Robert Zarate is policy director and Evan Moore is policy analyst for the Foreign Policy Initiative.
Over 30,000 Syrians have been killed in the course of the 18-month uprising against the Bashar al-Assad regime. As the situation continues to deteriorate, neighboring countries are being destabilized with spillover violence and a tidal wave of over 340,000 refugees. With no end to the conflict in sight, it is clear that Washington's current strategy of economic pressure, international diplomacy, and non-military assistance has failed. It is clear a new policy is needed. As the Foreign Policy Initiative (where we're employed) and the London-based Henry Jackson Society argued yesterday, the United States and like-minded nations should work together to create a safe zone in northern Syria to protect civilians and allow armed opposition forces a chance to truly organize.
Already, the opposition has de facto control over large swaths of territory in the countryside. Establishing a safe zone provides refugees a place to go; shields civilians from attacks by regime forces; allows opposition forces to organize; and helps the United States and its allies better identify, equip, and train groups that share America's values. As the United States ignores pleas from Syria's opposition groups for any direct military assistance, outside extremists have filtered in to exploit the vacuum left by America's inattention. This could lead to the radicalization of the broader opposition movement, as these extremists gain strength at the expense of mainline groups.
A U.S.-backed safe zone over Idlib and Aleppo provinces is feasible to establish and maintain with thoughtful planning and implementation. Most of the Syrian air defense system is situated along the country's western coastline to protect against an Israeli attack. In the north and east, the system is relatively diffuse and decrepit, left over from the Soviet-era. Furthermore, the regime's inability to put down the uprising after a year and a half of fighting demonstrates that the strength of the Syrian military is far weaker than many had supposed.
Recent opinion polling has shown strong support within both the Syrian and American public for a safe-zone. A recent poll from the International Republican Institute showed strong support among Syrians for a safe zone, and polls from FPI and the Brookings Institution showed similar findings among American respondents. Politicians who fear that the public may have no appetite for another armed conflict in the Middle East should recognize that Americans understand the United States can and should stop Assad's aggression against his own people.
In Syria, America again faces a convergence of its values and interests. Removing a terror-sponsoring ally of Iran from power would dramatically improve U.S. and Mideast security. Replacing Assad with a democratically-elected, representative government that serves all of the Syrian people would help ensure that the Arab Spring remains a transforming wave of democratization.
For over a year and a half, everyday Syrians have bravely taken to the streets to protest Assad's tyranny, fought his forces as they attacked innocents, suffered and died at the hands of regime forces, and received only moral support from the United States as they called for aid. Now, the uprising is at a turning point: In the face of relentless regime attacks, jihadists and extremists are gaining power and prominence in the struggle against Assad. To circumvent the rise of these radicals within the armed opposition, to stop the slaughter of innocent civilians, to provide harbor for thousands of refugees, and to help hasten the end of the brutal Assad regime, the United States and its allies must immediately create a safe zone inside Syria.