Faced with an unfolding crisis in Yugoslavia that led to significant bloodletting, then-Secretary of State James Baker famously stated "We don't have a dog in that fight." Unfortunately, Baker's maxim has far too oft become the knee-jerk reaction of American policymakers to state failure and mass atrocities in the two decades since. From the Balkans to Rwanda to Darfur, or even more recently Libya, the easy retort now that modern technology makes it difficult to deny knowledge of horrible events is to explain away inaction by exaggerating the consequences of action. Or, more callously, to explain it away as endemic, as George Will opined Sunday on This Week, "The slaughter today is as nothing—awful as it is" compared to previous atrocities in the '80s, basically "something of a Syrian tradition."
It is in this context that the debate over intervention is occurring as Syria teeters on the brink of civil war, the death toll mounts to upwards of 7,000, and the Syrian people plead for assistance. Despite months of Obama administration officials stating that "Assad's days are numbered," the regime shows no sign of immediate collapse.
In the wake of NATO's intervention in Libya last year, Obama administration officials trumpeted a new approach for responding to such crises. But, the UN Security Council's inability to act has belied the Obama approach for what it was—nonexistent. Obama administration officials now say that military intervention is off the table despite decrying the growing chaos. In reality, the case for intervention in Syria is even stronger than it was in Libya. The death toll is on par with that in Libya prior to NATO's intervention. The regime, which initially feared international opprobation and thus used targeted killings and mass arrests, has now adopted the Qadhafi strategy of shelling urban opposition strongholds, killing and maiming men, women, and children indiscriminately.
The strategic case for intervention is even stronger than that in Libya. The regime of Bashar al-Assad is perhaps Iran's closest ally in the region and has long played host to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. His regime possesses chemical and biological weapons and until it was destroyed by an Israeli air strike in 2007, covertly sought a nuclear weapons capability. For years, Assad and his generals also allowed the country to serve as a transit point for foreign extremists entering Iraq to kill American soldiers. Even if that rap sheet is not convincing enough, a Syria wracked by an ongoing civil war will likely destabilize Iraq and undermine the already shaky situation in Lebanon.
All of these reasons should lead to a more assertive and robust U.S. policy than that pursued by the Obama administration. The administration should work with allies to immediately establish protected zones around threatened Syrian cities and seriously consider arming the opposition. Continuing to stand on the sidelines and deny our interest in seeing the Syrian people achieve freedom is not an acceptable policy and will only undermine our moral and strategic interests in the long run.
We do have a dog in this fight. Or, as a doctor in the city of Homs standing over the bodies of dead and wounded children said in a video posted on YouTube , "We need action, not more declarations."
About Jamie M. Fly Former Director for Counterproliferation Strategy at the National Security Council
Aaron David Miller Former Adviser to Republican and Democrat Secretaries of State
Brian Katulis Senior Fellow at Center for American Progress
Ammar Abdulhamid Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies
James Robbins Senior Fellow at the the American Foreign Policy Council