More than nine months after President Obama declared that Bashar al-Assad must go, it is clear that neither diplomacy nor sanctions alone will dislodge the Syrian dictator.
On the contrary, Assad’s campaign of killing will continue with no hope of a diplomatic settlement — dragging Syria into a protracted, bloody and increasingly sectarian civil war — until the balance of power inside the country shifts against him.
Unfortunately, the United States is not yet doing anything decisive to turn the military tide against Assad — nor will any other country or coalition of countries do enough, absent U.S. leadership.
East, where I met with leaders of the opposition Syrian National Council and Free Syrian Army, Syrian refugees who recently fled to Turkey and Lebanon, courageous young Syrians involved in organizing the resistance in their country, and leaders of key countries in the region.
One message I consistently heard from both the Syrian opposition and U.S. partners is frustration about why the United States, which called for Assad’s ouster, has done so little to bring it about. Is it because Washington is preparing to make a deal with Iran, they asked, to end its nuclear weapons program in return for keeping Assad in power? Is it because of Israeli pressure to protect Assad, “the devil they know”?These conspiracy theories are absolutely false — as U.S. and Israeli officials at the highest levels have made clear — but they show how deep the feeling runs among Syrians that they have been abandoned by the rest of the world.
What is happening in Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe, with at least 10,000 dead, more than 1 million people displaced and horrific human rights abuses perpetrated daily, including the widespread and deliberate use of rape and other sexual violence as weapons of war.
Events in Syria are also of strategic importance for the region. The fall of Assad would represent the greatest setback Iran has suffered in a quarter-century.
Conversely, the Syrian opposition is worried that the longer this conflict continues on its current path, the more Syrian society will balkanize and radicalize — opening the door for al-Qaeda and its affiliates to gain a foothold, and threatening to turn the country into a failed state that will destabilize the Middle East. This is an especially frightening scenario, given Syria’s large stockpile of chemical weapons.
That is why stopping Syria’s slide into civil war and anarchy is not just a mission of mercy but also an imperative for U.S. national security.
First, we must dramatically step up efforts to provide the Syrian opposition with the means to defend themselves against Assad, so that it becomes clear he cannot win on the battlefield and must seek a negotiated exit.
As in Libya, no U.S. troops should be put in Syria, nor should the United States act there alone. Our partners in the region have the funding, weapons and territory necessary for a full-scale effort to train, equip and sustain a more capable, professionalized and inclusive resistance against Assad — and they seem ready to do so.