Evan Moore is a Senior Policy Analyst and Joshua Brewer is a Research Intern at the Foreign Policy Initiative.
Two years after the uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad began, the United Nations estimates that over 70,000 Syrians have been killed, 3.6 million are internally-displaced, and 1.1 million refugees have fled to neighboring nations. Meanwhile, small but well-resourced jihadists and extremists within Syria's armed opposition are starting to gain disproportionate influence, and Assad appears to have crossed President Obama's "red line" by using chemical weapons against civilians. With the administration reluctant to take meaningful action to hasten Assad's exit, lawmakers on Capitol Hill recently introduced initiatives that will, if enacted, favorably influence the conflict for U.S. interests.
First, Senators Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Bob Casey, D-Pa., introduced the Syria Democratic Transition Act of 2013, which would provide vetted opposition groups with non-lethal military equipment, training on human rights and international laws of war, and also impose harsher sanctions on the Central Bank of Syria. Rubio has also publicly endorsed providing ammunition to members of the armed opposition.
Second, Senators Carl Levin, D-Mich., the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed their support for military action in order to degrade the Assad regime's airpower and to create a safe zone inside Syria's northern border in a letter to President Obama. Toward that end, Congressmen Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., introduced the Free Syria Act of 2013, which would support the deployment of anti-aircraft systems to prevent the Assad regime's air force from attacking free Syrians.
A safe zone would provide shelter for refugees; shield civilians from attacks by regime forces; allow opposition forces to organize; and help the United States and its allies better identify, equip, and train moderate groups. As McCain recently remarked,
Would these actions immediately end the conflict? No. But would they save lives in Syria? Would they give the moderate opposition a better chance to succeed and marginalize the radicals? Would they help the West regain the trust of the Syrian people? And do we have the capability to make a difference? To me, the answer to all of these questions is clearly yes.
However, the window for the United States to help speed the downfall of the Syrian strongman, prevent further bloodshed, and shape the country's future is rapidly closing. The fact is that the Obama administration's indecision already risks destroying future relations with post-Assad Syria, no matter who emerges victorious. Returning from a recent trip to the region, Rubio stated, "There is real resentment building among the Syrian opposition at their idea that the U.S. … has abandoned them… And the abandonment isn't just disappointment anymore, it's anger."
Washington's refusal to arm anyone in the moderate Syrian opposition is perversely helping to empower extremist groups in the country, including those who align themselves with al-Qaida. While the mainstream Free Syrian Army and its aligned groups have publicly denounced and fought extremists, a growing number of rebels have started to defect to more radical groups, due in part to their better supply of weapons and food.
Not only could these fighters gain disproportionate influence in a post-Assad Syria, but there is also an increasing risk that they could emerge as a threat to regional and international security as the conflict continues. As U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague warned, "Syria is now the number one destination for jihadists anywhere in the world today…They may not pose a threat to us when they first go to Syria, but if they survive some may return ideologically hardened and with experience of weapons and explosives."
For two years, the Assad regime has waged war against the Syrian people, and now appears to have used some form of chemical weapons against them. President Obama not only faces the humanitarian and strategic crisis in Syria that he had sought to avoid, but also has a diminished ability to influence and shape the conflict towards more favorable ends.
The White House must recognize that America's interests, as well as its values, are at stake in Syria. The United States must stop the slaughter of the Syrian people, prevent further destabilization of the Middle East from waves of refugees and spillover violence, and blunt the rise of a new core of hardened Islamist militants. Fortunately, several influential members of Congress recognize that the United States cannot waste its chance to bolster and influence what remains of Syria's moderate opposition. The President should embrace their proposals and work with them to hasten the fall of the barbaric Assad regime.
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