As Syria slips further into chaos, America is acting hesitantly at a pivotal moment for our national interests and for those of our allies in the region.
It appears that President Bashar al-Assad’s fall is inevitable, but the question is how long it will take and how much suffering and bloodshed will occur before it happens. There is a looming second battle in Syria, as the opposition is divided along sectarian lines and between moderates and extremists. Simply being against Mr. Assad is no longer enough.
In both practical and moral terms, no one’s interests will be served by a chaotic collapse of the Syrian state, the empowerment of violent extremist groups with ties to Al Qaeda and the sectarian reprisals that could follow Mr. Assad’s fall. America must therefore prepare to make new investments and commitments to avoid an even deeper catastrophe.
American leadership, including providing arms and training to moderate rebels, are likely to be the only things that can tip the balance, help end the bloodshed and halt brewing threats to us and our allies.
Yet the Obama administration has been indecisive, neither fully “in” nor “out,” as radicals and militants are rapidly becoming a more influential force inside Syria. Furthermore, if allegations of Syria’s use of chemical weapons — a “red line” that Mr. Obama has said Syria must not cross — prove true, it will force the White House and Congress to decide about expanding our involvement there.
President Obama and his advisers face difficult decisions about Syria. He should work closely with Congress in devising his strategy and not deploy any military forces without Congressional consent. Like the president, I am reluctant to commit the United States as an active participant in a complex and distant war, and do not support the deployment of American forces to topple Mr. Assad. But the time for “leading from behind” is over.
First, the United States must act to affect the balance of power on the ground, shifting momentum away from radical Islamist groups toward more moderate elements that we hope can lead Syria after Mr. Assad’s fall.
Unfortunately, the moderate elements we must support are not the most formidable or the most cohesive of the forces fighting in Syria.
We must use American resources and ingenuity to help change that — beyond the “nonlethal assistance” we currently provide. This will require weapons and training for rebel units vetted by the United States as well as assistance to improve leadership skills, and cohesiveness in both military and civilian institutions. We should not be engaged in nation building, but we can certainly support Syrians committed to rebuilding their country.
But sending arms alone will not solve the problem. After all, small arms are already flowing to combatants from other sources in the region at an alarming rate. By more fully engaging vetted units and training them to respect the law of armed conflict, protect critical infrastructure and secure dangerous weapons sites, America can make a down payment on Syria’s future by building relationships with future partners.
In addition, the United States must take the lead in building an international consensus on what the next government of Syria will look like. We can be under no illusions: this will be very difficult and will require that we secure significant changes in policy from Russia and other countries in the region.
Establishing common cause between moderate Sunni groups and Alawites — parties that are currently at war with one another — against radical Sunni groups and Iranian proxies will be central to building Syria’s next government. The Alawites are largely clinging to Mr. Assad’s regime for fear that a Sunni victory will lead to sectarian violence against them and that it may be part of the larger, increasingly bitter Sunni-Shia divide throughout the region.
When it comes to Russia, America must display a deeper understanding of Russia’s regional interests and take advantage of our shared concerns about Islamic extremism. Russian leaders believe that Syria is becoming a safe haven for extremists, and we should take that concern seriously while at the same time insisting on sending aid to moderate groups. This could be the basis for a new understanding with Moscow and a shared approach toward Syria.
Only Russia can convince Mr. Assad that he must step aside, which is an essential first step toward a negotiated solution, and only the United States is in a position to persuade the Friends of Syria — a group of 11 nations — to isolate extremists and bring the core of the opposition to the negotiating table.
The United States must also be more aggressive in stopping Iranian support for Mr. Assad. Likewise, public and private sources of support for anti-Assad extremists in Syria should be publicized and targeted with sanctions. Other countries opposed to Mr. Assad, including American allies, must also be much more selective about who they arm and support in the war in Syria.
They must recognize that it is in their interests, as well as America’s, to build an Alawite-Sunni alliance of the center to oppose both Mr. Assad’s army and Sunni extremists with ties to Al Qaeda.
Changing the dynamics of the conflict in the short term will help preserve and rebuild a stable Syria over the long term.
Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent trip to Istanbul reflects this view and is a welcome step. But ending the violence in Syria will require the United States to play an even greater role, and it will force both us and our partners to make difficult decisions. The consequences of our continued collective failure are unthinkable, and grow more serious every day.