The Corner

Syria: The Alternatives Narrow

What should the United States do when a vicious enemy is on the ropes, defended only by a core of murderous loyalists plus regimes that are themselves hostile to the United States?


If you answered “Nothing,” you fail the course. If you answered “make more speeches,” you too get an F.


The case in question is Syria. There, an enemy regime faces hatred and opposition from the vast majority of citizens. The Assad clan made a specialty of helping kill Americans in Iraq, while also threatening and often murdering any Lebanese leader who objected to Syrian domination. It is Iran’s only Arab ally, and the armorer of Hezbollah. It is the only real Arab friend left for Putin’s Russia. There can be no doubt that the demise of the Assad regime is good for the United States and bad for our enemies.


It is quite clear that the Syrian people want the regime ended, for many reasons: They hate the oppression, the murders, the torture, the alliances with Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, and the domination by the minority Alawite sect. Assad’s campaign of murder, which many observers thought was bound to succeed if he just killed enough unarmed demonstrators, is failing.


But it has not failed yet, so what do we do? Of course, if success were made of speeches and sanctions the Obama policy would be marvelous — and adequate. The problem is that Syria is at war, and one side or the other will win that war. It will be the Assad/Russia/Iran/Hezbollah side, or the popular uprising with its European, American, and Arab support. A deus ex machina ending is possible, wherein some Syrian Army generals push Assad out and agree to a transition away from Assad and Alawite rule. But such a step by the generals is far more likely if they conclude that Assad’s war is lost.


So we must make sure he loses. Directly or indirectly, the next step is to provide plenty of money and arms, training, and intelligence to the Free Syrian Army and other opponents of the Assads. One must presume that there is already some flow of funds and guns from enemies of Assad, such as the Saudis, or from those seeking to buy influence, such as the Qataris, and defecting Syrian soldiers take small arms with them. But manifestly, it isn’t enough. They need more. If we are squeamish about providing it directly, we should strongly urge (and pressure) others — candidates include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan, and Turkey — to pitch in. One advantage to proceeding this way is that leaks are far less likely, for the chances of getting such an intelligence finding through Washington undetected are slim.


The arguments against this course are wrong. Would we be creating more violence? It was Assad who chose to make war on his people, and now the only question is whether his murderous repression will succeed. Would we be destabilizing the region? Assad’s war and the refugee flows it is creating will do that, and there will be no stability until he is gone. Would this be the path toward another Libya-like intervention? It is the way to delay and perhaps obviate the need for such an intervention without allowing an Iranian/ Russian/Hezbollah/Assad victory. Would the government that replaces Assad also be undemocratic? It certainly would be no bloodier or more repressive than his, and it would be a Sunni regime unattached to Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia.


The key issue in Syria today is who will win — our side or the opposing side, which is a real axis of evil. This isn’t about the exact confessional balance of those opposing Assad, or the exact provisions of the next Syrian constitution. All those questions will come with victory against the bad guys — but only with victory. The goal today is more simple, and more old-fashioned: to defeat our enemies. Iran and Russia appear to see this very clearly. So should we.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

Most Popular

White House

More Evidence the Guardrails Are Gone

At the end of last month, just as the news of the Ukraine scandal started dominating the news cycle, I argued that we're seeing evidence that the guardrails that staff had placed around Donald Trump's worst instincts were in the process of breaking down. When Trump's staff was at its best, it was possible to draw ... Read More
Politics & Policy

O’Rourke’s America

With apologies to Margaret Atwood and a thousand other dystopian novelists, we do not have to theorize about what an American police state would look like, because we know what it looks like: the airport, that familiar totalitarian environment where Americans are disarmed, stripped of their privacy, divested of ... Read More

Is America Becoming Sinicized?

A little over 40 years ago, Chinese Communist strongman and reformer Deng Xiaoping began 15 years of sweeping economic reforms. They were designed to end the disastrous, even murderous planned economy of Mao Zedong, who died in 1976. The results of Deng’s revolution astonished the world. In four decades, ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Elizabeth Warren Is Not Honest

If you want to run for office, political consultants will hammer away at one point: Tell stories. People respond to stories. We’ve been a story-telling species since our fur-clad ancestors gathered around campfires. Don’t cite statistics. No one can remember statistics. Make it human. Make it relatable. ... Read More
Economy & Business

Andrew Yang, Snake Oil Salesman

Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur and gadfly, has definitely cleared the bar for a successful cause candidate. Not only has he exceeded expectations for his polling and fundraising, not only has he developed a cult following, not only has he got people talking about his signature idea, the universal basic ... Read More