Will and Peter have raised
about the Obama administration's policy failings with regard to Syria. The
President's approach combines the worst of moral negligence ("If he drops
sarin on his own people, what's that got to do with us?") with casually
adopted "red lines" whose terms and intelligence they litigate when the bluffs
are called. All this while Hezbollah is openly participating, Assad's
forces begin to regain ground, Turkey and Israel are being drawn in to the
fight, and countries in the region plead for American leadership.
Peter may be right that
the President is committed to stay out of the fight -- that Rwanda is the right
historical parallel. It's entirely likely they will subject any and every possible policy to evidentiary standards intelligence work in the real world cannot attain or delays that string along journalists with the “Administration considering...” storyline. But those of us who believe for reasons of both interests and values
the United States should have a much more active involvement in preventing the
Assad government from remaining in power ought to be turning policy keys in the
administration's locks to see if we can devise interventions consistent with
the commander in chief's limitations and incentivized by engaging their
An intervention focusing
on the plight of refugees might provide that key, allowing a humanitarian
motivation, supported by the United Nations and the Arab League, with narrow
involvement by U.S. military forces operating as one small part of a broad
coalition, and heavy emphasis on "smart power" diplomacy to bring Russia into
participation and growing governance capacity among the Syrian opposition.
Syria's civil war has
displaced 4,250,000 Syrians from their homes to other parts of the country, and
another 1,400,000 have fled outside the country to reside in neighboring
states. Jordan alone is giving shelter to 524,000. One of the refugee camps
constitutes Jordan's fifth largest city; this in a country without the largesse
to provide much assistance and whose political structure has never come to
terms with the long-term residence of Palestinians who left Israel in 1948.
Jordan is tottering under the weight of providing for refugees and fear they
may become permanent. President Obama acknowledged the burden on Jordan
during his recent visit, pledging additional U.S. aid.
Turkey is in an even more
parlous situation, with refugees fanning tensions between Turkish Sunni and
Kurds and threatening to derail the Erdogan government's important progress in
reconciliation on the Kurdish issue. The Erdogan government has so far held
sectarian unity, but just barely, and violence is escalating. Turkey's turn
from "zero problems with neighbors" to a foreign policy much more closely
aligned with ours has been a real boon to the Obama administration. Moreover,
constraining Turkey from shaming NATO into a much more activist military role
-- invoking the mutual defense clause of the NATO treaty, for example -- is a
significant component of the Obama administration being able to limit U.S.
An intervention that seeks
to create refugee camps within Syrian territory would take the pressure off
neighboring countries. The United Nations estimates that six million Syrians
are in need of urgent assistance, a full third of the population. Establishing
camps in Syria at which civilians can safely receive that assistance would be
the objective of the intervention.
Focusing on refugees would
be the path of least international resistance, something important to this administration,
and could even conceivably produce an international "legal" basis. Whether the
UN will actually support invoking the Responsibility to Protect is worth
testing, but it needn't be the only means by which the UN could be brought in.
The Obama administration could lead from behind by orchestrating an appeal to
the Security Council led by Turkey, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi
Arabia -- perhaps even Israel could be included to show the breadth of regional
support, and Iraq lured by Sunni emboldenment and the status of inclusion to
abandon Iranian objectives. The Arab League would need to be jostled into
unity, given its division over "awakening," but that's an ideal role for John
Kerry's State Department. Isolating Iran and exposing its involvement in Syria
would provide a unifying element. The Gulf countries could be prompted to
advise China of its long-term oil needs, as produced some effect in Iran negotiations.
Secretary Kerry could be
tasked with bringing Russia into the fold. The Russians have a genuine fear of
stoking Islamist violence in the Caucasus; Kerry should persuade them their
current policy in Syria will foster precisely what they're seeking to avoid and
encourage their participation in the UN mission as a way of resetting how they
are perceived by protecting Muslims in Syria. Giving Russia responsibility
for refugee assistance in the area of their Tartus base would perhaps tempt
them to support a UN role.
The "realist" pretensions
of the Obama administration could be engaged in crafting an exit strategy for
Assad -- promising he will not be remanded to the International Criminal Court
if he chooses a coddled retirement in the UAE or London.
A UN mission could provide
aid directly in the camps, rather than through the government, as it is now
doing, taking that lever from Assad -- or perhaps leaving it with Assad to
incentivize his agreement to establish the camps -- but giving NGOs latitude to
work directly in the camps in addition to UN efforts.
The primary responsibility
for protecting refugee camps inside Syria would in theory rest with the Assad
government and in practice migrate to the rebels. A UN mission would hold the
Syrian government responsible for any government attacks because it is the
sovereign. The rebels have demonstrated the ability to take and hold territory
from the government, even with the government's military advantages. If refugee
camps were set up in the border areas north and east of the country, where the
refugees currently are, they would be in rebel-controlled areas.
Facilitating refugee return and providing governance in the camps would provide
a governance training ground for Syrian opposition leaders. Working with them
will increase our understanding and help us help the opposition gain control
over militia that will eventually need to be demobilized.
Whatever one thinks of the
efficacy of our intelligence work in Syria -- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff Martin Dempsey testified that we know less now than we did a year ago
about Syrian rebels -- that our intelligence and military communities are so
concerned about the prospect of providing them the kinds of weapons that would
neutralize Assad's advantages ought to give us pause. General Salim Idris, our
preferred leader of the opposition, has acknowledged he has little influence
over what the rebels do and no direct authority over the largest
factions. So caution is in order where arming the rebels is concerned.
It is still the case that
the Assad government's advantage in the fight is air superiority and heavy
weaponry. That is changing as Hezbollah and Iran both train and
participate with the Assad forces, but preventing the Assad government from using
airpower, artillery and missiles would shift the balance significantly in favor
of the rebels. If we will not entrust rebels with the weapons to undertake that
work, it falls to us. This need not entail a Northern Watch-style no fly zone,
or even a preemptive destruction of Syrian air forces: coalition military
operations could be restricted to preventing the use of aircraft, and
retaliating against the use of artillery or missiles by the government. For
all the talk of Syrian air defenses being five times as good as Libya's, the
Israeli air force seems to slice through them pretty easily. Missiles
fired from outside Syrian airspace, either from seaborne platforms or NATO
batteries already based in Turkey could take much of the responsibility. Countering
Syrian missiles may be too demanding in real time, but retaliating against
units that fire them would diminish the government's advantage with time.
Such an approach would not
prevent all Syrian attacks. But it would protect more Syrians and it would
diminish the Assad government's military advantage over time. And it just
might be limited enough, and contain enough elements of the kind of policies
the Obama administration favors, for the commander in chief to consider it.
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