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It’s Time to Arm the Syrian Opposition

This is a contribution to ‘What Should the United States Do About Syria?: A TNR Symposium.

It is a testimony to the relative powerlessness of American policymakers that much of what has already been accomplished to force the end of Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic rule in Syria—ongoing demonstrations; the growing defections within the ranks of a Syrian army that has already killed at least 5,000 protesters; the punishing international sanctions against Damascus; the Arab League’s expelling of Syria from its ranks, and its subsequent call for international intervention; powerful economic sanctions implemented by European Union, Turkey and the Arab League—has been in the absence of any significant U.S. action. Indeed, the current consensus among both diplomats in Damascus and intelligence officials in Washington is that, while he will not go easily, Bashar al-Assad’s regime cannot stay in power indefinitely.

But even if American policy can only act on the margins of the ongoing crisis in Syria, it is imperative that Washington get involved. The status quo is bad enough that when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked to speculate on a best-case scenario, she responded with … Yemen. The problem is that even if Assad’s days are numbered, that number might still be unacceptably high (say, in the triple-digits). Within the borders of Syria, the humanitarian catastrophe is worsening: Over the weekend Assad’s forces amped up the violence on Homs, thirty years after the infamous 1982 Hama massacre by his father. The deteriorating situation has ramifications across the region as well. The combination of sanctions against Syria and Iran threaten to turn Iraq into an economy that specializes in corruption and sanctions-busting, and as Assad’s grip on power grows more fragile, he will become even more reliant upon Iran’s resources.

The New Republic wouldn’t be soliciting my take if there was an easy solution to this policy conundrum. Indeed, Syria is such a tough nut to crack that I fear the best approach to the problem is to apply a Sherlock Holmes-style logic to it. When all of the impossible policy choices have been eliminated, only the improbable ones—however unpalatable they might be—are left to mull over.

Some options are easy to eliminate: After the weekend, a United Nations-approved intervention is not in the cards. The Obama administration did better than in October’s vote, getting 13 yeas, but Russia and China both vetoed the fairly milquetoast resolution. That they did so the day after the escalation of violence in Homs suggests that no level of atrocities will shame Moscow or Beijing away from their protection of Syrian sovereignty. Russia and China will also likely block any effort to refer Assad to the International Criminal Court.

For the Obama administration, negotiating with Assad or doing nothing are no longer options—not after what’s been said publicly. Both the violence in Homs and the failure at the Security Council prompted some harsh rhetoric from American policy principals. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice stated that she was “disgusted” by the Russian and Chinese vetoes and that they would “have blood on their hands” for opposing action. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “The Syrian Government has shown its contempt for the international community, for its Arab neighbors, and most of all for its own citizens.” President Obama issued a statement calling again for Assad to step aside now and saying that “cruelty must be confronted for the sake of justice and human dignity.” The Obama administration can’t make these statements and then not doing anything further—well, it can, but not without looking foolish in the region and developing a reputation for cheap talk. Moreover, it’s not clear what dividends patience will pay in the current situation. There are ways in which time will work against Assad—sanctions-induced economic hardship is now penetrating Aleppo and Damascus, for example. Still, on their own, sanctions almost never topple a regime as entrenched and ruthless as Assad’s.

Finally, neither a no-fly zone nor a U.S.-led ground campaign are feasible options. Assad’s crackdown does not rely on air power, so any restriction by air would have a minimal effect. As Marc Lynch pointed out in Foreign Policy, “Air strikes and no-fly zones can not tip the balance in a civil war environment fought in densely populated urban areas where the U.S. lacks reliable human intelligence.” Having extricated U.S. forces from Iraq and facing a brewing confrontation with Iran, the last thing the Obama administration wants to do is get sidetracked by another kinetic military operation with boots on the ground. If a coalition of the willing existed for the U.S. to “lead from behind,” that might be promising. There is zero evidence, however, that European, Turkish, or Arab League forces are prepared for such a step.

With the easy options eliminated, I can think of two unpalatable but workable paths forward. The first option is to split off Russia—the Assad regime’s most public defender—from the coalition of outside actors offering aid and comfort to Assad. The Financial Times suggests that for Moscow, the primary issue is not the economic benefits from arms shipments to Damascus or worries about the Arab Spring spreading to Moscow. What matters to Russia is preserving its naval base at Tartus, its sole such installation in the Mediterranean for the Black Sea Fleet. So, one option is to suggest that Tartus become the Middle East equivalent of Guantanamo Bay—a military base that survived a dramatic regime chance. If the Syrian National Council were to make such a commitment to Moscow, it could leave Assad without his great power patron. This would deal a psychological blow to the Assad regime and potentially flip Russia from preserving the current regime to facilitating as fast a transition as possible. If Russia rebuffs this offer—not an unlikely scenario, since Moscow has other reasons for wanting Assad to stay around—then the only viable option left is also the nastiest: aiding and arming the Syrian opposition.

Arming the opposition will have costs: The loss of life will escalate; the uprising against Assad could turn into a sectarian conflict; Iran might retaliate by fomenting armed resistance in Bahrain; and the result might simply be an arms race-by-proxy inside Syrian borders. And for the United States, the Syrian crisis matters, but is nevertheless a distraction from the Obama administration’s highest stated priority in the region: getting a handle on Iran’s nuclear program.

That said, the Syrian population wants regime change. What’s going on inside of Syria is a civil war, and the government is clearly receiving ample support from both Russia and Iran. Arming the opposition at least evens the odds on the battlefield. The sad truth is that there is no good outcome, only different shades of terrible. Arming the Syrian resolution won’t bring a speedy, peaceful resolution, but it will make it harder for Assad’s military to systematically annihilate the opposition. In the short term, that appears to be the best one can hope for inside of Syria’s borders.

Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and blogs for Foreign Policy magazine.