Debate Club

U.S. Can and Should Bolster the Syrian Opposition

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The news that Syria used chemical weapons on its own people – we still don't know if it was a few isolated and unauthorized incidents or a deliberate regime decision to further terrorize its own people – is not likely to move the intervention-shy Obama administration to act in Syria despite the president's repeated declarations that chemical weapons use is a "red line."

That is a shame. The Assad regime's slaughter of its own people, with death tolls now at perhaps 90,000 people, would seem like carnage enough to merit some form of intervention, regardless of whether the people died from the nerve agent sarin or less dramatic, but historically far bloodier means like bullets and artillery. From a more selfish strategic perspective, the conflict in Syria is already spilling across borders, contributing to violence in Iraq and Lebanon, strengthening al-Qaida-linked terrorist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, and placing a heavy burden on the Jordanian regime.

The best form of intervention is not U.S. boots on the ground or even a no-fly zone, as intervention champions like Arizona Republican Senator John McCain advocate. Rather the United States should work with Turkey, Jordan, and partners in the Gulf to dramatically increase the flow of arms, money, and particularly training to moderate elements in the opposition.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Bolstering the opposition allows the administration to make good on its "red line" without engaging in an intervention that has little support at home and would risk embroiling U.S. forces unnecessarily. A more capable opposition could steadily defeat regime forces and, in so doing, create a benign circle wherein defections and desertions increase and further weaken the regime. The opposition is increasingly dominated by radical forces, in part because they fight better and in part because they enjoy more outside funding. U.S. support, and U.S. coordination of allies' support, would help tip the scales against the radicals.

Finally, the biggest danger in Syria is that of a failed state. Should Assad fall tomorrow, it is not clear who picks up the pieces. A strong opposition, and a moderate one that is friendly to the West, is vital for long-term stability in Syria and the region.

The Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons offers a political moment to put Syria on a better course and better protect U.S. interests.

Daniel Byman

About Daniel Byman Research Director of the Saban Center at Brookings

Obama administration
foreign policy

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How the U.S. Can Tip the Scales Against Assad

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Robert Menendez Democratic Senator from New Jersey

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Yes – Failure to Enforce the Red Line on Syria Will Embolden Assad

Charles Dunne Director of Middle East and North Africa Programs at Freedom House

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