It’s Time to Act in Syria

American values and interests are at stake in stopping the country's slow-motion destruction.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

There can be no doubt that the conflict in Syria confronts the United States with terrible challenges. The humanitarian catastrophe gets worse by the day: Nearly a quarter of Syria’s population may now be displaced from their homes, and the death toll approaches 80,000 — and continues to rise inexorably.

But it is not just our conscience that is affected by this gruesome war. America’s interests are also involved because the Syrian conflict is unlikely to remain confined to Syria. As the country unravels, more refugees will flee to neighboring states and more armed groups will gain strength — threatening each of Syria’s neighbors with increased instability.

Even if al Qaeda does not establish itself in what may be the emerging failed state of Syria, the refugee flow already constitutes a growing danger to Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. According to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 400,000 Syrians have applied for refugee status in Jordan and Lebanon, while 100,000 Syrians have done the same in Iraq. None of these states can easily absorb the numbers — and in the case of Lebanon and Iraq, the refugee influx might rekindle civil conflicts we hoped were relegated to the past. Turkey might face less of a problem in this regard and could also be more capable of managing the growing number of refugees — but it is also facing growing difficulties managing the refugee camps on its territory. Already there have been riots in the camps, and we should not assume these are one-time events.

But it is not just the flow of refugees that endangers Syria’s neighbors and the region. The impending disintegration of the Syrian state means that it will no longer have centralized control of its chemical weapons. If nothing is done beforehand to gain control of these weapons — or destroy them — it is not only Syria’s neighbors that will be in grave danger.

The Syrian conflict, then, challenges U.S. values and interests. In the American tradition of foreign policy, we have often seen two schools of thought: idealism and realism. The idealists have been driven by moral and humanitarian concerns. They see U.S. interests engaged when American values are threatened, and they justify U.S. intervention, including use of force, when there is a high moral purpose. For the idealists, the genocide in Rwanda, in which at least 500,000 members of the Tutsi minority were murdered while the United States stood by, represented an unforgivable blight on America’s conscience. Idealists would argue that the United States should have acted militarily to prevent genocide.

Realists, on the other hand, argue that the United States should only intervene when it has vital interests at stake. They view humanitarian interventions as costly, an emotional binge that inevitably comes back to haunt the country — making it even less capable of intervening when U.S. interests actually require it. For the realists, the United States should only intervene when it is directly threatened — or when a strategic ally, the wider flow of oil, or broader U.S. credibility is at risk. The Gulf War met that test, but President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and President Barack Obama’s intervention in Libya did not.

It is rare that idealists and realists find common ground. But ironically, the unfolding conflict in Syria is one where idealists and realists should come together. There is a moral imperative to try to stop the onslaught against the Syrian population. But there is also a strong U.S. national security imperative to at least contain the conflict in Syria, ensure that the regime’s chemical weapons do not fall into al Qaeda’s hands, and prevent the neighborhood from being destabilized.

When described in this fashion, it all seems so clear. The problem, of course, is that the United States is emerging from over a decade of war — having spent a great deal in blood and treasure — and Syria is a mess. The opposition to President Bashar al-Assad has never been coherent, and Islamists have now seemingly gained the upper hand in the opposition’s ranks. Syria’s non-Sunni minorities fear what would come after Assad, who for his part has stoked the sectarian conflict in an attempt to preserve his regime.

The zero-sum nature of the conflict makes it hard to create a political process that brings elements of the opposition together with members of the regime who don’t have blood on their hands. The continuing Russian and Iranian protection of the Assad regime also reduces the prospect of Assad choosing to go. And as long as he remains, it is highly unlikely that there will be a political process to manage the transition. While a political process is unquestionably desirable, it is not made more likely by the ongoing military stalemate, which only raises the costs and deepens the sectarian divide.

The fact that the United States has a great stake in the Syrian conflict — from both an idealist and a realist point of view — does not make any of these problems easier to deal with. Still, it is hard to see how the country has a choice. Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons — or the regime’s loss of control of these weapons — would be a game-changer. Given the direction of the conflict, it is not hard to see that sooner or later we are going to face such a situation.

