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 was special representative for Iran in the Trump administration. He chairs the Vandenberg Coalition and is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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