Terms of Engagement

The Time for Action

The Obama administration has backed itself into a corner in Syria, a crisis with few good options. But the endgame is clear, at least, and the time to get involved has come.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

From the time that the peaceful protests in Syria turned into an armed uprising, it has been reasonable to argue that any imaginable outside intervention would do as much harm as good. I have made that argument myself. But the situation on the ground has changed, and so the calculus of outsiders must change as well. U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration should accept that the only desirable outcome in Syria is a victory by the rebels and should work much more actively than it has both to hasten the day of that victory and to avoid the terrible settling of accounts that might well accompany such an outcome.

It is true that Syrian forces have committed terrible atrocities in recent weeks, both in the house-to-house killings in the Damascus suburb of Daraya and in aerial bombardments of civilians waiting in bread lines in the northern city of Aleppo, which have been documented in an appalling video recently posted by Human Rights Watch. But the moral case for intervention became incontrovertible many thousands of deaths ago. What has changed is the practical case.

Many people who supported the intervention in Libya, including officials in the White House, have opposed comparable action in Syria out of concern that escalating hostilities could turn an insurgency into a full-blown civil war, inflaming sectarian hatred and threatening neighbors with massive refugee flows and ethnic and religious tension. But almost all those things have come to pass simply as a result of the demons Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has unleashed.

The war has already escalated to previously unimaginable levels. The Syrian regime is now engaging in the strategy of counterinsurgency-by-atrocity used so effectively by Sudan against the people of its south and Darfur — intentionally killing large numbers of civilians in order to shatter the opposition’s will. Assad has sown the seeds of sectarian hatred by unleashing largely Alawite forces against Sunni civilians, in turn making Syria into a new crusade for Sunni extremists, many of them crossing the border from Iraq. And he has exported the conflict beyond Syria’s borders, with Sunnis and Alawites facing off in the streets of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city. The greatest danger to Syria and the region now comes from allowing Syria’s civil war to continue unabated.

If the calculus of potential harm has changed, so too has the calculus of potential good. A no-fly zone would have done nothing to stop the thugs and soldiers who carried out the massacres in Daraya. The regime, however, doesn’t have enough troops to repress the rebellion everywhere at once. Assad has been deploying helicopters and jets in Aleppo, Idlib, and elsewhere in the north not only to terrorize civilians but to prevent the rebels from establishing control over a large swath of territory, as the Libyan opposition did in Benghazi. The rebels have begun to shoot down a few of the government’s helicopters and jets, but Assad is still counting on aerial terror to subdue the region. A no-fly zone might not stop the killing, but it could give the rebels the foothold they desperately need.

And unlike in Libya, where it was clear from the outset that NATO planes would have to take on Muammar al-Qaddafi’s tanks and armored personnel carriers, a no-fly zone extending perhaps 75 miles south of the Syria-Turkey border could turn the tide in Syria.

A no-fly zone now makes sense. Perhaps if the Libya intervention had never happened, Western and regional powers might be prepared to take on such a task. But Libya exhausted NATO’s resources and outraged Russia, China, and other countries that said they had voted only for a more modest no-fly zone. Russia and China will see to it that the U.N. Security Council never approves a resolution authorizing such an attack. And there is little evidence that any of the likely participants in a new effort — the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia — have any appetite for ambitious military action in Syria, especially absent U.N. approval.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has asked the United Nations to establish a safe haven, but the Turks know perfectly well that Russia and China would veto such a resolution. The Turks, who are deeply worried about the destabilizing effect of the massive influx of Syrian refugees, now thought to number over 250,000, could establish a safe haven on their own, but apparently have no intention of doing so. While in Turkey in mid-August, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the United States and Turkey were setting up a working group to study a no-fly zone and other options. But one U.S. intelligence official with whom I spoke said that no serious military planning for a no-fly zone was currently under way.

Administration officials say that they cannot act without Turkey, but complain that Turkish political and diplomatic leaders barely speak to the Turkish military, which has shown no interest in military action. That may be true, but U.S. officials seem all too happy to use Turkey the way Turkey uses the U.N.: to avoid blame for failing to take action. With the U.S. president trying to get reelected by a public that is paying as little attention as it can to the world beyond America’s borders, the White House does not want to be dragged into a foreign campaign that could turn ugly. Indeed, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland immediately rejected Davutoglu’s safe-haven plea, saying that the United States wants to help the refugees get to Turkey, not protect them inside Syria.

One administration official said to me that because the rebels are now winning, outside intervention has become unnecessary. But that, too, sounds like a mighty convenient excuse for inaction. Assad may eventually lose his battle with the rebels, but many more thousands of Syrians are likely to die before he does, and an already poisonous atmosphere will become yet more lethal. Because it is now beyond obvious that Assad will leave only if he fears death or imminent defeat, the end must come with a rebel victory. And if the United States wants the rebels to win, then it should be doing everything it can to help them win — and win in a way that prevents a post-Assad Syria from degenerating into Iraq. Nor do you have to be John McCain to believe that the United States needs to range itself on the right side of history.

Is there an alternative? The obvious one is to give the rebels the military equipment they have been begging for. Until now, the Obama administration has provided only nonlethal equipment, mostly communications gear. But according to the New York Times, U.S. officials have granted an export license to a Syrian émigré group seeking to funnel weapons to the rebels. Why then should Washington not do directly what it is now prepared to do indirectly? One former U.S. government official with extensive experience in Syria suggests an alternative: "Just earmark $50 [million] or $100 million in covert assistance, and have agency guys walking around with bags of money."

Of course, that conjures up memories of Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the CIA supplied anti-Soviet jihadists with Stinger missiles that ultimately fell into the hands of al Qaeda. That’s not an encouraging precedent. But CIA officials are reported to be on the ground in Syria and in Turkey helping to direct assistance to rebel commanders whom the United States believes it can work with. That assistance has been grossly inadequate, in part because Saudi Arabia and Qatar have not been supplying arms as promised. The rebels have been forced again and again to break off battles they might otherwise win for lack of ammunition and firepower. With anti-aircraft capability, the rebels could create a safe haven on their own. With anti-tank missiles, they night quickly turn the tide in other disputed areas.

The United States has a profound interest not only in bringing the slaughter in Syria to an end, but in having a meaningful presence on the ground when that happens — as it did in Libya thanks to the NATO air campaign. It will not be easy, under any circumstances, to prevent Syria from collapsing into religious and ethnic enclaves, or into a war of all against all. But if Washington remains on the sidelines, as it has until now, it will have little influence with those who will ultimately prevail, and thus little ability to help shape the post-Assad landscape.

Obama might decide to postpone the decision until after the election, but that would be an act of consummate cynicism. He should act now, before it’s too late.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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