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Debating U.S. Options in Syria

Authors: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies Ed Husain, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
Interviewer(s): Jayshree Bajoria
February 21, 2012

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While violence continues in Syria as the government of President Bashar al-Assad cracks down on protesters, there is a growing debate in the international community on how to respond to the crisis. Four CFR experts provide policy prescriptions for what the United States should do.

Elliott Abrams calls for the arming and funding of the Syrian opposition forces, arguing that the fall of the Assad regime should be a U.S. policy goal. Robert M. Danin, Ed Husain, and Micah Zenko caution against arming the rebel forces given the lack of a united, coherent opposition. Danin recommends fortifying the emerging coalition encompassing the Arab League, Turkey, and others in the newly formed "Friends of Syria" contact group. Husain says Washington must let the Europeans take the lead while focusing on public diplomacy initiatives. Zenko calls for the United States to support the delivery of humanitarian assistance through independent organizations like the Red Crescent, and to provide policymakers with verifiable information regarding on-the-ground developments.

Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Pundits are used to analyzing the gap between what our ideals suggest and what our security interests require. In Syria, there is no such gap. The Assad regime is vicious and repressive, and has in the last year killed more than 6,000 protesters. It has no legitimacy and holds on to power by brute force alone. It is also Iran's only Arab ally, the arms supplier to Hezbollah, and an enemy of the United States that worked hard to send jihadis to Iraq to kill Americans.

So the fall of the regime should be an American policy goal, and in this we will have considerable Arab and European support. The likely Sunni-led replacement will not have the close relationship with Iran and Hezbollah that the Assad clique has established. Thus far, we have imposed sanctions on Syria and made many demands. The problem is that our speeches and even our sanctions have not helped defend the people of Syria against Assad's bullets.

The opposition movement began peacefully and was met with bloody repression by the regime, so it is now trying to defend itself and to fight back. The so-called Free Syrian Army, which began with little more than press releases, is now a force in the thousands and we should be helping arm and fund it.

The United States should encourage the arming and funding of the opposition, to give them a better chance to defend themselves and the protesters and to overthrow the regime.

Why? Because the real questions in Syria now are who will win and how long will this take. We ought to find an Assad victory (or perhaps one should say an Assad, Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and Hezbollah victory) unacceptable. Moreover, we should avoid the false moral equivalence that leads people to say, "Oh, don't arm anyone, just call for a ceasefire." As in Darfur or Kosovo, such calls are in reality an abandonment of people fighting against oppression.

Every passing week not only brings more blood, but also makes reconciliation and internal peace that much harder when the conflict ends. What should we do? The United States should encourage the arming and funding of the opposition, to give them a better chance to defend themselves and the protesters and to overthrow the regime. Whether we best do this ourselves or through others is a tactical question; we should do what will work. But we should be determined that the decades of murder and oppression under this regime in Syria will soon come to an end.

Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies

The United States should pursue three parallel objectives in Syria: ending Assad's rule, halting the bloodshed, and working to unify the political opposition for the day after. Time is critical--continued violence means more lives lost and a greater risk of Syria's fragmentation. Syria's emerging power vacuum already allows al-Qaeda bombings, armed jihadist infiltrations from Iraq, and the flow of Iranian and Hezbollah arms and possibly fighters. Civil war dramatically increases the chances of violence spilling over into neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, or Israel, and increases the risk that Syrian Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) and weapons of mass destruction will fall into rogue hands.

The United States must sustain muscular diplomacy and active high-level attention. This means fortifying the emerging coalition encompassing the Arab League, Turkey, and others in the newly-formed "Friends of Syria" contact group. This grouping provides regional legitimacy and international unity. It should tighten economic sanctions, further increase Syria's isolation in all international fora, and help the opposition formulate a positive vision for an inclusive and representative post-Assad Syria.

Arming the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups may eventually help topple Assad, but it also increases the potential for a fractured or failed state.

Arab League leadership is key to sustaining a unified front opposing Assad's rule. Moscow, increasingly isolated, should be encouraged by contact-group diplomacy to effectuate Assad's transfer of power to a deputy, while initiating dialogue with the opposition coupled with an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire. This requires all to compromise, but it would safeguard Russia's interests. Meanwhile, the UN Secretary General should be encouraged to appoint a special envoy to Syria to advance diplomatic efforts.

