Assad Must Go
ADVANCE COPY from the December 5, 2011 issue.
1:30 PM, Nov 24, 2011 • By MAX BOOT
We and our allies should signal our support not only for nonviolent demonstrations but also for armed action to bring down the Assad clique. More than that, we should provide arms and training to the Free Syrian Army, which is based in Turkey, so that they can fight the regime on more equal terms. This doesn’t necessarily have to be done directly by the United States. In Libya the Qataris took the lead in arming the rebels, although if we outsource the supply of military help we also risk giving the Qataris an outsized say in Syria’s future.
The Syrian opposition itself is asking for even more help. They would like to see the imposition of a no-fly zone over their country. Such a step is certainly feasible, even though Pentagon planners will remind us that Syria’s antiaircraft defenses are much more robust than Libya’s. (Keep in mind, though, that Israeli warplanes had no trouble penetrating Syrian airspace undetected to bomb a suspected nuclear site in 2007.)
But a no-fly zone would have only a symbolic impact because there is not much evidence of Assad using aircraft to target protesters. The work of repression is being carried out by thugs, troops, tanks, and armored personnel carriers. All of them could be targeted from the air, but that would require more than a no-fly zone—it would require a no-drive zone as well. That, again, is feasible and should be under serious discussion in Washington, even though accurate targeting would require the insertion of foreign Special Operations forces, a role played in Libya by the British, French, and Qataris.
Even if we are not yet prepared to launch airstrikes against regime targets, we can back another option: the creation of “buffer zones” along the Syrian border with Turkey. These would be places where refugees come to escape Assad’s tyranny and where the Free Syrian Army trains and operates. The creation of such zones could speed the unraveling of the Assad regime by encouraging more defections and by making possible the creation of a Free Syrian government on Syrian soil. Setting up buffer zones would require Turkish military intervention, something that the United States should encourage and offer to support with logistics, intelligence, airpower, and other “enablers.”
It will not be as easy to get U.N. Security Council authorization for military action in Syria as it was in Libya, because the Russians and Chinese are unhappy with the NATO-led regime change that toppled Muammar Qaddafi. But the Chinese are unlikely to stand alone to resist a resolution, and the Russians may be susceptible to pressure from Turkey and the Gulf states, which have also broken with Assad. Even if a Security Council resolution isn’t forthcoming, NATO, the Arab League, and the Gulf Cooperation Council could still provide multilateral cover for intervention. In Kosovo, recall, there was no Security Council approval—and Bill Clinton still intervened.
Although America should not act alone against Syria, U.S. leadership is needed to galvanize a coalition for effective action. That means President Obama will need to put away any lingering illusions about the desirability of maintaining Assad in power and do whatever is needed to help topple him swiftly, thereby limiting the physical and psychological damage to the Syrian people and easing the work of rebuilding a free Syria.