Evan Moore is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative
The Obama administration's assessment that "the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale," is a tacit admission that its efforts over the past two years have failed. Instead of continuing to push for a political solution, the Obama administration should reorient its policy from asking Assad to leave office to forcing Assad to leave office.
While the use of chemical weapons, even in this limited way, does violate the president's own red-line for intervention, the truth is that it has been long past due for the administration to lead a multinational effort to end Bashar Assad's brutal and barbaric reign. The humanitarian toll is mounting, with the regime having killed more than 90,000 Syrians, forcing at least 1.2 million refugees to flee the country and internally-displacing 3.6 million more.
Regional security has seriously deteriorated, raising the risk that spillover violence will destabilize its neighbors. Finally, there is not only the horrific possibility of a "scorched-earth" order from Damascus that leads to the deaths of many tens of thousands more, but also the equally-dreadful worry of militants seizing control of some of the regime's chemical weapons stockpile.
As a first step, the administration must abandon any hope of a purely "political solution" in which Assad would voluntarily step down. Three international missions have failed to stop the regime's wanton aggression. U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has admitted that his mission is at a standstill. It is inconceivable that another international effort would succeed where previous ones by the Arab League and United Nations have failed.
Moreover, it should now be plain that Assad has no desire to accept a solution that would lead to his resignation. He continues to enjoy support from Iran and Russia that has helped his forces consolidate and hold the line. Indeed, the dictator himself has once again declared on Syrian national television that his regime has "no choice but victory."
What the United States should instead do is to empower the umbrella organization of the political opposition – the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces – to quickly establish itself as an effective, legitimate transitional government. Additionally, while the United States should do its utmost to expand and improve its humanitarian assistance, it should also recognize that the best way to stop the suffering of those afflicted by the conflict in Syria is to stop the conflict in Syria. To do so, President Obama must recognize that he will have to support active measures that he has – up to now – shied away from.
Were America to provide weaponry, ammunition and equipment to constituent groups of the Free Syrian Army that share America's values and interests, then Washington would gain influence within the armed opposition, and reverse its flagging fortunes. As former Obama administration official Ambassador Dennis Ross succinctly put it in ForeignPolicy.com, "[I]t is an illusion to think that the United States will be able to affect the realities on the ground without providing lethal assistance."
Furthermore, the United States should establish and protect a humanitarian safe-zone over part of northern Aleppo and Idlib by using Patriot missile batteries and limited military strikes against Assad's forces, as the Syrian opposition requested at the recent meeting of the multinational Friends of Syria group. By doing so, the United States would establish a place for refugees to escape to and for the armed opposition to organize and train – a critical step in turning the anti-regime forces into an army capable of strategically defeating the Assad regime.
Additionally, as Joseph Holliday from the Institute for the Study of War recently observed, the use of chemical weapons is the latest episode of the Assad regime's slow-escalation strategy – including the use of artillery and air bombardment – to separate the armed opposition from the Syrian population. In recent Congressional testimony, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey admitted that the administration's approach is not working. The sooner the White House arrives at the same conclusion, the better it will be for the Syrian people as well as for U.S. interests.
Indeed, the Syrian crisis is a paramount national security issue for the United States. If nothing is done to avert this oncoming catastrophe, then the Middle East will be awash in violence and extremism, with the nascent democratization movements in countries throughout the region stalled or receding. The president's insistence on verification from a United Nations inspection team before further action can proceed is a thinly-veiled excuse to avoid action that is required immediately
On November 12, 1936, Winston Churchill warned to the House of Commons, "The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences." Thus far, the Syrian people have suffered the consequences of American passivity in the face of Assad's brutal slaughter. If the Obama administration continues to delay and hide behind "confirmation" that will never be allowed, then it will be the United States that will pay the price.
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