An expert's point of view on a current event.

How to Turn Things Around in Syria

I’m the only presidential candidate with a plan to bring an end to the worst crisis in the Middle East.


On my first day in the Syrian capital of Damascus as a young intelligence officer, I struck up a conversation with a spice vendor in a local marketplace. With my broken Arabic, I made small talk until I felt comfortable enough to ask him what he thought of Bashar al-Assad, who had recently inherited power from his father. The man seemed nervous and didn’t answer. I thought perhaps he didn’t understand my poor Arabic, so I asked again. This time, the fear in his eyes was unmistakable. Without saying a word, he bolted into the back of his shop.

My brief interaction with the spice vendor became seared into my memory as I spent three weeks traveling throughout Syria in May 2001, seeing that same fear in the eyes of so many Syrians whenever the topic of Assad came up. All of this happened before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and long before the rise of the Islamic State. My immediate reaction to what I saw in Syria was to develop a special hatred for tyranny. As a believer that all men are created equal and endowed with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I found it completely unacceptable for tens of millions of human beings to live in this state of terror.

In the years after that encounter, I began to appreciate how brutal repression can rapidly escalate into a direct and potent threat to U.S. national security. Assad’s bloody suppression of peaceful protests in 2011 led to the outbreak of civil war, which at its outset included a robust contingent of moderate, pro-Western democrats. But Islamic extremists began to dominate the opposition as the war dragged on and multiplied because of President Barack Obama’s adamant passivity, which he sought to excuse with the empty slogan, “Don’t do stupid stuff.” The result of this passivity was the rise of the Islamic State, a flood of desperate refugees, and terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States.

The connection between domestic repression and threats to the United States runs directly counter to the conventional distinction between humanitarian concerns and the hardheaded pursuit of American strategic interests. The consequence of this false dichotomy has been a dangerous complacency in the face of mass atrocities.

The lessons of Syria

As president, I would immediately end the policy of averting our eyes from such tragedies in the hope that they will disappear. First and foremost, our country must not hesitate to speak out against such horrific atrocities. We must work with our allies and with regional partners to exert tremendous diplomatic pressure on the dictatorships responsible. At the outset, it is impossible to know whether a mass slaughter will set off a cascade of events that will ultimately pose a direct threat to our national security. Thus, for both strategic and moral reasons, we must never fail to condemn mass atrocities wherever they occur.

At the same time, extreme caution is in order before considering any use of force. I believe that our invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a serious strategic error. Yet, if President Obama had acted sooner to crush the Islamic State, he might have avoided the need to send thousands of troops to Iraq and Syria. As president, instead of being constrained by rigid doctrines that call for either constant action or total passivity, I would carefully evaluate the situation at hand and determine how best to respond.

Far from wasting lives and treasure, renewed American leadership and concern for human rights will pay long-term dividends by heading off crises before they get out of hand.

A policy of denial

Rather than admitting the failure of its hands-off policy toward Syria, the Obama administration attempted to prevent exposure of the most explosive evidence of the regime’s systematic torture and murder of its opponents. In 2013, a military photographer defected from Syria, bringing with him 55,000 digital images of Assad’s torture chambers. To protect him from retaliation, he is known today only as “Caesar.” Two years ago, while serving as a senior advisor to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I organized a hearing at which Caesar publicly displayed his photos and gave testimony of Assad’s atrocities.

In the days before the hearing, the State Department relentlessly pressured the House leadership, committee staff, and Caesar himself to cancel his appearance. They cited concerns about his security — but could never point to specific vulnerabilities in our exhaustive plan to protect his identity. It seems clear that the State Department’s real objective was preventing Caesar from exposing Assad’s crimes in an official U.S. government forum.

Later, I had the opportunity to meet with the most senior State Department official working full time on Syria. This meeting took place shortly after the United States discovered that Assad was still using chlorine bombs despite his alleged surrender of all chemical weapons. I asked, “Why isn’t the administration more forcefully condemning these atrocities? The president isn’t out there; the secretary of state isn’t out there. Why is that?”

With unusual candor, the official told me, “We’re afraid the media will then ask us what we’re going to do about it.” It was one of the saddest things I have ever heard.

Turning things around

Unsurprisingly for a presidential campaign that has been consumed by investigations into the leading candidates’ deception and self-dealing, there has been no substantive debate about Syria. Donald Trump, who is smitten with the Kremlin’s strongman, insists that we can resolve the crisis by partnering with Vladimir Putin to crush the Islamic State. Never troubled by evidence, Trump ignores the fact that Russia is now a full participant in the atrocities inflicted on civilians by the Assad regime, whose ultimate effect is to empower the Islamic State.

