Syria: America’s Stake


The 15-3 vote on May 21 in the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee authorizing the administration to provide lethal and nonlethal assistance to vetted elements of Syria’s armed opposition is a potentially significant step toward encouraging President Barack Obama to reverse the decision he made nearly a year ago to deny lethal assistance. A discussion with a very thoughtful and well-informed senatorial  "no" voter prompts this attempt to clarify why it is in the interests of the United States to ensure that vetted units of the Free Syrian Army get what they need in terms of arms and equipment.

It is worth stipulating at the outset that there is no obligation for the United States to intervene in any manner in the Syrian crisis. This is, in the end, a discretionary matter. Bashar al-Assad’s blatant fabrications notwithstanding, Washington played no role in planning or encouraging Syria’s popular uprising against arbitrary, brutal, corrupt, incompetent, and above all, disrespectful family rule in Syria. Months into the crisis the Obama administration had not ruled out the possibility that Assad might, if he were willing to behave as a responsible chief of state, play a positive role in the resolution of the crisis. It was not until August 18, 2011—five months into the regime’s campaign of violent repression—that the president called upon Assad to step aside as Syria’s president. The key point, however, is simply this: it is not as if the United States was in on the ground floor of what became the Syrian revolution, incurring the kind of moral obligation it backed away from in Budapest in 1956. Opposition figures who speak of American betrayal are no more truthful than Assad.

It is true, however, that the president’s August 2011 words raised expectations within the nascent Syrian opposition. Why, after all, would the president of the United States say such a thing unless he intended to make it happen? The president is not, to be sure, a disinterested commentator and analyst. When he speaks people listen and draw conclusions, with the more recent presidential utterances about red lines and game changers as cases in point. There is a huge difference in this regard between being a president and being a US senator. Senators can be positioned by words to be on the right side of history and can then move effortlessly to something else, essentially free of any responsibility to make something happen. Presidents have no such freedom. The president and his advisors may take another view entirely, but when he called upon Assad to step aside in August 2011 he assumed, on behalf of the United States, the obligation to facilitate the desired result. He maintains that he has done so by way of isolating the regime diplomatically, applying economic sanctions, providing humanitarian aid, and sending nonlethal assistance to the unarmed (and recently the armed) opposition.  

Clearly, however, that which is being done is not enough. Using foreign fighters, the regime seems to be stabilizing and perhaps reversing, to its advantage, the combat situation inside Syria. Neither diplomatic isolation nor economic sanctions are impeding the ability of the regime to terrorize civilian populations beyond its control, as Iran, Russia, and others provide it critical relief. Indeed, the United States still considers Bashar al-Assad to be the President of the Syrian Arab Republic, notwithstanding the official liturgical chant to the effect that "He has lost all legitimacy." And much of the humanitarian grant aid goes to a United Nations system whose access inside Syria is governed by a regime still considered by the United Nations and the United States to have a say-so in these matters. How did we get to this point?

By late 2011 it had become clear that the regime’s strategy of transforming peaceful protest (something it could not stop) into armed resistance (something it might) was succeeding. The United States strongly supported the efforts of United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy Kofi Annan to implant observers and persuade the regime to accept a six-point plan that would de-escalate violence and enable peace talks.  

The regime said "yes" to Annan in principle and "no" in practice. Annan’s efforts peaked in Geneva in June 2012 with the P-5 agreement on peaceful, negotiated regime change (also known as political transition). Assad’s negative reaction, buttressed by Russia and China diplomatically and Iran (joined eventually by Hezbollah) on the ground, made it clear that the struggle for Syria would be played out, barring changes in the regime’s calculation, on the battlefield.  

The Obama administration decided, however, that direct assistance (lethal and otherwise) to those undertaking armed resistance inside Syria would not be forthcoming from the United States. Neither would the United States attempt to oversee and regulate lethal assistance coming from other sources, thereby leaving those sources free to arm whomever they pleased in their search for reliable clients. As a result Syrian nationalists, outgunned and underfunded, find themselves squeezed out by the two extremes: a regime that has put its survival entirely in the hands of Iran and Hezbollah; and a jihadist fringe replete with al-Qaeda elements simultaneously fighting the regime while tacitly cooperating with it to marginalize the mainstream opposition. As Iran and Hezbollah fight to win, with Russia providing diplomatic top-cover and arms resupply, the United States agonizes over whether it can do anything at all without making things worse or inadvertently owning someone else’s problem.

