We Need a Game Changer in Syria

Caution in asserting American power may turn out to be self-defeating.

Political cartoon satirizing President Barack Obama's hesitation on intervening in Syria.
By + More

Deadlock! That's the word to sum up the recent meeting in London of the G-8 foreign ministers of industrialized countries about Syria. It's at a "critical juncture," said President Obama last week.

Deadlock means more Syrians will die. More than 70,000 have died already in the two-year rebellion against the Assad regime. British Foreign Minister William Hague frankly admitted that the world community has failed and looks set to continue failing. "The United Nations Security Council has not fulfilled its responsibilities because it is divided. That division continues. Have we solved that division at this meeting? No. We didn't expect to … do so."

So much for the G-8 and the U.N. But what of the United States? "Critical juncture" implies we might decide to do something – or nothing. President Obama has said that if Syria is found to have used chemical weapons, then it will be a "game changer."

We need a game changer now. It is admittedly not the easiest crisis to resolve and admittedly many Americans regret our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But let's understand that what is going on in Syria is a very real threat to demonstrable U.S. interests.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

What is going on in Syria is an all-consuming Muslim religious conflict between the Sunnis – led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the Kurds – and the Shiites, led by Iran, Syria, Iraq and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Syria is the strategic battleground where Shiite Iran is waging a proxy war against the moderate nations in that region. Should the Iranian bid for regional hegemony be broken in Syria, the Middle East would change dramatically and for the better. The stranglehold of Hezbollah on Lebanon might well come to an end.

So what accounts for the failure of the Obama administration, its Western allies and several Middle East regional powers to take bolder action? One rationale is a fear of anarchy that might well destabilize weak neighbors like Iraq and Lebanon. Even Turkey is concerned given that it shares its longest land border with Syria and may have to cope with an influx of millions of refugees.

If direct military involvement carries too much risk, then indirect aid is possible with less risk and more cost. It would require the U.S. and others to supply weapons, training and intelligence for Assad's opponents at a level that would ultimately precipitate the regime's collapse.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

The fear, of course, is that if we did supply arms, then they might fall into the wrong hands. Radical Islamists are crossing into Syria in increasing numbers. The risk of another Islamist takeover has become an argument against toppling Assad.

But the longer Assad stays in power, the more jihadists will go there and the more gains will be made by Islamists on the ground. If they become the dominant force, then the terrorists and Hezbollah would be close to getting control of unconventional weapons, especially chemical weapons. And that would be a horror show. Western inaction threatens to lead to precisely the outcome that its advocates say they want to avoid.

Iran will go on supporting its only state ally in the Middle East, but if the U.S. managed to intervene intelligently, then we might at least reduce Iranian presence in Syria and thus affect the regional balance of power. Turkey could play a decisive role. It could stop the flow of weapons from Iran to Syria via Iraq.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

Assad has turned his military ferociously against his own citizens to the point where any kind of negotiated transition between the rebels and Assad is no longer possible. Yet the opposition won't have the capacity to deal Assad's regime a fatal blow while Russia continues to block any punitive U.N. Security Council measures, continues to object to anybody doing anything, and supplies the Syrian regime with arms and economic support. At the same time, it deplores the situation!

Agreement in the West may be deadlocked, but there isn't deadlock on the ground. The fighting has already spilled over the border into Lebanon. Jordan now has to deal with the growing number of Syrian rebels entering its territory and threatening its national security, and because of Syria and Iran, Hezbollah has become a powerful terrorist entity.