Finally, the United States must stop explicitly excluding military intervention. Force employed by the Friends of Syria should be the last step of an escalatory ladder. Diplomacy combined with robust sanctions must first conclusively fail. Regional troops would have to take the lead, with air and logistical support provided by NATO. To avoid this, Syria's military should be encouraged to depose Assad immediately. Arming the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups may eventually help topple Assad, but it also increases the potential for a fractured or failed state, given Syria's heterogeneous composition and the disparate aspirations of the opposition groups.

Ed Husain, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies

Syria, like much of the Middle East, is in flux. U.S. policy options must reflect this fluidity, but also not lose sight of regional priorities including threats from Iran, the rise of virulent anti-American radicalization in Pakistan, social and political fragility in Saudi Arabia, increasing instability in Egypt, uncertainty in Yemen, and now the officially declared entry of al-Qaeda cadres into the mix in Syria. There are limits to U.S. power: The more it is spread, the greater the challenges, and the less effective it will be in yielding results.

Going forward, therefore, I suggest the following:

First, given other regional priorities, the United States should be once removed from the Syrian conflict. Let the Europeans lead. Assad's wife is British. He was educated in Britain. His father-in-law, Fawwaz al-Akhras, lives in London and has been the go-to man for politicians and others. Britain, Turkey, the Arab League, and Russia are already working together to broker a ceasefire in Homs. That work deserves U.S. diplomatic support. Cessation of violence must be the immediate priority.

[G]iven other regional priorities, the United States should be once removed from the Syrian conflict.

Second, the Syrian opposition is a ragtag force of disparate rebels. They have few options but to revert to peaceful resistance, however long that may take to oust Assad. They desperately lack political vision, training, and leadership. In the absence of such qualities, who is the West being asked to support with weapons? Unless the fractured opposition is united with a democratic and peaceful mandate, the United States would be fatally mistaken to open the doors in Syria for al-Qaeda and its affiliates. As in Egypt and Pakistan, the U.S. State Department's public diplomacy initiatives should encompass Syrians. This can start with those who are based in Turkey and Europe to help them mobilize Syrians in Damascus and Aleppo with a vision of a pluralist, but peaceful, Syria.

Finally, military intervention must not be ruled out indefinitely. For as long as Damascus, Aleppo, most mosques, schools, and the bulk of the armed forces support Assad, we would be mistaken to underestimate the risks of an all-out war, sectarian bloodshed, and rival tribal fighting. If there are mass uprisings in Syria's two largest cities or fractures within the ruling Ba'ath party, then regional calculations and priorities alter. For now, all diplomatic efforts must be exhausted to bring about an end to violence from both sides in Homs and other rebel outposts, while continuing to monitor the variables in Syria.

Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow

Seven weeks into the NATO-led intervention in Libya, when former secretary of defense Robert Gates was asked about the rebels, he responded with candor: "The honest answer…we don't know who they are…This is one of the reasons why there has been such reluctance to provide any kind of lethal assistance to the opposition." Although the United States ultimately did not arm the Libyan rebels, other countries happily did so, in violation of several UN Security Council resolutions.

Eleven months into the conflict in Syria, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon characterized the escalating violence as "almost certain crimes against humanity." Now, the question is whether the U.S. government should arm the Syrian opposition in an attempt to counter the violent repression by the Assad regime, primarily against civilian populations. The answer is "no."

[P]roviding equipment or small arms to the opposition would likely only provoke the Assad regime to intensify its brutality, leading to an overt civil war.

There are too many unknown variables. Despite the shared objective of bringing down the Assad regime, the disparate opposition has been unable to coalesce. According to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the Free Syrian Army is a "blanket, generic name applied collectively to the opposition." Washington is not familiar with the Syrian opposition and does not know what tactics they would employ if provided with weapons. There are many who neither want to further militarize the uprising nor taint the revolution through Western assistance. The United States should not privilege the armed faction of the opposition at the expense of the vast majority of Syrians who have bravely sustained nonviolent protests.

Artillery and tank shells, mortar rounds, and sniper fire are killing Syrian civilians and members of the armed opposition, but Assad has only deployed a limited amount of his potential manpower and weaponry. Despite calls for a no-fly zone, the air force has not conducted airstrikes since June 2011. In this context, providing equipment or small arms to the opposition would likely only provoke the Assad regime to intensify its brutality, leading to an overt civil war.

The United States should help build a more coherent and representative opposition; maintain pressure on Moscow; support the delivery of humanitarian assistance through independent organizations like the Red Crescent, not NATO-imposed "humanitarian corridors"; and provide policymakers with verifiable information regarding on-the-ground developments.

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