad regime isn’t thrilled that the United States and its allies are waging a bombing campaign inside Syrian territory — albeit in areas outside Damascus’ control. But it doesn’t want to lose what’s left of its air force trying to stop it. For the White House, clashing with the Syrian Air Force risks sucking the United States deeper into a horrendous civil war.
Still, the presence of the Syrian Air Force is a factor. The question is how much of a factor. If the Syrian Air Force were to challenge coalition aircraft, the United States would have to attack Syrian air bases, radars and surface-to-air missile sites that are still active and destroy them.