The popular uprising in Syria against the regime of Bashar Assad is almost a year old and growing more violent by the day. Reports from the insurgent city of Homs and elsewhere chronicle the extreme level of brutality with which the government is suppressing the uprising. Men, women, and children are being subjected to indiscriminate artillery bombardment, sniper fire and tanks in the streets. And while the rebels can pull off the occasional dramatic attack, such as the assassination of a regime brigadier general in Damascus last Saturday, they have yet to seize and hold any large sections of the country.
As Syria hurtles towards large-scale civil war, the Obama administration has yet to take concerted action. This has come as a surprise to the rebels—the number of people killed by Assad regime forces is five times what it was in Libya in 2011, when President Obama declared that armed intervention against Muammar Qadhafi was a moral imperative. Yet after invoking the intellectually fashionable "Responsibility to Protect" or R2P principle to justify intervention in Libya, the White House quickly denied that it represented part of an emerging "Obama doctrine." The administration explained that, lofty rhetoric notwithstanding, each crisis had to be examined on a case-by-case basis. The rebels in Syria had to understand that in the Obama era, the moral compass points mainly to expediency.
So far, the United States has only been willing to back a limited range of sanctions against the Assad regime, in part because anything more would require a greater effort. Unlike the case in Libya, the Assad regime has some powerful friends. Iran is reportedly helping Syria evade some parts of the sanctions regimes and may be sending some form of military support. Russia and China both exercised their respective vetoes on a United Nations Security Council resolution that was little more than a strong statement of disapproval. The White House "lead from behind" approach will be insufficient to forge an international consensus for action this time.
The new Arab League proposal to send a UN peacekeeping force to Syria is something of a desperation move. It is unclear exactly where these troops would be sent, what their mission would be and, most importantly, whether they would be authorized to engage in peace enforcement. That is, whether they would have the authority and the firepower to respond to any breaches of the peace with force. But of course this is all speculative, since there is no peace to keep, and with Russia and China apparently willing to block any effective moves by the UN, the Assad regime has a green light to continue its bloody crackdown.
Last August, President Obama joined British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in demanding regime change in Damascus. The Arab League has also called for Assad to step down. But each new civilian death in Syria chips away at the credibility of these bold demands. The United States and other countries recommending Assad's overthrow have to back up their policies with concrete action. A series of useful next steps could include: reaching out to Syrian dissident groups such as the Syrian National Council as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, with a view towards securing international recognition; establishing a no-fly zone and no-tank zone of the type imposed in Iraq in the 1990s; and augmenting rebel forces with key capabilities, such as air support, intelligence, and special operations forces liaisons, which were used with great effectiveness to support anti-Taliban fighters during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
The legal framework for some of these actions may be problematic, given Russian and Chinese opposition to any moves under United Nations auspices. But if the Arab League, the major European governments, and especially the United States begin to move towards this form of intervention outside of the UN, it is likely that Moscow and Beijing will step back from their current posture and begin seriously weighing the cost of supporting the Assad regime. Above all, however, it would require Mr. Obama to lead from the front—assuming he is able.
About James Robbins Senior Fellow at the the American Foreign Policy Council
Aaron David Miller Former Adviser to Republican and Democrat Secretaries of State
Brian Katulis Senior Fellow at Center for American Progress
Jamie M. Fly Former Director for Counterproliferation Strategy at the National Security Council
Ammar Abdulhamid Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies