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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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