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.
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Syria has long been a major pain. It has had a long alliance with the Soviet Union. It joined in the destruction of democratic Lebanon; it was implicated in the murder of Lebanon's democratically-elected leader.

Syria is a charter member of the State Department's rogues' gallery of terror-sponsoring states. It has a deepening strategic relationship with Iran's Islamic republic. Its proxies in Hezbollah host Palestinian terrorist groups. It violates the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It torpedoes U.S. efforts to midwife democracy in Iraq. So the Assad family, father and son, have been and remain a direct threat to Middle East peace and security and to the advancement of U.S. interests, while their collapse would be a devastating blow not only to Iran but to the radical axis in the region. Syria remains Iran's Achilles' heel.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the U.S. Intervene in Syria with Military Action?]

Our feeble response represents a moral and strategic failing of major proportions. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham wants to see boots on the ground if chemical weapons are confirmed. It is a risk but better than letting the terror groups have them. And certainly we can engage in covert efforts. Surely, we can beef up our intelligence efforts so we have a very clear idea of who are the good guys and who are the bad?

Another policy option is to impose a no-fly zone over Syria. This would remove the decisive tactical advantage of Assad's air force. This is feasible even though Syria possesses capable air defenses as they are no match for U.S. air power. A no-fly zone would not immediately end the conflict, but neutralizing the Syrian air force would erase one of the regime's most decisive advantages. Control of the air did the job in Bosnia and Kosovo. Keeping Assad's airplanes on the ground would show the Syrian military that it was saluting the wrong guy. Meanwhile, the opposition will remember the nations that came to its aid.

Our closest allies, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are arming the rebels and eager to see Assad go.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the United States Consider Military Action to Hinder Iran's Nuclear Program?]

Allowing Syria to become an ungoverned land and thus a haven for terror and crime on the Mediterranean will prove far costlier in the long run. It may even provoke a larger regional war. And it must be wrong to let a massacre continue out of fear that something worse may follow, allowing the moderates to lose out to the radicals.

If the Assad regime collapses, and if the jihadists ever acquire weapons of mass destruction such as chemical weapons, then we will then have a regional disaster. At the very least we should provide the Syrian resistance forces with everything we can in the way of communications, intelligence and other non-lethal assistance, and also seek to establish safe zones along Syria's borders with Jordan and Turkey where refugees could escape.

The overthrow of Assad would remove the increasing Iranian presence in the region and change the regional balance of power.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

There is one central reason why a broader American effort makes sense: Allowing Syria to become an ungoverned land and thus a haven for terror on the Mediterranean may well prove costlier in the long run. Too much caution may turn out to be self-defeating.

We just cannot take the risk that Syria will become a jihadist safe haven for then we would be faced with a war in the heart of the Middle East that would spill over to vital U.S. allies such as Turkey and Jordan, not to mention volatile neighbors such as Iraq and Lebanon. Caution in asserting American power may turn out to be self-defeating.

The longer we hesitate, the harder it will be to shape the desired outcome. All the while, a brutal Syrian regime kills more of its own people and offers a safe haven for jihadists.

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