WASHINGTON — As Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad continues his slaughter, the issue is not whether more forceful U.S. action to stop him is risk-free.
The issue, instead, is how the risks and potential rewards of more forceful U.S. action to stop Assad’s slaughter stack up against those of a continued U.S. reliance on sanctions and diplomacy that offer few prospects of success.
On its current path, Washington is increasingly likely to blow a major opportunity to advance its interests and, worse, to suffer a major strategic defeat that could have serious repercussions in the region and elsewhere for some time.
The case for a more forceful U.S. response is compelling.
Assad remains a committed U.S. adversary — despite the hopes of all-to-many “experts” over the years to make him an ally — who works closely with Iran’s radical regime to fund and arm the terrorists who have targeted U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and attacked U.S. interests in the region.
Thus, Assad’s fall would eliminate a major U.S. adversary and, as senior U.S. officials acknowledge, deliver a severe body blow to Tehran, leaving it more isolated diplomatically just as sanctions over its nuclear program are squeezing its economy.
Washington’s refusal so far to step up — such as by working with its European or Arab allies to arm the opposition, establish safe havens to protect Syria’s people and enable opposition forces to regroup, impose a no-fly zone, and even, if necessary, conduct air strikes on Syria’s military — raises prospects that al-Assad will survive.
His survival will mark a major victory for Washington’s key adversaries — the autocrats of Beijing, Moscow and Tehran who fear that the Arab Spring and other democratic uprisings will incite unrest in their own countries.
China and Russia blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution to condemn Syria, which might have set the stage for later action. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran are fortifying Assad with arms while Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp is giving him on-the-ground assistance to kill his people.
In the context of U.S. passivity and Chinese, Russian and Iranian aggressiveness, Assad’s survival would diminish U.S. influence in a region where America’s Arab allies are looking for stronger U.S. leadership and action, boost the influence of its adversaries and send a disheartening signal to dissidents across the world about U.S. interest in supporting their democratic aspirations.
Yes, al-Qaida and other terrorist groups could try to exploit the aftermath of a U.S. effort to stop the slaughter — especially if Assad does not survive it — by seizing power and making life difficult for Washington.
But, the terrorists will try to do that no matter what we do — or don’t do. They will more likely succeed if Washington maintains its current course than if it tries to build stronger ties to Assad’s opposition and more forcefully help them succeed. Not only can Washington raise the chances of a democratic victory, it also can build ties to an opposition from which Syria’s next leaders may come.
Yes, military action brings risks.
But, Israel’s penetration of Syrian air space over the years, most dramatically in 2007 when it destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor, shows that Assad’s Soviet-furnished air defense system offers little to fear.
Moreover, military action has a proven track record. In the Balkans in the 1990s and Libya last year, the United States and its allies demonstrated that we can, in fact, stop a slaughter with little risk to U.S. forces.
History does not stand still. With each passing day, Assad grows stronger, more emboldened, and more likely to survive. Only a U.S.-led effort can stop the slaughter and alter the outcome of this horrific disaster.
We can try to shape that outcome, or we can let our adversaries shape it in ways that we will surely regret.
Lawrence J. Haas is a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the American Foreign Policy Council. Readers may write him at AFPC, 509 C Street NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; website: www.afpc.org.