President Barack Obama succeeded in extricating US forces from Iraq and is trying to do the same in Afghanistan. His domestic agenda is ambitious: he sees the rebuilding of the US economy as the foundation for the exercise of American power and influence abroad. He would very much like to devote the priority of his foreign policy efforts to East Asia and the Pacific: clearly the maintenance of American alliances with Japan and others, and the building of a constructive bilateral relationship with China are the most important US foreign policy priorities in the twenty-first century, bar none. Is it any wonder that he sees a slippery slope leading straight downhill into a miasmic morass whenever people urge him to exercise leadership in Syria?

The slippery slope image is invoked often in governmental policy discussions: take a stand on such-and-such and watch your footing give way to a combination of loose gravel and gravity, thrusting you downward to the alligator-infested swamp below. The image implies the inevitability of the fall and thus the stupidity of having positioned oneself on the hilltop in the first place. It suggests that forces beyond one’s control will produce disaster. In the case of Syria some administration officials may well believe that taking the initiative in building strong relationships with the armed opposition and making the kinds of commitments that would enable a governmental alternative to the Assad regime to take root in Syria would put the United States on the fast track to the military occupation of Syria: clearly something worth avoiding at any cost.

Does the crisis in Syria present a slippery slope? It does indeed. Obama is no fool when he conjures up the image of an involuntary slalom down a precipitous slope with hungry gators waiting below. What he may not fully appreciate is that the headlong descent is already underway. Even if he had not put the credibility of his office and the United States on the line in August 2011 by calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside, he would still be obliged, eventually, to confront the reality that the nature of the struggle for Syria puts him on the slope whether he wants to be there or not. For all of his power and skill as commander-in-chief, Obama is already on the slope and careening downward.

What is happening in Syria would be bad enough were it a big island in the Indian Ocean. Yet it is not. The leader of the family that has run Syria for nearly forty-three years carelessly but deliberately opted for a murderous response to a protest movement which, at first, demanded no more of its rulers than to be treated with justice and dignity. Assad had the golden opportunity to make something real out of his decade-long chitchat about reform and modernization. The social media maven and self-styled architect of a modern, twenty-first century Syria could have taught the Arab world a lesson in how an authoritarian ruler pivots politically in a way that says to his people, “you have my respect and I will fix what is broken.” Instead he has opted to try to kill his way to maintaining nothing more dignified than a miserably corrupt and incompetent family business.

In choosing this blood-soaked route Assad converted peaceful protest into armed resistance and then transformed armed resistance into increasingly sectarian savagery. Syria is on the express lane to state failure, featuring a toxic combination of humanitarian catastrophe, weapons of mass destruction, and jihadist bottom-feeders accepting Assad’s invitation to a sectarian free-for-all. Having demonstrated his willingness to drop Syria into the abyss of failed statehood, Assad placed in jeopardy the security of all his neighbors—no doubt thinking they would come around to support his survive-through-terror campaign. Only Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seems to have swallowed this toxic bait: a man routinely referred to by Assad and his colleagues as a dog.

The implications of Syria’s state failure for a neighborhood containing allies and close friends of the United States are the reasons why the United States is already losing its footing on a steep hillside. Will the administration really be able to cite a prior engagement in East Asia as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel howl for help? Being on the slope is not a matter of choice, and as matters now stand, the United States’ descent will proceed without handrails, following the normal laws of physics in terms of gathering velocity. If the president wishes to entertain the handrail option to break the fall and regain footing, he will have to do things his instincts told him to avoid, some of which he rejected quite definitively during his first term.

There is nothing wrong with wanting a negotiated end to the Assad regime in accordance with the June 2012 Geneva, P-5 agreement. The problem, as US Secretary of State John Kerry has observed, is that Assad calculates he can kill the genie and stuff the cadaver back into the bottle. It matters not that Assad’s belief in salvation through the good works of Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia is delusional. All that is required to steepen the slippery slope is for this armed confrontation to keep grinding on. Syria may already have entered the twilight zone of long-term (perhaps generational) state failure. But give this conflict a few more months and everyone will wonder why handrails were not built when the downward slope was something less than a 90-degree angle. Indeed, the same observation may pertain to decisions taken during the summer of 2012.

It is time for Syrian nationalists opposing the Assad regime to make the transformation now from opposition to government: not a shadow government, not a government-in-exile, but an actual government on Syrian soil recognized, supported, and defended by the Friends of the Syrian People, led by the United States. If the argumentative intellectuals in the Syrian Opposition Coalition cannot put aside their salon-like debates for the sake of Syria, perhaps they should pass the baton to someone demonstrating real leadership, such as General Salim Idris, the head of the Supreme Military Council.

Yet a living, breathing, functioning, and governing alternative to a crime family masquerading as a government will not be possible without strong, supportive pressure from the United States and its allies. We cannot break our fall or install handrails if we persist in saying that it is up to the opposition to determine the timing of things, and if we wring our hands in doubt and skepticism over the ability of a new government to govern. Is the Syrian Arab Republic Government—the handmaiden of the family destroying Syria and the empty vessel we continue to recognize as Syria’s government—actually governing? Are we without the leadership ability to cobble together within the Friends of the Syrian People core group the wherewithal for a new government in liberated Syrian territory to serve its constituents conscientiously and well?

Perhaps it is the prospect of participating in the defense of a government and its people against a regime that has already used Scud missiles against residential neighborhoods, and has no moral reservations about arming them with chemical warheads, that weakens our resolve. One can imagine the argument: “OK, suppose we use stand-off precision weapons to eliminate the regime’s combat aircraft capability and destroy vital regime command, control, and communication nodes. What if it is not enough? What if they keep on coming? I tell you, we are on a slippery slope. Having used force we are all-in. We would eventually have to drop the 82nd Airborne on Damascus and occupy the country.”

If it is possible that a regime now unable to defeat a disjointed, poorly armed, and inadequately equipped rebellion would be spurred to decisive victory by the loss of its air assets, its Scud missiles, and its ability to coordinate military operations, then perhaps there is reason to give credence to the most extreme and objectively incredible of the slippery slope arguments. What cannot be denied, however, is that the United States is on the slope and headed down. Holding the Syrian crisis at arm’s length is not an option; it will not break the fall. If hand rails are to work, they must be of American design and construction. We will not dictate or micromanage Syria’s end state. There is no guarantee of success in terms of rescuing Syria and building a decent relationship with it, one based on equality and mutual respect. But we will neither avoid the slope nor break our fall just because we would like to be somewhere else.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the former special advisor for transition in Syria at the US Department of State.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof