With renewed calls for a peace plan and the establishment of a transitional government in Syria, the United States is once more declaring its commitment to "leading from behind" in the Syrian crisis--which is to say, not leading at all. Meanwhile the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate. In addition to the massive humanitarian crisis within Syria, neighboring Jordan and Lebanon are reaching a breaking point in their capacity to support Syrian refugees. In Lebanon alone, the ratio of refugees to Lebanese residents has reached an astonishing one to five.
Meanwhile, sectarian tension within Syria is on the rise, and with the Lebanese militia Hezbollah's active participation in the crisis in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime, sectarian strife is beginning to simmer in Lebanon as well. Further east, Israel is beginning to see clashes edging closer to its borders, as is the case with the Turkish border in the northwest.
Reports from Syria are saying that the Assad regime has not even used its full capacity yet against its own people. Although the armed Syrian opposition has made significant gains, it remains weaker than the regime militarily. The Obama Administration's choice to "lead from behind," supplying the opposition with only low-level, non-lethal equipment, has achieved nothing except prolonging the bloodshed. More than two years into the uprising, the balance of power does not look like it's tipping in favor of the opposition. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears convinced that the international community is not serious about calling on him to step down. And ongoing support from Iran and Russia buttresses his inclination to simply ride out the challenge with ruthless repression.
Sadly, Assad's posture is not irrational. Why would Assad take international rhetoric against him seriously when it has been coupled neither with real diplomatic pressure nor with a serious military threat? What we have seen over the past two-plus years instead is failed attempts at dialogue, empty-handed international envoys, and a reluctant international community hiding behind excuses such as the need for a united Syrian opposition or the fear of a wider regional war in the wake of the Assad regime's fall.
Unfortunately, inaction on the part of the international community, with the United States at the forefront, has transformed Assad's rhetoric about civil war in Syria and the empowerment of Islamist extremists into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Western rhetoric about the Syrian crisis, meanwhile, has shifted 180 degrees in one year. From public denial of the entry of Islamist extremists into the equation a year ago, the dominant discourse now is about a potential Islamist extremist takeover of Syria if Assad falls.
A year ago, denial was used to justify non-intervention. Today, the exact opposite narrative is being used for the same purpose. However, the reality on the ground in Syria is very different. While the Syrian opposition in exile has indeed proven to be rife with internal struggles and divisions, in Syria itself, serious efforts are being undertaken by secular opposition figures--such as members of the Local Coordination Committees--to keep the momentum of the revolution going through non-violent action. It is those people--largely ignored by both the international media as well as the policy community--who have the trust of the Syrian people. Islamist extremists groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, on the other hand, may make a lot of noise in the international arena, but their presence and impact on the ground in Syria is actually not as significant. Put together, those two factors refute the claim that if the Assad regime falls, Syria would be overrun by Islamist extremists or that there would be no viable alternative to the Assad regime.
Syria now faces three scenarios: bad, worse, and worst. If the Assad regime staggers on, not only will this empower Iran and Hezbollah and increase Israel's vulnerability, but it will prolong bloodshed indefinitely. As the civil war grinds on, the refugee problem will come to rival the Palestinian one in scale and regional impact, intensifying instability and the rationale for Islamist extremist groups to sow chaos in Syria. The accelerating downward spiral will also deepen the resentment of Syrians (and Arabs more broadly) who feel let down by the international community and by the United States in particular. Having planted the seeds of sectarian tension, the survival of the Assad regime can only mean increased polarization within Syrian society.
A bloody, grinding stalemate in Syria will not only empower Islamist extremist groups, who are currently still limited in their support and power inside Syria. It will also increase tensions in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. Both scenarios have catastrophic consequences for regional stability and for the position of the United States in the Middle East.
The Syrian crisis has long since reached the point where, the least bad--and the least risky--scenario is a serious international effort to shift the military balance toward resistance forces, and specifically those that are not radical Islamist. Multilateral intervention is needed toward this end, and only the United States can lead it.
Last week, leaders of United Nations agencies, in a rare statement, called on the leaders of the international community to "to meet their responsibility to the people of Syria and to the future of the region" through a "political solution" to the crisis. While many have interpreted a "political solution" to mean dialogue, unfortunately the moment for dialogue with the regime has passed. The Syrian opposition was firmly committed to non-violence before being dragged into armed conflict by Assad's ruthless crackdowns. Even with the initial repressive responsive from the regime, the opposition extended its hand to Assad, only to be met with further brutality.
If a political solution is to be possible in Syria--involving the negotiated exit of Assad from Syria and some plan for political transition--it will only come if the regime realizes it has no other choice except military defeat. That must be the purpose of a broad, multinational, and carefully strategized effort to provide real military assistance to elements of the Syrian resistance.
No one is talking about international (not to mention U.S.) "boots on the ground." That would clearly be counter-productive. But with the indiscriminate slaughter that the regime has unleashed on its own civilian population, including--there is plausible evidence to suggest--the use of chemical weapons against its own people, the time has come to impose a no-fly zone as one element of that assistance. Direct assistance to Syrian revolutionaries must be channeled through a trusted opposition leader with on-the-ground credibility in order to prevent the flow of weapons into the wrong hands and to unify the militarized opposition. And senior military leaders who have joined the opposition and who retain a say within the Syrian armed forces must be engaged to prevent the army from disintegrating into sectarian militias.
Chapter 7 of the UN Charter explicitly permits military intervention such as no-fly zones in cases where there is a threat to international peace and security. There isn't a more compelling case for the use of this provision than the Syrian crisis today. If the crisis is left too fester, those brave Syrians who are working quietly on the ground and who have the potential to build a new and decently governed Syria may no longer be with us. And the opportunity to prevent a completely collapsed and ungovernable state in Syria may be shattered for years to come.