Just as was the case in the early post-Vietnam era, the United States seems, in the wake of the Iraq experience, to be going through a phase of crippling self-doubt. Mistakes of the past often get processed in terms ranging from "I doubt there’s much we can do to influence things" to "If we try anything at all we’ll probably mess it up and own someone else’s problem." This sort of defeatism is perhaps understandable, but totally inappropriate. Whether we like it or not, friends and foes alike will draw conclusions if we decide that getting beaten by Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, with Russia taking full (if unearned) credit is, as the old expression goes, "good enough for government work" in this day and age. It is not enough for a senior administration official to declare that a proxy war in Syria is a fate to be avoided at all costs. That war is raging right now, even if one side acts while the other side ponders. We have used words—lots of them—to put US credibility firmly on the line in Syria.

Literally no one is asking the United States to put boots on the ground in Syria. The mainstream opposition is asking for help in staying alive. At the top of the list is weaponry and ammunition, none of which need necessarily come directly from American stocks, although some might. But unless we are content to see the regime, its foreign allies, and al-Qaeda lookalikes dominate the battlefield and the future of a country surrounded by allies and friends of the United States, we will try to oversee and supervise the process of determining who gets what in terms of weaponry and military equipment, making sure that the Syrian nationalist Supreme Military Council gets credit for everything. Second on the list is help in neutralizing the regime’s ability to terrorize civilian populations with missiles, aircraft, and artillery. This kind of intervention—most likely accomplished with stand-off weaponry—would be more palatable to the administration if the request for it were to come from a recognized government established on the ground in liberated parts of Syria. Here is where the opposition could contribute effectively to its own cause: knock off the schoolyard bickering and get on with the business of forming a government inside Syria that the United States and like-minded countries could recognize, support, and help defend: without a single foreign boot ever touching Syrian soil.

Secretary of State John Kerry hopes to revive and implement the Geneva agreement of June 2012. Anyone who cares about Syria and its people wishes him well. Yet the same John Kerry understands better than anyone in this administration that the calculation of the Assad regime must change if there is to be a prayer of negotiations accomplishing anything. It is no secret that the regime bases its calculation on the military situation inside Syria. If we wish to enable diplomacy we will make sure that armed opposition elements we designate get what they need, starting right now. Kerry’s description of what Geneva is supposed to produce—a transitional government body exercising full executive power in place of the Assad regime—is exactly correct. How do we get there if Assad, carried on the shoulders of Hezbollah and Iranian foreign fighters, thinks he is winning?

We have talked ourselves right into the middle of the struggle for Syria. Yet even if we had been more parsimonious with the heated rhetoric and the emphasis on "messaging," we would still be faced with an important national security question: is it acceptable for Syria either to be driven into state failure by a rapacious family regime, or end up being run by the same family, now totally in the debt of Iran and Hezbollah? And with the struggle itself centering on the field of battle, can we safely leave the fate of the regime’s opponents in the hands of others when it comes to vital assistance? It is not, after all, as if the United States has actually adhered to a principled and practical stand against "further militarizing" the situation in Syria. Like the proverbial piano player in the house of ill-repute, we cannot credibly claim ignorance of what others were doing elsewhere. How many times, after all, did we allude to the existence of a division of labor? Yet now we can see the results of having modestly averted our eyes while others did the real work.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee took a positive step. What is required now is a White House willing to say "Yes we can" when it asks itself whether the United States has the will and the means to help the mainstream Syrian opposition finish this regime and send the foreign fighters—Persian, Lebanese, Chechen, and whoever else is helping to create a black hole in the Levant—packing. And if we lack the operational skills to do this well, perhaps we can learn some lessons and rebuild the requisite infrastructure. Yes, standing aside and not even trying is an option. Yet the consequences down the road may make us wish we had tried when we had a prayer of doing some good.

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. Photo Credit.

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