Hillary Clinton, at least, has indicated her support for establishing no-fly zones (NFZs), as well as safe havens to protect civilians from the Syrian air force. Yet long after the Russians have shown that they only agree to cease-fires in order to consolidate their gains and prepare for the next onslaught, Clinton continues to “applaud Secretary [of State John] Kerry’s persistent efforts” to reach yet another agreement. This unconditional desire to negotiate tells Putin that he will face no consequences for either Russian atrocities in Syria or the deliberate violation of cease-fires. No matter what Russia does, Secretary Kerry will be waiting at the negotiating table, ready to continue the charade of peace talks.

Thus, the time is now to create NFZs over select parts of Syria. From the outset, Assad’s primary objective has been to attack the moderate rebels and the civilians who support them. Assad knows this will empower terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, which will help the Syrian dictator make his case to the outside world that he is the only alternative to Islamic extremism.

For Assad, aerial bombardment comprises both an important military advantage over the rebels and an essential tool for inflicting mass casualties on the civilian population. By Western standards, however, the Syrian air force is relatively small and outdated. Russian aircraft are more advanced, but they are also few in number.

Imposing an NFZ is not foolproof, but it is a task with which the U.S. military has substantial experience. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the United States launched Operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch, which imposed an NFZ over much of Iraq for more than a decade. By establishing NFZs over select portions of Syrian airspace, the United States will protect civilians and enable the moderate rebels to fight more effectively on their own behalf.

In tandem with select NFZs, the United States and its partners should also establish humanitarian safe zones in rebel-held terrain adjacent to Syria’s borders with Turkey and Jordan. With support from coalition aircraft or from U.S. artillery located within Turkey and Jordan, moderate rebel groups should be able to protect these safe zones from Syrian forces. Once the United States demonstrates its commitment to protecting such zones, our Arab partners may also demonstrate their readiness to join the effort.

A perennial concern of critics is that Russian planes may challenge an NFZ or safe zone, sparking a confrontation between Washington and Moscow. That is why the NFZ would not cover the entire country. Instead, it would focus on areas where civilian populations are at the highest risk, as well as the airspace above humanitarian safe zones. Although Russia has taken advantage of American passivity to expand its presence in Syria, it has not shown any interest in pressing forward when it expects resistance.

After establishing NFZs and humanitarian safe zones, the United States should initiate a program to provide military support to the besieged moderates within the Syrian opposition. Until the regime faces much stiffer resistance on the ground, it will have no incentive to compromise at the negotiating table. The Obama administration has at times begun various programs to empower Assad’s moderate opponents — but has hamstrung its own initiatives with impractical restrictions, especially the insistence that those it supported could only fight the Islamic State, not the brutal regime that represents the most direct threat to the Syrian people.

The administration has also tried impractical schemes such as training small rebel contingents outside of Syria and then inserting them back into the country with negligible support. The first unit to return was surprised by al Qaeda-aligned forces and torn to shreds. The second turned weapons and equipment over to the extremists, likely as a result of intimidation. If we want better results, we need to support forces that have already proved their viability but could accomplish more with American training and equipment. There is no guarantee of success, yet enabling the moderates to fight Assad is the best way to ensure that there is never any need for the large-scale deployment of American forces as there was in Iraq.

With our partners exerting effective pressure on the ground, the United States can facilitate a negotiated transition to a post-Assad government. If the cost of the Russian adventure begins to multiply, Putin will have to reconsider his commitment to keeping the regime in power. It’s also important to learn from the Obama administration’s failure in Libya after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi. As president, I would order a diplomatic and humanitarian surge to help rebuild Syria and prevent the return of both dictatorship and extremism. Together with our friends and partners, we will help Syrians determine their own future as they build the representative government they have demanded since the first peaceful protests in 2011.

The power of principle

American leadership in global affairs depends on a commitment to ideals embodied in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. If not for the American commitment to liberty, others would fear our power instead of welcoming, or even relying upon, our leadership. The foundation of our most enduring alliances is the values we share with our democratic partners.

I have experienced firsthand how individuals from across the furthest reaches of the globe want to work with the United States simply because they believe in our nation and our intentions. Often, they risk their lives and their families’ lives to do so. In Syria, we have come to see that abandoning our values is not just wrong — it can accelerate the growth of direct threats to our national security.

Ultimately, a little American leadership goes a long way. Small investments in promoting our values now can and will produce a more stable, peaceful, and humane future.

GEORGE FREY/Getty Images

 Twitter: @evan_mcmullin