So what can and should we do now? First, we need to focus on what can be done to change the balance of forces on the ground — not only between the opposition and the regime, but more importantly within the opposition itself. Second, we need to do more to protect the Syrian population. And, third, we need to focus on containing the conflict so it does not spread outside Syria and destabilize the surrounding states.

When it comes to the first priority, if you talk to any secular members of the opposition, as I have, they will tell you that they simply are not getting the money and arms that the Islamists are receiving. Some may argue that the Islamists — like Jabhat al-Nusra, which has pledged its loyalty to al Qaeda — have proved themselves on the battlefield more than any of the secular forces. That is probably true, but they have also had the means to do so.

The reality is that if the United States is to have influence, it will have to provide lethal assistance as well as nonlethal aid. There is no reason we cannot identify groups the United States is prepared to support and then test their ability to uphold the commitments they make and account for the arms America provides. The United States is already vetting those to whom it provides nonlethal assistance — it can certainly do the same for those who would get arms. Indeed, the quality and the quantity of arms provided — including anti-tank weapons — can be calibrated to reflect their performance on their commitments. Put simply, it is an illusion to think that the United States will be able to affect the realities on the ground without providing lethal assistance.

If we are concerned that Islamists are too powerful and could come to power, the answer is surely not to hope that Assad does not fall too quickly. The answer must be to strengthen the capabilities of those who seek a nonsectarian, inclusive Syria in the future.

Second, we must do more to respond to the needs of the Syrian public. This has two dimensions: providing security and meeting humanitarian needs. While I favor a no-fly zone and don’t believe that it runs the risks that its critics have identified, I understand the fear of mission creep. There is, however, an alternative — what I call a no-fly zone on the cheap. The United States and its NATO allies now have Patriot missile batteries on the Turkey-Syria border, and they could engage aircraft at least 50 miles into Syria.

Why not declare that any Syrian military aircraft flying within 50 miles of the border will be deemed to have hostile intent and will be shot dow
n by the Patriots? Would Assad challenge this? He would do so at high risk to his regime and at a time when the attrition of his air forces has to be a factor in his calculus. Fifty miles would offer protection from air assaults in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and effectively create more protection for areas where opposition forces are in control. It would have the benefit of doing something meaningful to protect Syrian civilians and finally signal that we are not prepared to sit idly by in the face of the indiscriminate use of force against them.

As important as it is to offer protection, it is also clear that more must be done to meet the basic humanitarian needs of the Syrian people displaced by the conflict. The United Nations feels legally bound to provide humanitarian assistance primarily through the Syrian regime — despite the fact that Assad denies aid to areas outside its control, which now includes large swaths of the country.

To the Obama administration’s credit, it has already been working through NGOs outside the regime’s control — but the United States must, on its own and with others, find ways to significantly expand the assistance that is going to Syrians in need. The sad truth is that most displaced Syrians within the country are not receiving anything close to what is needed — conveying again what appears to be the indifference of the international community to the war being waged against Syrian civilians.

Finally, we must hedge against the disintegration of Syria. I often say that Las Vegas rules don’t apply here: What happens in Syria won’t stay in Syria. We need a containment strategy, and that means thinking about how buffers can be built up in southern Syria, along part of the Syria-Iraq border, and in the north. Investing in local governance — as part of a coherent framework with the British, French, Saudis, Emiratis, Jordanians, Turks, and others — may be a way to hedge against the unknowns of the future and increase Syrians’ willingness to stay put and shape their own future.

With all the difficulties and unknowns that currently exist in Syria, one thing is clear: While there are costs in acting, the costs of inaction are growing by the day. Ironically, the costs of inaction may not only be felt in Syria, with the Syrian public, and in the surrounding areas. Inaction may also have implications for America’s Iran policy. If we want diplomacy to work with Iran on the nuclear issue, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei must be convinced that the United States will actually use force if negotiations fail — and America’s hesitant posture toward Syria signals not readiness to use force, but reluctance.

For all these reasons, and before we face a game-changing event that will leave America no choice, it is time to become more active in Syria. Positioning the United States to try to shape the landscape, and not simply react to changes in it, makes sense from the standpoint of U.S. interests. But it also makes sense from the standpoint of America’s values — and the sooner the better.

Dennis Ross is the former U.S. envoy to the Middle East and counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the author, with David Makovsky, of Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny. Twitter: @AmbDennisRoss

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