Syria's crisis is getting worse. What began as peaceful protest for expanded political rights has become a civil war – the government grows ever more barbarous and the rebels, whose fractious leaders have no authority over some of the largest military groups, are turning to jihadist elements. Surrounding countries are staggering under the weight ofrefugees, and Turkey, Israel and Lebanon have been attacked from Syrian territory.
The West has hesitated to intervene, while Iran, Hezbollah, al-Qaida, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have not. Russia blocks UN action and overtly sells arms to the Assad government, while the Obama administrationinsists Russian cooperation is essential to handling the crisis.
We in the west are very near convincing ourselves that we neither can nor should do anything in Syria. Both of these notions are nonsense.
The west has interests at stake in Syria: protecting people from predatory governments and stopping the proliferation of heavy weapons. We should protect our allies the friendly states around Syria, and work to reduce the pressure on them. Forestalling an eruption of Sunni-Shia violence and a deeper schism serves regional stability, and similarly, people will be safer after exposing Iranian malfeasance and cutting supply lines to Hezbollah and Hamas.
Our interests are significant, but not compelling. Western citizens, understandably tired of war, would be difficult to persuade, but there remains an important argument for finding ways to intervene that are consistent with limited interests and limited public support.
We should be clear that without our intervention, Bashir Assad stays in power, weak and beholden to Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. The rebels will bleed slowly, radicalizing and losing public support, and Syria will endure a perpetual low-grade civil war, sparking reprisals for years. Al-Qaida regains some legitimacy for fighting to protect Syrians when we won't. Jordan, Turkey and Iraq will be subject to enormous strain and they will seek other help to handle it, most likely from GCC countries. The United States proves (not for the first time) our promises of assistance are empty, our red lines easy to cross without repercussions.
Our goal should be a unified Syria, not a stable one that kills its people or a lawless one that hosts terrorists. In order to achieve that, a government with the capacity to administer the country and disarm the militia will be necessary.
We should begin by focusing on refugees. They are in urgent need, and countries can invoke the UN Responsibility to Protect as the legal basis for intervention, our treaty responsibilities for the security of allies, or gain a mandate from the Arab League. Helping refugees is a goal that provides the greatest international legitimacy to action.
A humanitarian rationale is also the strongest case for changing Russia's policy, a precondition for the Obama administration. Russia is concerned about violent Islamism in the Caucasus; we should invite them into a positive role, emphasize the goodwill they can earn by assisting Muslims in Syria. GCC countries should be enlisted to remind China of its long-term energy dependence.
Since we are clearly willing to leave Assad in power, we should barter his continued presidency for allowing refugee camps to be moved from neighboring states into Syria, and for direct assistance from the UN and NGOs. He would keep his title but lose authority in those territories, which would gradually become self-governing, as northern Iraq did after 1991. It is a distasteful bargain, to be sure, but now we are leaving him in power and getting nothing.
If Assad refuses, or imperils the safety of refugees, we should assert control of them. Arming the rebels is an unattractive option, given the increasingly radicalized factions, but rebel forces are strong enough to protect camps, provided that we protect against the Assad regime's air and rocket forces. The government's main advantage is heavy weaponry; therefore we should shoot down any combat aircraft the government uses. Missiles from stand-off range, cratering runways, or impeding their electronics and communications would all work to this end. We probably could not prevent missile weapons, but we should retaliate against any unit that fires them, degrading their forces with time, as Senators Levin and McCain have suggested.
Opposition groups should be permitted to run the camps, giving them the chance to gain experience governing and public legitimacy. Humanitarian assistance would give us routine working relationships with rebels, allowing us to identify both jihadists and positive leaders, the latter being whom we need to help governance. Our assistance should be conditional, based on outcomes achieved: return of refugees, demilitarization of militia, no reprisals. We could also train security forces, which would further build a relationship and understanding with the rebels.
Such an intervention would have many advantages, first and foremost assisting the victims of the war. It would also staunch radicalization, develop opposition leadership, reduce pressure on Syria's neighbors, and prevent the Assad government from winning on its own terms – all while limiting US involvement in the intervention.