Next Steps for U.S. in Syria Crisis

By James Phillips

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, which has made war on its own citizens, has lost whatever legitimacy it once had. The United States correctly has called for Assad to step down from power. His regime has supported numerous Palestinian, Lebanese, Iraqi, and Kurdish terrorist groups in attacks on Americans and U.S. allies; has subverted Lebanon’s independence, assassinated its leaders, and blocked Arab peace efforts with Israel; and remains both a state sponsor of terrorism and Iran’s most important ally. Tehran has dispatched members of the Quds Force, an elite element of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, to help crush dissent within the country. This raises the question of what role the United States and other nations can play to help bring freedom to Syria.

The U.S. can play a constructive role in the conflict by supporting efforts to deliver humanitarian aid. The U.S. should also be working closely with regional partners, especially Turkey, both to help speed the transition to a new, legitimate government and to continue diplomatic pressure and international sanctions against the Assad regime.

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Direct U.S. military intervention, however, is not warranted. At this point, an outside “peacekeeping” force would only become embroiled in the conflict as a combatant. That might increase the suffering of the Syrian people, which is sure to continue as long as Assad remains in power.

Violence Is Escalating

In recent days, the Assad regime has launched brutal military attacks against opposition strongholds—particularly the city of Homs—but appears to be losing ground against Syria’s burgeoning opposition movement. Syria’s internal security forces are stretched thin, and its army is hemorrhaging as thousands, primarily Sunnis, have defected. The regime is increasingly dependent on the Republican Guard and the elite 4th Armored Division, which is commanded by Assad’s brother, Maher. Although the regime has killed more than 7,000 people (mostly unarmed demonstrators), jailed more than 10,000, and “disappeared” thousands more, the opposition is not backing down from its demands that President Assad resign.

The 22-member Arab League dispatched an observation mission to Syria that was withdrawn after the Assad regime failed to keep commitments to ease its repression under an Arab League peace plan. The Arab League summit in Cairo early this week issued a vague proposal for a joint Arab League/United Nations peacekeeping force to be deployed in Syria.

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James Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.

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