Colleagues over at the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies have lined up 57 luminaries to advocate the following policy prescriptions on Syria:
- Immediately establish safe zones within Syrian territory, as well as no-go zones for the Assad regime’s military and security forces, around Homs, Idlib, and other threatened areas, in order to protect Syrian civilians. To the extent possible, the United States should work with like-minded countries like Turkey and members of the Arab League in these efforts.
- Establish contacts with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and, in conjunction with allies in the Middle East and Europe, provide a full range of direct assistance, including self-defense aid to the FSA.
- Improve U.S. coordination with political opposition groups and provide them with secure communications technologies and other assistance that will help to improve their ability to prepare for a post-Assad Syria.
- Work with Congress to impose crippling U.S. and multilateral sanctions on the Syrian government, especially on Syria’s energy, banking, and shipping sectors.
Does this approach have merit? Let’s look at the components one by one.
Safe zones would require a major U.S. military operation to take down Syria’s air defenses and a major military ground operation, presumably by Turkey and the Arab League, to push back the Syrian army armor and artillery from the safe areas. This would still leave Damascus and Aleppo in Bashar al Assad’s hands. It would also divide the country in a way likely to exacerbate sectarian tensions: Sunnis would likely flee to the safe areas, if in fact they are safe, and Alawis and Christians away from them to Damascus, Aleppo and other areas. Some of this of course is already happening, but it could get worse.
“Full range of direct assistance” presumably means arms to the Free Syria Army (FSA). This will reinforce the drift toward civil war, but it is unlikely to give the FSA means sufficient to win on the battlefield. A prolonged, increasingly sectarian armed conflict in Syria is among the worst outcomes from the U.S. perspective. It could destabilize Lebanon, Iraq and other countries in the Middle East.
I can only agree with the improving coordination with the political opposition and provision of more secure communications technology. But I’d be surprised if the Administration didn’t claim it was already doing the former and more surprised if it hasn’t begun to do the latter.
Crippling sanctions seem to me a good idea–at least as crippling as what we are already imposing on Syria’s sponsor Iran. The war, as the 57 point out, is already a proxy war–we may as well treat everyone on the other side equally.
So I’m with the luminaries half way: the non-military half. They are correct that more than humanitarian considerations are at stake, but they have failed to show how the military action they recommend would improve the situation.
If they really believe military action is possible and desirable, they should come up with a better proposition: destroy the command, control, communications and intelligence centers of the Syrian state and you will see a quick and decisive end to the killing of civilians by the Syrian army as an organized force. The trouble is you won’t know what will eventually take over, and in the interim you could trigger sectarian bloodletting that would make the current situation look like child’s play.
I remain convinced that
- the U.S. and Europe are not interested in intervening militarily;
- diplomatic and political means have not been exhausted, even if they so far have been ineffectual.
I am every bit as appalled as the 57 luminaries by what Bashar al Assad is doing in Syria. But before we do something big and expensive, best to make reasonably sure that it will improve the situation, not make it worse.
“Friends of Syria” will meet at the ministerial level in Tunisia next Friday. That is a good time and place to consider an amplified diplomatic and political effort. I’m sure the military options will be discussed as well, but I’ll be surprised if anyone is ready and willing.
P.S.: Here is what will bring down Bashar al Assad faster than “safe zones” and arming the FSA. This is one of a claimed 41 mini-protests staged in Damascus today: