February 25th, 2012
01:00 AM ET

The U.S. must lead on Syria

Editor's Note: Will Marshall is the president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute

By Will Marshall – Special to CNN

Syrians are making an obstinate and brave stand against Bashar al Assad, who is pulling out all stops to crush popular resistance to his regime. They deserve more help from the international community – with America in the lead.

The Obama administration sympathizes with the uprising, of course, but its policy toward Syria is defined mainly in the negative. The White House has been emphatically clear about what it won’t do: join in a Libya-style military intervention aimed at toppling Assad. In light of recent history, it’s understandable that Obama wants to extricate the United States from Middle East mayhem, not get stuck in yet another conflict there.

But as the violence in Syria escalates, Washington’s stance as a mostly passive bystander is becoming morally and strategically untenable. Regime forces have killed over 5,000 Syrians over the past year. For 23 days straight, they’ve been shelling neighborhoods in Homs, killing hundreds of unarmed civilians and blocking access to electricity, food and medicine. The casualties include two foreign journalists, who may have been deliberately targeted to prevent reports of the siege from reaching the outside world.

Assad’s unremitting brutality has provoked an armed insurrection from the Free Syria Army, made up of defectors from its security forces. The outlook is for spreading civil strife which could turn into a proxy war between Assad’s Shiite allies, Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and an anti-Iran axis of Sunni Arab states, plus Turkey.

Given these growing stakes, it’s time for the United States to get off the sidelines and lead international efforts to resolve the crisis. President Obama has said Assad has to go, but there’s no firm policy behind that aspiration. And U.S. officials have confused matters by calling for a political solution to the crisis, which implies that the dictator could stay on in some kind of power-sharing arrangement.

Syria, however, has passed the point of no return: Either Assad will succeed in suppressing the rebellion, or he will be overthrown. For both humanitarian and strategic reasons, the United States should come down firmly on the side of regime change, and the sooner the better. The Syrian government’s atrocities drew a sharp rebuke from the United Nations this week, which accused it of “crimes against humanity” and drew up a list of political and military officials for prosecution in international courts.

Hastening Assad’s fall also would deepen Iran’s isolation. Not only is Syria Tehran’s only ally in the region, it’s also the conduit through which Iran funnels advanced missiles and other weapons to Hezbollah. The turmoil in Syria already has prompted Hamas’s leaders-in-exile to decamp from Damascus to moderate Jordan.

Today some 70 countries calling themselves Friends of Syria meet in Tunisia to explore ways to stop the killing. Conspicuously absent are Russia and China, which have blocked United Nations efforts to stiffen sanctions on Assad’s regime. Still, there’s plenty that the Friends, with strong U.S. leadership, can do to help the Syrian resistance.

One imperative, for example, is to urge Syria’s civil resistance to unite behind a representative Transitional Government as an alternative to the Syrian National Council, which is composed mainly of exiles. As a condition for recognizing a new Transitional Government, the United States and Friends should demand guarantees that it will respect the rights of Syria’s Alawite, Druze and Christian minorities. These groups have supported the Alawite Assad’s regime, and reasonably fear the Sunni majority will retaliate once he’s gone.

The United States also should explore options for indirect intervention in Syria. This would mainly mean providing the Free Syrian Army with arms, technical support and intelligence on the regime’s military moves. This course entails obvious risks. It could mean arming Islamist elements, or lead to a protracted and bloody stalemate. But at this point, such risks seem worth running since the alternative is allowing civilians to be slaughtered in an unequal struggle against regime forces armed with tanks, artillery and aircraft.

Finally, the Obama administration should be prepared to reconsider its qualms about armed intervention if all else fails. Working closely with the Arab League and Turkey, the United States and perhaps Britain and France could enforce a “no fly” and “no drive” policy in Syria without explicit authorization from the UN Security Council. Alternatively, former Obama State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter has proposed “no kill” zones along Syria’s borders with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Thanks to Russia and China, the U.N. is failing abysmally in its “responsibility to protect” the Syrian people against a vicious tyrant. But that’s no excuse for America to stand by and watch as Assad massacres civilians and tries to abort the Arab spring.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Will Marshall.

