The tipping point in Syria is near. Earlier this month, an attacker managed to penetrate Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle and detonate a bomb, killing several senior members of the regime. Rebels have launched their first concerted campaign into the Syrian capital, Damascus. Some reports indicate Assad may be considering an escape, as the U.N. expressed concern Friday that a showdown between Syrian and rebel forces may be imminent.
Despite the heightened violence, Russia and China teamed up this month to block any substantive action through the U.N. Security Council.
As the world sits on the sidelines, the United States has yet to lead from the front. As Danielle Pletka, AEI’s vice president for foreign and defense studies, said recently, the “Obama administration has fussed and fluttered, blabbed and gabbed and … ultimately done nothing for the people of Syria.”
It’s not too late for the U.S. to show leadership, stand up to Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao, hasten Assad’s downfall and gain some say in how a post-Assad Syria unfolds.
Here are some suggestions on where to begin:
Arm the rebels: Become the primary patron of the Free Syrian Army by supplying more light arms than the Saudis and Qataris, and transfer more substantial weaponry to groups vetted by the CIA. New Western weapons may give the opposition the advantage they need and may cause more soldiers and officers to defect from the Syrian army.
Help the divided Syrian political opposition craft a transition plan: They will need financial and technical support, not to mention a guiding hand to keep the many factions focused on the goal of democratic governance. A U.S.-assisted democratic transition would do much to head off the possibility of an Egypt-style Islamist ascendancy in a post-Assad government. The U.S. should work with European allies to promote a leader determined to usher in a democratic Syria.
Support safe corridors and safe zones: Syrian civilians fleeing the violence have headed in large numbers to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Safe corridors along the borders would not only facilitate the escape of innocent civilians, but would also make it easier for defectors to switch sides. Providing air cover over liberated areas would help the opposition consolidate control. It would also take airpower to enforce the safe corridors, and possibly Turkish or Arab soldiers on the border, but it would not mean American boots on the ground. The U.S. could provide some of the airpower, but short of that commitment, it could still provide refueling, ammunition and other logistical support, not to mention gather allies to support the mission.
Secure Syria’s WMDs: Syria has both an advanced chemical weapons program and is believed to have a nuclear weapons program. What will happen to those deadly assets? Will Hezbollah get its hands on the chemical stockpiles? What about the nuclear technology? Israel has said publicly that it would go to war to stop Hezbollah from achieving weapons of mass destruction. AEI scholar John Bolton argues that the US must tell the opposition that it is expected to secure or turn over all WMD-related facilities and materials. Failure to comply should mean the U.S. denies both aid and recognition.
Saving innocent lives, restoring American leadership, undercutting Iranian interests, denying al Qaeda a foothold in Syria. All seem good choices. So what is the U.S. going to do?