A Syria Strategy for Obama

More

Three bold steps to hasten the end of Assad's regime.

syria bannersdfsd.jpg
Residents look at buildings damaged by the forces of President al-Assad in Daraya on January 16, 2013. (Reuters)

This post is part of "Obama and the Middle East: Act Two," a series produced with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on U.S. foreign policy in the president's second term. See our full coverage here.

The Assad regime's brutal suppression of the Syrian uprising has spurred a humanitarian disaster, with the United Nations now estimating over 60,000 killed and 3 million displaced. Syrians are now dying of starvation and exposure as food and medical supplies run desperately short. The regime continues to escalate its attacks with the use of artillery, combat aircraft, and, most recently, SCUD and reportedly Fatah 110 missiles against the armed and civilian opposition.

The Obama administration has repeatedly voiced its concern that the Assad regime is considering using its chemical weapons stockpile, which includes sarin nerve gas and mustard gas, against its domestic opponents. The U.S. government reportedly even investigated the possible use of a chemical agent last month in Homs. At the same time, Washington has refused to fulfill the opposition's request for more and better weapons that would help it end the regime's onslaught, sowing anti-American sentiment that is being increasingly harvested by Islamic extremists and al-Qaeda affiliates. There is now a real danger that Assad regime's chemical weapons could fall into the hands of militants sworn to destroy the United States and its regional allies.

With U.S. elections now settled, the Obama administration is less constrained by domestic U.S. politics and should now take bold steps to hasten the end of Assad's regime. The fight to take down the regime and its supporters may continue for some time, and divisions between opposition groups means the struggle for what replaces it may be conflict-ridden as well. Even as the war continues, Washington should take steps to ease human suffering and place itself in a better position to secure chemical weapons from use in Syria and elsewhere.

First, Washington should use patriot missile batteries in an offensive capacity against regime aircraft - and deploy them defensively against SCUD and Fatah 110 missiles targeting opposition-dominated areas along Syria's borders with Turkey and Jordan. A package of the patriot missiles recently deployed to southern Turkey augmented with an anti-aircraft capability, for example, could be used to carve out a 50-mile air exclusion zone from the Turkish border city of Kilis to Aleppo, Syria's largest city. This would help the opposition create vital "safe areas" where civilians could be secure in an organized fashion free from regime airstrikes as the war against Assad continues.

As an important ancillary benefit, such safe areas would provide a vital place for the exile-dominated National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC) to politically organize and provide assistance directly to Syrian civilians. If properly defended, diplomats, officials, and aid representatives from the international community could work side by side with Syrians to help alleviate suffering and build a viable government for post-Assad Syria. When fully "liberated" areas under opposition control expand beyond the border regions to Syria's interior, the United States and its allies could follow up with targeted air and missile strikes against Assad regime forces armed with chemical weapons or poised to carry out further mass atrocities.

Second, Washington should provide a package of intelligence-sharing, military training, and other security assistance to mainstream nationalist, non-extremist groups that have been vetted by Western countries, both to increase their military capabilities and in exchange for any chemical weapons captured from the regime's stockpiles. The package should be comprehensive enough to allow participant groups to more rapidly defeat the Assad regime's forces and more effectively secure chemical weapons. Groups receiving assistance would be required to allow U.S. and allied special forces to collect and secure captured stockpiles of chemical weapons.

Third, Washington and its allies should provide local communities supporting mainstream groups that cooperate with Washington's program to secure chemical weapons with a larger civil assistance program. Large swaths of Syrian urban and rural areas have been ravaged by war, and the task of providing services and rebuilding basic infrastructure will be extensive. Such a civil assistance program, if part of an overall strategy, would create a positive incentive for civilian communities to pressure armed groups operating in their areas to comply with the program in the short and medium term. This same system of incentives could also be leveraged to disincentivize ethnic cleansing.

Such an integrated plan would help alleviate the suffering of Syrians, reverse Washington's rapidly declining support among the opposition, and provide real inducements to armed groups that will soon take over large swaths -- if not the entirety -- of Syrian territory to hand over any captured chemical weapons to the United States and its allies. Washington's efforts could be combined with those of Russia, Assad's chief international patron, as well as China, to pressure the Assad regime or any Alawite-dominated rump regime to secure what remains of the regime's stockpile. This approach would not only help keep chemical weapons from being used in the struggle for Syria, but against its neighbors and the West. It would also create incentives for armed and civilian groups in Syria to cooperate and assume the responsibility that goes along with governing a post-Assad Syria.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Andrew Tabler

Andrew J. Tabler is senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the book In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The US is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

Just In