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Topics: Military • Syria

soundoff (64 Responses)
  1. steve

    noooooo, we should not get involved here. there is absolutely no way to "win" in this religiously motivated carnage. They will continue killing each other till the last believer is standing with or without our help. They have been doing it for 2,000 years and they will NEVER stop.

    February 29, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  2. Dan Jones

    Should the US lead an invasion force against Syria???? NO. We need to keep our forces free for an invasion into Iran.......

    February 29, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Reply
    • macarter

      Dan you sound just like Don Wallin. Ignorant !!!

      February 29, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Reply
  3. Paul K.

    Let it be Russia and China's problem as response to their veto's in the U.N.. We need to take care of ourselves first. I could care less if the entire Middle East went up in smoke. They can't police themselves or ever act repsonsible, we the U.S. can't be their baby sitter any longer. So put up or shut up! U.S. needs to stop playing the worlds policeman, anyone we try to help turns on us and a waist of our military and tax money. Blah Blah Blah

    February 29, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Reply
  4. Paul K.

    Until Iran has a nuke and is pointing at us and we have no evidence otherwise, the U.S. needs not to start another speculation game as we did with Iraq and the quest for weapons of mass destruction, and disabled the entire Middel East with our actions. Protect our Borders and Solvency and let Natural selection and Darwinism prevail. War is a necessary tool of last resort, and our military is one of this nations most important resources, and not be waisted on fighting for bottom feeder nations that will never stop their behavior patterns as proven for the last 2000 years. The end.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Reply
  5. Paul K.

    Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is set to meet with Obama next week as reports surface that he will seek for US to deliver an explicit military threat to Iran, as US continues to warn against an Israeli strike. If Israeli want to start the fight, well let them do so and they can finish it as well. Again why dosen't Israeli pressure Russia and China for their lack of involement in world issues and sitting on their thumbs instead of leaning on the U.S.

    February 29, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Reply

    No We dont ! Let the region deal with crises they are equipped to handle a silly little country like Syria.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:14 am | Reply
  7. gerald

    being the war mongering country the US is i say fill your boots

    March 1, 2012 at 2:29 am | Reply
  8. ali baba

    Middle east is a lost cause. People there do not want peace. That side of the world has been damed since humans roamed that area.

    March 1, 2012 at 3:42 am | Reply
  9. Tidus

    I'm not feeling like our country is the role model to lead this war so maybe we should work on our own problems

    March 1, 2012 at 7:42 am | Reply
  10. Bla

    Anyone who thinks we should intervene any more than we already have in the middle east is either an idiot idealist, or a military contractor.

    The region is beyond any hope. Let its own people burn it down if they so wish, they will only use outsiders as scapegoats.

    March 2, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Reply
  11. sashka

    US intervention in those wars on Middle East were only because they had or still have some interests there,and people don't know about it at all. And helping to "democracy" has nothing to do with it.Those who fight against Syrian government,most of all, are does who cooperate with al Qaeda.

    March 2, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Reply

    سفن إيرانية تحمل معتقلين سوريين!

    الأخبار السريعة | March 4, 2012

    صفحة الحر السوري وحيد صقر( علوي ) :الى كل الدول التي تمر السفن الحربية الايرانية في مياهها ..!!عليهم بتفتيشها لانها تحمل معتقلين من سوريا الى ايران .هناك حوالي (89789 ) معتقلا حملوا في السفن التي اتت الى طرطوس !هذا النداء من مواطن علوي شريف اتصل بي واخبرني يعمل في المرفأ ولقد رأى ذللك بأم عينه . النشر على مسؤليتي التامة .الأسد وأعوانه يقومون بنقل المعتقلين إلى إيران لاتهام مايسمى بعصابات أرهابية مسلحة باختطافهم وتضليل اللجان العربية والدولية .. وقد تم ذلك عبر البارجتين اللتين وصلتا إلى السواحل السورية منذ عدة أيام فأفرغت ما تحمله وأخذت معتقلين .

