Stop Temporizing on Syria

By Will Marshall

The tenuous ceasefire in Syria is a relief, but it also carries the risk that Bashar al Assad will manipulate the UN-sponsored truce to extend his lease on power. Russia, China and Iran favor that outcome; America shouldn’t. 

Yet Washington seems mired in ambivalence. On one hand, the Obama administration has called on Assad to step down. On the other, it has ruled out U.S. intervention and backed Kofi Annan’s UN-Arab League plan, which does not envision Assad’s departure, calling instead for regime-led negotiations with the resistance. 

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While Assad’s forces have stopped firing, they haven’t pulled back from population centers, as the Annan plan also demands. Resistance groups are planning street protests to test Assad’s supposed conversion to talks and reconciliation. 

Whatever happens, the White House should stop temporizing and make clear that the United States won’t support any “solution” that leaves Assad in power. Helping Syrians end his family’s brutal reign best serves America’s strategic and moral interests. 

Like Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi, Assad decided to meet protests with violence rather than make political concessions. Unlike Qaddafi, the Syrian dictator has powerful international protectors. When the Arab Spring flared in Syria 13 months ago, Assad wagered that, with a little help from his friends in Moscow and Beijing, he could crush popular resistance without fear of outside interference. That cynical bet seems to be paying off. 

Unnerved by the West’s success in bringing about “regime change” in Libya, Russia and China have blocked tougher U.N. sanctions against Assad’s regime as well as “no fly” and “no drive” zones to protect Syrian civilians. Russia has long been Syria’s patron and arms supplier, and wants to maintain its large naval base there. But both Moscow and Beijing also claim a higher principle is at stake. They see a stable world order as depending not on the spread of liberal ideas and institutions, as America and Europe do, but on strict adherence to the rule of non-interference in other nation’s affairs.  

In addition to this rift in the international community between democracies and autocracies, there’s another reason to be skeptical of the Annan plan. Without the credible threat of force behind it, multilateral diplomacy rarely works against ruthless despots like Assad. Like his father, Assad sees mass murder as a tool of statecraft and Syrians won’t be able to topple him without outside help.  

Back in the 1990s, it took a Serbian massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica to shock a reluctant West into intervening in Bosnia. What has unfolded in Syria over the last year is a slow-motion Srebrenica. Assad’s forces have killed over 9,000 Syrians, mostly unarmed civilians, including nearly 1,000 who have perished since the regime agreed to the Annan plan less than two weeks ago.  

A Bosnia-style rescue is not likely in Syria. But the United States, working closely with key members of the  80-odd countries calling themselves the “Friends of Syria,” should push harder to even the odds in the decidedly lopsided contest between a diffuse and disorganized opposition and the heavily armed regime. While the Russians (joined by some U.S. “realists”) insist on characterizing what’s happening in Syria as a “civil war,” it’s best understood as a hybrid of nonviolent resistance and a growing armed insurrection born in reaction to the regime’s indiscriminate slaughter of civilians. 

Rather than assuming large burdens itself, America should work out a division of labor among Syria’s friends. Some Gulf states, for example, have expressed willingness to arm Syria’s rebels to counter Iran, which supplies Assad with weapons and money. Turkey reportedly is contemplating buffers along its border with Syria to protect refugees and perhaps, provide a haven for the armed resistance. The United States, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently suggested, can provide communications equipment as well as timely intelligence on troop movements. European countries should work to forge a more unified and coherent resistance that excludes al Qaeda-style jihadists and includes Shia and Christian minorities.   

It’s true that toppling Assad could lead to sectarian conflict in Syria. Against that risk must be weighed the undoubted costs of Assad’s survival. It would be a huge political victory for Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah. It would be a setback for America, the Arab political awakening and the emerging principle that the international community has a “responsibility to protect” people from violence that occurs within states, not just between them.   

Worst of all, of course, it would cancel out the extraordinary sacrifices Syrians have made to free themselves from a vicious tyrant.  As long as they are willing to the fight, America should keep faith with them.    

Will Marshall is the President and Founder of Progressive Policy Institute.

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