Getting serious on Syria
Why US leadership is essential


Getting Serious on Syria:
Why US Leadership is Essential

Though he formally recognized the Syrian opposition on December 11, 2012, President Obama has been circumspect regarding Washington's policy toward Damascus. President Bashar al-Assad is on the defensive, but even as violence has claimed tens of thousands of lives, the White House has done little in Syria beyond condemning Assad and arranging diplomatic parlays with some oppositionists. At a time of troubling unrest and uncertainty across the Arab world, the uprising in Syria stands as a test of US foreign policy and leadership. The American Enterprise Institute's vice president for foreign and defense policy studies, Danielle Pletka, and resident scholar Michael Rubin offer this FAQ about the conflict:

Why is Syria America's problem?

We should be under no illusions that post–Assad Syria will be pretty, but it will be hard to top the Assad regime. For decades, Bashar and his father, Hafez, enabled Iran's lifeline to Hezbollah and subverted Lebanese independence. Many anti-American terrorist groups called Damascus home. Nor is it correct to say that Bashar does not support Islamist radicals. He was one of their greatest benefactors, so long as they kept their terrorism outside of Syria. During the Iraq War, Bashar transformed Syria into a way station for al Qaeda fighters infiltrating Iraq. While the international community wrings its hands over the possible use of chemical weapons, Assad came within a hair's breadth of having his own nuclear capability until the Israelis destroyed his facility in 2007. The world would be safer without Bashar al-Assad.  
If the United States helps the opposition, will we be able to distinguish the good guys from the jihadis?

It would have been far easier to tell the good guys from the bad earlier in the conflict, before al Qaeda had a chance to infiltrate the opposition. Vetting potential allies to separate friend from foe has always been a core Central Intelligence Agency mission. Establishing a safe haven would ease the determination by allowing Americans to interact with potential allies. It is also important to understand that the rebels have been armed without American guidance. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have chosen among the most extreme of Islamist groups to support, sidelining more moderate anti-Assad groups. Obama's inaction has tipped the balance to the extremists.  
Won't Assad's fall destabilize Syria's neighbors and embolden Iran?

Losing Assad would isolate Iran and cripple Hezbollah, a group that has killed more Americans than any other terrorist enterprise except for al Qaeda. As the Arab Spring shows time and time again, Israel is peripheral to most conflicts in the Middle East, and the fight in Syria is no exception. Ironically, regime change in Syria might facilitate Arab-Israeli peace: because Assad's father was the defense minister who lost the Golan, the conflict with Israel has always been personal for the Assads. Jordan will not be sorry to see Assad go, nor will Turkey. The Turkish government's biggest concerns are refugees and the economic damage stemming from the conflict. The Iraqis, with the wounds of their own sectarian conflict still fresh, want only quiet. Lebanon will worry regardless of the outcome: if Assad stays, he will continue to undermine his smaller neighbor; if he goes, Lebanon fears Syrians fleeing to Lebanon will destabilize that country's delicate equilibrium. On the balance, however, there is more to gain from Assad's fall than from continuing his dictatorship.  

Might Assad lash out with chemical weapons?

Assad has already indicated he is willing to use Syria's large arsenal of chemical weapons. Some reports indicate he may be weaponizing sarin, a lethal nerve gas, perhaps to use as a last stand. America's interest is to ensure he has neither the capacity to use those weapons nor the opportunity to transfer them to terrorist groups. We diminish the likelihood of either option by hastening Assad's departure from the scene.  
The United States could have intervened early, but isn't it too late now?

Certainly, had the United States chosen to support the rebels working to oust Assad in the early days, it might have precluded the spread of the conflict and involvement of jihadi groups. No matter what happens, the aftermath of such a brutal civil war will be messy. However, the United States has substantial strategic interests in the Middle East, and should do its best to steer Syria toward a peaceful resolution that promotes a smooth transition toward democratic government and offers protection to Syria's minorities. With US help, this will be a tall order. Without US help, it will be impossible.  
Could a no-fly zone lead to another Iraq-like war?

Syrian rebels have recently indicated that they believe a no-fly zone is no longer necessary. However, even if enforcing one remained in the interests of the United States, the notion that it would result in troops on the ground is a red herring. Indeed, such a no-fly zone need not be manned by US air forces. Turkey—America's North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally—has a substantial air force, and Arab League countries that have supported Assad's ouster also have sufficient forces. There is no military requirement for troops on the ground, and a working partnership with rebel forces would provide an opportunity to neutralize any remaining Syrian air defenses.  
Shouldn't we let allies like Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia take the lead?

Thus far, the United States has let Turkey, Qatar, and others take the lead. However, America does not share interests or values with these nations, none of whom evince any desire for secularism, democratic transition, or the protection of minority rights in Syria. If the United States has strategic interests in Syria, it also has an interest in ensuring that Syria policy is not subcontracted to Arab or Turkish leaders, who may deemphasize democracy; replace a secular dictatorship with an Islamist one; and destabilize Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon along the way.  
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About the Author



  • As a long-time Senate Committee on Foreign Relation senior professional staff member for the Near East and South Asia, Danielle Pletka was the point person on Middle East, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan issues. As the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, Pletka writes on national security matters with a focus on Iran and weapons proliferation, the Middle East, Syria, Israel and the Arab Spring. She also studies and writes about South Asia: Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.

    Pletka is the co-editor of “Dissent and Reform in the Arab World: Empowering Democrats” (AEI Press, 2008) and the co-author of “Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran” (AEI Press, 2011) and “Iranian influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan” (AEI Press, 2012). Her most recent study, “America vs. Iran: The competition for the future of the Middle East,” was published in January 2014.


    Follow Danielle Pletka on Twitter.

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  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

    Follow Michael Rubin on Twitter.

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    Name: Ahmad Majidyar
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