    March 4, 2012 at 9:22 pm | Reply
  13. Tactical Conflict Management Solutions

    I don't care about MANPADS and Libya it is easy to find out which tribe sold them if they are used in a terror attack and it is far easier to launch air strikes in Libya than any place else and we will bury them and their kin under rubble. OK, they have no leverage all they have is leveled.

    March 6, 2012 at 9:36 am | Reply
  14. iraq=iran-syria=hizboallah=terrorists=evil

    THE SHIIA Debuty embassador killed his boss by poison as his boss is sunni and UK now try to find what happened , they think poison is involved,,,those shiia thugs from iraq are trying to take over and control iraq with the help of iran weapons and money so they dont lose ellection and they are trying to protect the syrian killers as they are shii 8% controling 92% of syrian sunni...
    الملحقية الثقافية العراقية في لندن

    الحكومة البريطانية تغلق الملحقية الثقافية العراقية في لندن بعد وفاة السيد الملحق الثقافي في ظروف غير معروفة

    وقد تم استدعاء السيد معاون الملحق الثقافي للتحقيق …

    علمأ ان السيد الملحق الثقافي الاستاذ باقر الهاشمي كان قد تلقي تهديد قبل يوم من وفاتة بعد عراك داخل الملحقية الثقافية مع السيد معاون الملحق الاستاذ احمد عبد الرسول البغدادي بعد ان كشف الاستاذ باقر الملحق الثقافي ان السيد المعاون اي السيد البغدادي قد زور اكثر من 45 شهادة لوزراء واشخاص في حكومة المالكي الشرطة البريطانية تعتقد ان هنالك مادة غريبة قد دست في طعام السيد الملحق الثقافي الاستاذ باقر الهاشمي

    March 8, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  15. iraqi shiia and iran shiia making fatwa to allow the killing of syrian sunni!!!as shiia islam allow killing

    منذ بدأت مريم رجوي, الرئيسة المنتخبة من قبل المقاومة الايرانية عملها الديبلوماسي الدؤوب من أجل كسر جدار العزلة والاقصاء الذي فرضه النظام الايراني على المجلس الوطني للمقاومة الايرانية, شهد العالم كله تحولات نوعية في الموقف الدولي تجاه هذا التيار المعارض الذي يخوض نضالا مستمرا منذ أكثر من ثلاثين عاما ضد النظام الايراني وقد نجحت مريم في اقناع الدول الأوروبية باخراج منظمة مجاهدي خلق من لائحة الارهاب تقود الان حملة غير مسبوقة لاقناع الادارة الأميركية بتصحيح موقفها من المقاومة والشعب الايراني عبر اخراج منظمة مجاهدي خلق من تلك اللائحة السوداء.

    «السياسة» التقتها عن قرب وأجرت معها اول لقاء تتحدث فيه مريم للصحافة الخليجية :

    *كيف ستتعاملون مع الاصرار العراقي – الايراني على نقل سكان أشرف الى خارج العراق ؟

    – أشرف بالنسبة للشعب الايراني بمثابة منار للأمل ونموذج لا نظير له في مجتمع ديمقراطي والذي يمنحهم العزم لكي يقفوا بوجه الدكتاتورية السوداء المختبئة خلف ستار الدين , وأود القول هنا ان النظام الايراني قلق من التحولات السورية فاذا سقطت الدكتاتورية في سورية , فان واحداً من أهم أركان نفوذه في المنطقة سيتلاشى.

    لهذا السبب يريد النظام قبل سقوط النظام السوري أن يتأكد من أمرين : الاول القضاء على أشرف وسكانه , والاخر الحصول على القنبلة النووية , لكي يتمكن من خلال هذين المكسبين التغلب على مشكلاته .

    March 10, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Reply
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