The “realist” case for Bashar al-Assad—and before him, for his father, Hafez—was that he was supposedly a pillar of stability. The Assads, we were told, were all that stood between Syria and chaos. If that was ever true, it definitely is not true now. Assad’s heavy-handed attempt to repress a revolution is not cowing the protesters. Instead it is leading growing numbers of them to take up arms. Soldiers are defecting to the Free Syrian Army, which in recent days has reportedly attacked an intelligence headquarters outside of Damascus and a Baath party headquarters inside the capital.
Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, is descending into civil war with, in the words of a New York Times correspondent, “supporters and opponents of the government blamed for beheadings, rival gangs carrying out tit-for-tat kidnappings, minorities fleeing for their native villages, and taxi drivers too fearful of drive-by shootings to ply the streets.” This could be a vision of what all of Syria might become if Assad continues to cling to power—as he shows every sign of trying to do.
Indeed, Assad recently vowed defiance to the Sunday Times of London, telling a reporter he “will not bow down” despite growing international pressure, such as the European Union’s decision to stop buying Syrian oil and the Arab League’s decision to suspend Syria from membership. It is not only Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, and other Westerners who are telling Assad to step down. The same message is coming from the leaders of neighboring Turkey and Jordan. Even Hamas, long headquartered in Damascus, is backing away from Assad. His actions are beyond the pale for a terrorist group—that tells you something.
The tough economic sanctions imposed by Europe—the major buyer of Syrian oil—will reduce Assad’s revenues and, over time, undermine his hold on power. But Assad retains the support of the Iranian regime, which is assisting and advising him in his war against his own people. He also has the backing of much of the Alawite minority, which dominates Syria’s military and government. With such backing, he could try to cling to power indefinitely even as the country collapses around him and the death toll—already at 4,000 or more—continues to climb.
The West could just sit back and watch this slow-motion catastrophe unfold. But doing so runs the risk of deepening fissures, in particular between Alawites (a Shiite offshoot) and the majority Sunnis, that could take decades to heal. We also run the risk that regional players will become more deeply embroiled in backing competing sides in what is fast becoming a Syrian civil war. If parts of Syria slip outside anyone’s control (as occurred in Iraq from 2003 to 2007), they could become havens for Sunni extremists such as al Qaeda.
On the other hand, if Assad goes, it will be a historic opportunity for a strategic realignment that takes Syria out of the Iranian camp and denies Hezbollah its main source of supply. It is almost certain that any Sunni regime that succeeds Assad will not be as close to Tehran as he has been. And, if we help bring about Assad’s downfall, we will have leverage with his successors that we would otherwise lack.
In some ways the current moment recalls the Balkans of the early 1990s—another situation where the West (and in particular the United States) tried to ignore a human-rights catastrophe but eventually intervened. That intervention stopped the killing and produced a delicate but durable peace accord. Might outside intervention be equally successful in Syria? It very well could be, which is why, despite the understandable reluctance in Washington to mount another Libya-style operation, it is time to start thinking seriously about what can be done to hasten Assad’s downfall. Obama has done a good job so far of isolating and sanctioning Syria, but more action is necessary.
For a start, we should abandon the rhetoric and mindset of moral equivalence reflected in statements such as the one issued by State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner after reports of the Free Syrian Army’s attack on the Baathist party headquarters. While placing the bulk of blame on the Assad regime, Toner also said that “we are very concerned” about the attack and “we certainly don’t condone this kind of violence . . . in any way, shape, or form.” We don’t? Why not? Isn’t the use of force legitimate to overthrow a regime that has time and again shown its willingness to slaughter civilians in the street? It certainly was in Libya. Why not in Syria?
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.