Yet we cannot stand idly by. Not only are the lives of Syrians on the line; so, too, is America’s credibility as a world leader.
So what to do?
We must be more imaginative. This requires a more nuanced understanding of what American interests are and what American leadership means. If what we do succeeds, more than the Syrians could benefit. It could be an object lesson for how American leadership could operate in the future.
We must be crystal clear about our main goal. We should not merely try to overthrow President Bashar Assad’s regime. What replaces it must be a government that breaks Syria’s strategic alliance with Iran, doesn’t support terrorism, and respects its people and neighbors. Talk of arming rebels or providing humanitarian aid is all well and good. But absent an overall strategy, we still could end up with Mr. Assad in power or, worse, a regime dominated by Islamists.
To avoid that, we have to take a leadership role in helping shape the Syrian opposition.It is fragmented along ethnic, sectarian, ideological and geographic lines, and there is great distrust between local and exile leaders. The Syrian National Council, an umbrella group of rival factions based outside Syria, has lost credibility with many local leaders. Islamist groups have grown stronger than their relatively small membership suggests, thanks to external aid from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood’s global network. The many ad hoc non-Islamist opposition groups lack resources, a common strategy, or overall coordination.
Helping shape the opposition will be hard but doable in two ways.
First, the U.S. should establish closer ties with non-Islamist inclusive groups such as the Free Syrian Army, a coalition of military defectors and civilian fighters with a non-sectarian nationalist agenda. U.S. covert economic, logistical and military aid to such groups could help unify the opposition and boost prospects for a stable post-Assad democratic government that does not export terrorism.
Second, the U.S. should form a strategic coordinating group — perhaps called the Free Syria Group — with Britain, France, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and a few other European and Middle Eastern nations that believe in a free Syria and are willing to help create it. It could help coordinate strategies and policies, shape and provide aid to worthy opposition groups, coordinate any military actions if need be, and help the opposition establish governing structures in areas they control.
Under no circumstance should spoilers such as Russia or Iran be allowed in this group. They are part of the problem and won’t be part of the solution. Relying on Russia’s Vladimir Putin to arrange Mr. Assad’s exile is a particularly bad idea. It empowers him and Mr. Annan to drag out the process, giving Mr. Assad more time and political cover to hang on to power. The United Nations at some point could become involved in refugee or technical matters, but not in any political deliberations or peacekeeping operations.
Without these goals and framework, tactical moves such as arming rebels, establishing safe zones or even providing aid would be like stabs in the dark.
Too often, the test of U.S. leadership gets boiled down to whether or not we use military force. This is a false choice. It may be a good idea to provide U.S. air, logistical and special operations support while the Turks or others supply ground troops to deliver aid, keep Syria’s chemical weapons out of the wrong hands or even aid the rebel army. But such actions have to be militarily feasible, must have the support of our friends in the region and need to be taken on behalf of a future leadership in Syria that we would want to back.
Absent that, all our efforts could be in vain.
We should measure the effectiveness of American leadership not by whether we use force or not, but whether our strategy succeeds. Force may be part of the equation, but it is a means, not an end.
• Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.