How the U.S. Can Save Syria

With more than 40,000 dead, Syria’s rebels have appealed for outside aid. Thair Al-Damashqi / Shaam News Network-Reuters

The United States can’t save Syria, but it can save Syrians and Americans. Unalterably, Syria is in for an extended, chaotic, and bloody future. If the U.S. intervenes directly in the fighting, we’d only prolong the bloodshed and at considerable cost to ourselves. But we can and should set up a safe haven for Syrians inside Syria, especially on borders with Turkey and Jordan, and protect the refugees with U.S. air power. And we can and should focus what resources we have on identifying and advancing the cause of moderate Syrians. Those who scream for more never specify practical ways for doing so.

—Leslie H. Gelb

First we should push as hard as we can on the current diplomatic track and satisfy ourselves that we’ve done everything we can. And if that doesn’t work, we should recognize the Syrian National Council with our other allies and then recognize [it] as the legitimate government of Syria. We should offer to assist that group in anything that it needs, including a safe zone and air support. We don’t go through the U.N. at that point. We should do everything we can to end the fighting and help broker a transition with that group. 

—Anne-Marie Slaughter

The Obama administration should assemble a coalition of the willing to intervene immediately. The death toll of more than 40,000 is too painful to bear. Based on the lessons we learned from the other Arab Spring countries, the coalition of the willing should lead the political process. Organized political Islam must participate, because they fought for the liberation of Syria, but they must not determine the terms of the political process, like Mohamed Morsi’s Brotherhood has done in Egypt. Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle must be brought to The Hague and a reconciliation tribunal opened, so that people get a channel through which they can express the horrors they suffered. That way, they avoid a situation whereby the passions of revenge hijack the political process. Finally, the sooner we act, the sooner the mass murders and mass rapes and the risk of the use of WMDs comes to an end. Intervening now will send a message to Iran that when America draws a red line, she’s not bluffing.

—Ayaan Hirsi Ali

It’s a very dangerous situation in Syria, and I’m afraid that we’ve waited very late to intervene. And I don’t mean “intervene” militarily, I mean [it] in terms of helping the opposition come together and perhaps arming them. When a civil war, which is what you have in Syria, goes on for a long time, it empowers the worst elements, and so what was once an opposition that was dominated by more tolerant, more liberal forces now has an element of al Qaeda, a very radical Sunni force. Syria is made up of Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Alawites, [and] Christians, and what all of those people fear is that when Assad goes—and he will go because his regime is falling apart—there will be warring among these factions.

—Condoleezza Rice, summarized from her interview at Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Women in the World Summit in Brazil.

The international community with U.S. leadership needs urgently to prepare a stabilization force to save Syria once Assad finally falls. Modern Syria is an artificial French creation. When Assad falls, it will splinter on Sunni-Alawite and Arab-Kurd lines. Al Qaeda and Hizbullah will grab chemical and other deadly weapons. Lebanon and Jordan may be engulfed in the chaos. To save Syria, NATO should plan and lead the force, the Arab League should provide legitimacy, and Turkey should provide the bulk of the troops with token Arab and Pakistani contingents. America and 
Europe can help with experts and 
air power. The Saudis, Qataris, and UAE can pay. But the time to organize is now, not when the crisis breaks upon us.

—Bruce Riedel

How can we not see that if we persist in doing nothing, if NATO’s airplanes remain grounded and if the French and U.S. troops stationed in Jordan continue to hold out for the hypothetical crossing of that famous “red line” of chemical warfare, that 40,000 dead will become 50,000, 60,000, perhaps more? Who can say where the bloodbath, the spiraling destruction, could end? And how can we not see that the real question hasn’t been—for a long time now—whether one ought to help Assad stay in power or to topple him (since his end is now a foregone conclusion; the only issue remaining is whether he’ll be ousted with our help or without it), but rather whether or not the rebels’ inevitable victory will also be our own, in some small way? The first scenario is the Libyan one, the only one that gives us a chance—however small—to weigh in on the political battle that will follow the dictator’s fall. The second scenario would be far worse, as it would see extremists facing off against democrats, religious zealots facing off against moderate Muslims. And right now, given the realities on the ground, everything favors the former group. We can’t say we haven’t been warned.

—Bernard-Henri Lévy

The main fear among Christian, Alawite, Kurd, and Druze minorities is that the hardcore Islamist element within the Free Syrian Army will not guarantee the safety and rights of all Syrians in a post-Assad era. They foresee retaliation and exclusion from the system. Assad is a dead man walking, but many Syrians are convinced that the civil war will outlive him. This group has everything to lose, and will carry on fighting unless the Syrian opposition leader Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib publicly outlines a vision for the future of the country that guarantees a power-sharing arrangement. Such a strategic move would trigger major defections by Assad loyalists. For this agreement to be credible, it should be brokered by the international community in consultation with minority leaders, and it must ensure the safety and rights of all Syrian citizens. This accord may have to include a self-governing Alawite region centered around Latakia and Tartus. Furthermore, during the transition period, it must be monitored by an international force to prevent long-lasting ethnic conflicts that threaten to destabilize Syria and neighboring states.

—Rula Jebreal

the real question is what happens after Assad goes. Some of the possibilities are pure nightmare: a disintegrated country with havens for terrorists, Kurdish nationalism spreading through the region, a resurgence of Sunni rebellion in Iraq. The first objective of American policy is to determine what realistic short- and medium-term outcomes we want in Syria post-Assad, and what realistic means we have to achieve them. The Obama administration does not want to get involved in another Muslim-world war of any kind, and even if it could be persuaded to support short-term military action, which it may be preparing with all the propaganda about Syrian regime chemical weapons, it will avoid an occupation at all costs. And rightly so. That leaves diplomacy and covert action, which Obama loves if he thinks it will work. What we must not do is make the mistake we have made so often in the past and believe that our clients are our friends or, much less, our obedient servants. But we can keep working to shore up a viable coalition of pragmatic politicians. This much the State Department is trying very hard to do, and with some success. If the dictator goes down that gives us at least somebody to call.

—Christopher Dickey