By Alon Ben-Meir
For better or for worse President Obama has not acted decisively with Western allies in an effort to end the horrific civil war in Syria. The tragic loss of nearly 150,000 Syrians, nine million internally displaced persons and refugees, and the massive destruction would still pale in comparison to the near-complete devastation of the nation if nothing is done soon.
Recent events in Ukraine and the Middle East provide Obama perhaps the last chance to contain and eventually end the conflict. The President must first save Syria from a ruthless tyrant who has demonstrated no qualms about destroying the whole nation only to maintain his reign. Acting now would also restore America’s credibility and send a clear message to friends and foes alike that the US will no longer sit idle in the face of this unspeakable calamity.
To begin with, it is time for Obama to recognize that he cannot count on President Putin’s help to end the bloodshed in Syria. Russia had vetoed several United Nations Security Council resolutions to punish Assad. It continues to supply him with weapons, refused to coerce or induce him to make any political concessions, and engineered the chemical deal to prevent an American strike, which has strengthened rather than weakened Assad.
Furthermore, Obama has allowed Russia to usurp the political initiatives on Syria by spearheading two bogus Geneva conferences, knowing that they would not produce a solution but rather give Assad more time to regroup and regain the upper hand. Finally, Putin has categorically refused to embrace any solution that will exclude Assad.
Now that the annexation of Crimea has soured US-Russia bilateral relations, the prospect of Russia becoming a helpful player is even dimmer than before. It would be naïve to assume that Putin will now convert and act against his own perceived interests.
Putin will maintain his position as long as Assad is part of Russia’s strategy to secure its interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. Putin, however, knows his limits and recognizes that should the US decide to strike Syria, there is little he can do to challenge the US and its European allies. I believe that after much wrangling, he may well choose to play a positive role to protect Russia’s interests post-Assad.
Second, contrary to the view that taking military action against Syria would disrupt the ongoing negotiations with Iran about its suspected nuclear program, I maintain that the opposite is true. Iran may suspend the negotiations for a few weeks, but Tehran is still in dire economic straits, and it can ill-afford to scuttle the talks while much of the sanctions remain in place.
To be sure, acting against Syria now would strengthen Obama’s hand in these negotiations, as it will send an unambiguous message to Tehran that the US will no longer buy into Russia’s or Iran’s mischief. Iran will more likely continue to adhere to the interim agreement and negotiate a long-term accord to further ease the sanctions and prevent an American or Israeli military assault.
Third, striking Assad could also enhance the prospect of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations as the US will be in a stronger position to pressure both sides to make necessary concessions to reach, at a minimum, an interim agreement.
Renewed resolve by Obama would also restore his credibility among the leading Arab states, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who were extremely disappointed by Obama’s reversal of his decision to strike Syria following Assad’s use of chemical weapons. They want to feel confident that the US will uphold its commitment before they pressure Abbas to show more flexibility in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Fourth, there are those who caution that an American strike could undermine the chemical deal; I disagree. Assad knows that he can no longer use or delay the transfer of chemical weapons, which would assuredly invite American military action. In this regard, Russia also, fearing that such weapons could fall into the hands of extremists inside the Russian Federation, wants to see all chemical weapons removed from Syria.
Fifth, others assert that widespread chaos would follow an American strike and make the situation even worse, and that Syria is better off with Assad than without him. However, Syria is already disintegrating, and the factional war is not likely to abate, but will worsen.
An American strike could strengthen the moderate rebels, led by the Free Syrian Army, and allow them to regroup and confront the extremist groups (whose strength is overly exaggerated) with the full backing of the leading Arab states and Western powers.
Finally, although the US should not undertake military measures solely for restoring its credibility, continuing lack of American credibility will only invite new challenges throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. Countries like Iran and Syria would not fear crossing American red lines, and states like Saudi Arabia and Israel would no longer fully rely on US protection of their national security concerns.
Although there is nothing new in suggesting that the US must strike Assad, the circumstances now favor American military intervention to end the indiscriminate killings by changing the balance of power on the ground in favor of the rebels. Supplying weapons to vetted rebels, which could have helped in the past, will no longer in and of itself be sufficient or effective at this juncture.
An American military assault backed by Western powers should be preceded by a US demand that Assad immediately cease and desist the indiscriminate bombing of his civilian population or else suffer painful consequences, as was cogently put by Ambassador Frederic Hof, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East:
'Unless the assaults on civilian populations by the Assad regime cease forthwith, the United States will take steps of its choosing at times of its choosing to bring relief to Syrian men, women, and especially children, being murdered, maimed, terrorized, and dispossessed by actions already defined as war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Independent Commission of Inquiry.'
Subsequent to that, the US must insist that Assad step down while leaving much of the bureaucracy in place to prevent the chaotic conditions that were created in Iraq.
Given his belief of Obama’s lack of resolve, Assad will likely ignore such a warning. Assad’s anticipated rejection should immediately be followed with military strikes to be limited in scope and duration, without a single American soldier on Syrian territory. It should entail the imposition of a no-fly zone, surgical attacks on some military installations and air defenses, and the destruction of runways and infantry hardware.
It is true that domestically, a majority in the US (70%, September 2013) does not wish to see military intervention, citing the Libya debacle. But to equate the situation in Syria to that of Libya is erroneous on a number of grounds:
Unlike Libya, the purpose of striking Assad is to 1) degrade his air capability and prevent him from indiscriminately bombing thousands of men, women and children, 2) prevent him from regaining lost territories, 3) open up corridors to supply stranded civilians with food and medicine, and 4) force Assad to realize that he cannot prevail.
By arresting Assad’s gains and with no effective weapons at his disposal, especially airplanes and helicopters to repel rebels’ advances, he will be forced to seek a political solution that will exclude him but spare his life.
Syria represents a critical test for the US’ credibility and moral leadership. Only the US can bring an end to Syria’s suicidal path, and the President must shoulder that responsibility.
Cover photo by Davidlohr Bueso
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.