02/24/2014 09:23 am ET Updated Feb 24, 2014

U.S. Risks Unintended Military Involvement As It Eyes Wider Role In Syrian Aid Effort

BEIRUT -- With the Obama administration facing intensifying pressure to consider new military-backed options for mitigating the humanitarian crisis in Syria, critics say the plans being debated would raise the prospect of much greater U.S. involvement than acknowledged.

In an article Friday, the Huffington Post's Howard Fineman reported that the White House is considering a broad new array of approaches to the Syrian morass, with an emphasis on actions that could alleviate humanitarian suffering -- without resorting to direct military action.

This grey area -- the military as engaged, but still somehow in the background -- sounds promising to supporters of a limited intervention, but military analysts and veterans of past wars say it also carries a high risk of slipping into outright warfare, or not working at all.

"People with very good intentions tend to downplay the measures required and this is why a lot of our interventions have ended up not fulfilling their original goals, even despite a series of escalations," said Peter J. Munson, a retired military officer and Middle East specialist who has been arguing for a more thorough debate about the consequences of intervening in Syria.

"If we're going to be serious about intervening in these very complex and violent situations around the world, we need to be much more honest about the real investment required," he continued. "An approach that downplays that investment at the outset, just to get a foot in the door, leads to a very disjointed effort that ultimately is going to grow beyond what anyone expected, and still not fulfill the initial goals."

The use of any form of military action in Syria has long drawn notes of caution from Syria analysts and government officials, who worry of the potentially unforeseen consequences -- or the danger that the U.S. could simply find itself drawn further into a messy and brutal war.

The plan reported by Fineman calls for the U.S. military to help deliver aid to Syria's borders, but prohibits it from actually entering the country. While that provision would seem to keep the military on the sidelines, Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, said that any American effort would likely have to lean on partners like Turkey and Jordan to safeguard aid shipments from armed groups or robbery within Syria. Even if American forces remained on the other side of the border, he said, they could easily be pulled across it by fighting.

"The Turkish military could be fired upon on the border and if things like that escalated, the U.S. military could find itself being drawn into something that it had no intention of being involved in in the first place," he said.

In 2013, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the country's top military official, told Congress that almost any plan to intervene risked costly and dangerous "unintended consequences."

"Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next," Dempsey said that summer. "Deeper involvement is hard to avoid."

Supporters of intervention say that the risks, whatever they may be, are more than worth the potential downsides, given the terrible depths of catastrophe already plaguing the battlefields and towns of northern Syria. More than 100,000 people have died in the war, and many more have been wounded, suffer from starvation or lack basic medical services.

"If there's a kind of very targeted intervention that focuses on getting food and medicine to target populations, then you avoid mission creep. You define your objectives clearly," said Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center in Washington, D.C. He argued that the broader military action feared by critics is unlikely, given public disapproval and the Obama administration's wariness of any involvement in Syria at all.

"There isn't a constituency for that," Hamid said. "Obama doesn't want to do that at all."

While aid shipments would undoubtedly help relieve some of the suffering, ending the humanitarian disaster completely would require ending the war. The United States is still committed to brokering a peace deal between the Syrian government and the opposition, which would likely need Russian and Iranian backing to succeed.

So far, the two countries have fully supported the Syrian government's uncompromising positions at peace talks in Geneva. Hamid said that the prospect of an American military option could help pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and its allies into more serious discussions.

Russia agreed on Saturday to a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution calling for universal humanitarian access in Syria, after vetoing three previous attempts. But despite backing the call for more aid, Russia rejected language threatening sanctions against the Syrian regime if it does not open its borders to aid agencies.

If such a step was too much for the Syrian government's allies, cautioned Charles Lister, sudden involvement by the U.S. military could alarm Russia and Iran and scuttle already thin hopes for a negotiated end to the war.

"Any move to provide aid ... could have a really, really serious danger of moving Assad's state backers further away from our interests, which is, at the moment, finding a political solution to the conflict," he said. "That has to be borne in mind."