FPI Bulletin: Make a Clean Break from Failed Syria Policies

March 15, 2014

On March 15, 2011, a group of children painted “the people want the regime to fall” on a wall in Daraa, Syria, the first spark in an uprising against Bashar al-Assad.  The Assad regime responded with brutal force both to that singular act of defiance and to the nationwide protests that accompanied it.  Three years later, Syria is a graveyard not just to the more than 140,000 people who have died in the conflict, but also the Obama administration’s failed policies in response to this disaster.

Throughout the conflict, President Obama has hoped that some element in the “international community” would rescue Syria.  First, he called on Assad himself to lead a democratic transition or voluntarily step aside.  Then, he waited for anti-regime rebels to somehow turn the tide against the Syrian dictator’s military without meaningful American engagement.  Last summer, he grasped at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s promise of Assad’s voluntary disarmament of chemical weapons after the regime ignored Obama’s own “red line” and repeatedly launched indiscriminate chemical attacks against the Syrian people.  Throughout this all, Mr. Obama feared that a larger role in Syria could upset his diplomatic outreach to Tehran.

Here are the consequences of this failed approach:

  • Assad is strengthening his grip on Syria.  Having long ignored President Obama’s call to “step aside,” the Assad regime is now starting to win its war against the Syrian people.  Bolstered by Russian arms and Iranian fighters, Assad’s forces are on the offensive and are preparing for “elections” this summer—a farcical notion when 40% of the population are refugees and polling will be run by the regime’s thugs.
  • The conflict is now a regional proxy war.  Iran and the Gulf States have fueled the Syrian conflict with funds, arms, and fighters.  Syria’s neighbors, including U.S. allies Jordan and Turkey, face destabilization themselves from refugee flows.  Israel has been forced to repeatedly strike into Syria to prevent Assad’s arms shipments destined for Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon.  With the United States on the sidelines, America’s allies and partners in the region are pursuing their own interests with little coordination or restraint. 
  • Syria is the world’s largest safe haven for jihadists.  As foreign fighters flow into Syria, it has become a safe haven for radicals to fight, train, and plot.  In the past year alone, the number of jihadists and violent extremists in Syria has grown from a thousand or less to some 7,000-to-11,000, including many Europeans.  As U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson recently warned, the conflict in Syria is now “a matter of homeland security.”
  • The war has devastated the lives of ordinary Syrians.  Non-governmental observers believe that over 146,000 Syrians have died since March 2011.  The United Nations estimates that more than 6.5 million people are internally displaced within Syria and over 2.5 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries.  UNICEF reports the number of children affected by the crisis has “more than doubled from 2.3 million to more than 5.5 million,” and that more than 10,000 children are likely to have been killed in the conflict.
  • Assad is not meeting deadlines to dismantle his chemical weapons.  Although Assad agreed in September 2013 to a joint U.S.-Russian plan to dismantle his chemical weapons last fall, he has repeatedly missed deadlines to ship out his arsenal.  Even if Assad cooperates, inspectors may never be able to say with certainty he has surrendered his full chemical weapons stockpile.

President Obama faces the same choice today that he has attempted to defer or dodge at each critical juncture over the past three years:  the United States can either lead an effort with our allies to defang Assad and bring about a post-Assad Syria that is free and inclusive for all Syrians—or watch as a bystander while the conflagration grows.

It is also now clear that a hands-off approach will not foster Russian and Iranian cooperation to negotiate an end to the war.  The recent collapse of diplomatic talks in Geneva and Assad’s progress on the battlefield show that President Obama’s good faith was unrequited.  As the Obama administration’s bipartisan critics have long warned, Moscow and Tehran see an enfeebled United States as reason to test new provocations—from Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula to Tehran’s shipping missiles to Gaza militants—not an invitation to compromise

Russia and Iran’s latest betrayals should free the Obama administration to pursue a clean break from its failed Syria policies.

As a first step, the White House should get serious about arming and training the mainstream, moderate elements of the armed Syrian opposition and enable them to defeat both the Assad regime and the Islamist extremists within the insurgency.  As columnist David Ignatius recently wrote in the Washington Post, moderates like Jamal Maarouf, who leads the Syria Revolutionaries Front. are making progress in the fight against both Assad and the extremists, but will require additional support to hold or expand their gains.

In parallel, the United States needs to reassure its allies in the region about his commitment to ending the conflict in Syria on favorable terms.  President Obama’s planned visit to Saudi Arabia in March 2014 provides an opportunity to bridge bilateral gaps in policy that have emerged over not only Syria, but also Iran and Egypt.

Moreover, the Obama administration should be prepared to strike the Syrian regime and military targets if Assad misses the April deadline for shipping out his entire chemical weapons arsenal, or continues to starve the populations of rebel held areas.  In a study last year, the Institute for the Study of War’s Chris Harmer demonstrated that even a limited strike with standoff munitions could seriously degrade the Assad regime’s ability to conduct aerial resupply of its own forces and aerial bombing of rebel held positions.  Assad’s brutal “barrel bomb” campaign against Syrian civilians indicates how important it is to cripple his air forces.

Three years into this conflict, the Syrian people still want the Assad regime to fall, and President Obama has yet more evidence that hope is no substitute for strategy.  Both the Syrian people and Americans should hope he takes the opportunity to change course.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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