It's Time for Obama to Lead From the Front on Syria—Here's How

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How the U.S. can confront Russia for its patronage of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

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Syrian demonstrators hold an illustration depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin in a protest near Idlib. (Reuters)

Next week in the Mexican resort town of Los Cabos, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin will meet on the sidelines of the G20 summit. Mitt Romney and his aides say that after 15 months of dithering on Syria, it is time for Obama to confront Putin on an increasingly brutal conflict that has left 10,000 dead.

"President Obama's 'reset policy' toward Russia has clearly failed," Romney said in a statement this week. "Russia has openly armed and protected a murderous regime in Syria, frustrated international sanctions on Iran and opposed American efforts on a range of issues."

In an interview on Thursday, Richard Williamson, a senior foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign, argued that the White House should stop naively hoping the Russian leader will end his support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"Since when is it the U.S.'s job to sublet its interests to an authoritarian leader in Moscow?" Williamson asked. "What world do they think they live in?"

Election-year hyperbole aside, the Romney camp is right. Moscow is not going to give the U.S. an easy way out of Syria.

From the cold, calculating viewpoint of Vladimir Putin and his inner circle, the Syrian conflict is actually a boon for Russia. For the last year, a former superpower that had lost virtually all of its relevance in the Middle East has been the focus of global attention.

"When you look at it from the Russian point of view, they have actually felt that they have a winning strategy," Carroll Bogert, a senior official with Human Rights Watch who recently visited Moscow, told me. "They have forced the world to beat a path to their door, that they hold the trump card, that they are the most influential over the Syrian regime."

And yet, Russian and the American views on Syria could hardly be further apart. In a world where technology should make facts clearer, delusions fester in Moscow.  Bogert said that some Russian media outlets reported that the NATO bombing campaign in Libya killed 10,000 civilians. Western journalists and human rights groups put the number at roughly 70.

Some in the Russian foreign policy establishment admit that Assad's forces are carrying out human rights abuses, but most Russian analysts accept the Assad regime's claim that it is crushing an al Qaeda-backed Islamic insurgency. Most importantly, it is unclear that Moscow has the influence it claims over Assad. Instead of putting the Kremlin's perceived power to the test and potentially failing, dragging out the conflict is in Putin's interest.

Assad, meanwhile, is slowly escalating his attacks and betting that Washington's tolerance will rise as well. The Syrian leader knows that a major U.S. military intervention is unlikely in an American election year.

"Right now, the regime is testing the U.S. resolve, slowly but surely escalating its violence to see if Washington responds," said a Damascus-based analyst who asked not to be identified. "It's been doing this for 15 months and hopes to go all the way. They believe they have much more to do on the scale of horror."

So far, the Obama administration has adopted a series of easy - and often contradictory - approaches in Syria. It is letting Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar arm the Syrian opposition. At the same time, it claims to support a diplomatic solution.

The result is that the Russians believe the American support for diplomacy is insincere. And the Syrian opposition believes American officials are not seriously backing them. Meanwhile, Islamists are a growing force in the Syrian opposition.

In a telephone interview from Turkey this week, Mahmoud Mosa, a civilian member of the Syrian opposition said U.S. officials had pledged to provide non-lethal aid earlier this spring. Today, he is still waiting.

"They promised me they would provide us with communications and some medical equipment," he said. "But it has not happened."

In his meeting with Putin next week, Obama should set a deadline for one final diplomatic push. It is unlikely that it will happen, but the so-called Yemen option - in which Assad departs Syria as Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh left his country - should be tried.

After that, the Obama administration must finally make a hard choice - and take a political risk. It must either turn its back on the horrors the Assad regime metes out against its own people and be hammered by Romney, or use American air power to help Turkey and the Arab League establish safe zones in northern Syria.

The Obama administration must be willing to use force in Syria. The risks of inaction now outweigh the risks of action.

A bloody stalemate has emerged. As the opposition receives more arms, it is slowly gaining control of rural areas but unable to seize cities. Government forces and militia, in turn, have grown more brutal.

Bosnia and other conflicts show that the longer the fighting drags on, the more bitter the postwar divide. More important, as the Sunni-Shia fighting escalates in Syria, it is destabilizing Iraq, Lebanon and other neighboring countries. The risks of a regional conflagration are growing.

If a final attempt at diplomacy fails, American air power should be used to help Turkey and the Arab League create safe havens in northern Syria along the Turkish border. The use of force should be limited. No American ground troops should be sent to Syria. And no American military action should take place without the full support of the Arab League.

The creation of safe havens will save civilian lives and reduce the influence of Islamists in the Syrian opposition. It will show the Syrian elite that the Assad regime is finished. And it will end Putin's perverse free ride.

This post originally appeared at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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