In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee yesterday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated President Obama’s August 2011 demand that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad step down. However, neither explained how this might be accomplished in the aftermath of the collapse of the plan for a Syrian ceasefire and transition advocated by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Indeed, the Assad regime—Iran’s closest Arab ally—appears committed to preserving power by slaughtering Syrian civilians and the anti-regime opposition. As Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Lieberman (ID-Conn.) bluntly stated in a joint statement:
Assad is in violation of virtually every provision of the Annan Plan. There is no freedom of movement for journalists. There is no timely provision of humanitarian assistance to areas affected by the fighting. There is no freedom for Syrians to ‘demonstrate peacefully,’ as is their legal right. And most of all, there is no ceasefire. On the contrary, Assad's tanks and artillery continue to shell civilian populations. His forces continue to assault and murder Syrians who attempt to protest peacefully. And his helicopters are now increasingly attacking Syrian towns and cities. Indeed, since the Annan Plan was announced last month, Assad has escalated the violence, killing at least one thousand additional Syrians and displacing thousands more from their homes.
News reports suggest that the Obama administration (internally, at least) is increasingly recognizing that its strategy of multilateral diplomacy and economic sanctions is failing to halt the Assad regime’s mass murder in Syria. But U.S. officials have yet to devise and agree to an alternative plan.
But President Obama could do something. As the Foreign Policy Initiative (where we’re employed) and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies argued in a joint bulletin last week, Obama could hasten the Assad regime’s end by actively working with Congress to:
· Initiate and intensify direct contact with the Free Syrian Army and associated forces, and provide them with a full range of assistance, including self-defense aid;
· Establish safe zones for civilians within Syrian territory; and
· Use limited retaliatory airstrikes against select Syrian military targets in order to protect the safe zones.
In a prepared statement to the House panel, General Dempsey noted that the U.S. military’s role in Syria “has been limited to sharing information with our regional partners—each one very capable in its own right.” But Dempsey added: “Should the armed forces of the United States be called on to help secure U.S. interests in other ways, we will be ready. We maintain an agile regional and global posture. We have solid military relationships with every country on Syria’s border. We know how to integrate our unique capabilities with others.”
As the death toll continues to mount in Syria, it remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will proactively work with Congress to shift policy, and act decisively to end the country’s slow-motion humanitarian disaster—as well as the Assad regime.