America's Best Options in Syria

We can arm the rebels, push for UN sanctions, indict Assad, or pressure Russia. Or better yet, a combination of the above.
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Free Syrian Army fighters run to avoid a sniper in Aleppo's Salaheddine neighborhood on April 28, 2013. (Reuters)

President Obama has repeatedly declared that the use of chemical weapons by Syria in its fight against rebel forces would be a "game changer." But he's refused to elaborate on what that means. At an April 30 press conference, President Obama stated that, "By 'game changer,' I mean that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us...that means that there's some options that we might not otherwise exercise that we would ... strongly consider." The prospect of direct U.S. military intervention in the conflict in Syria in the near-term remains unlikely. Multiple public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans oppose intervening in the Syrian civil war. The evidence regarding Syrian use of chemical weapons remains weak. Nonetheless, it is worth considering what policies the United States could pursue, short of dropping bombs or putting boots on the ground, to "change the game" in Syria if the use of chemical weapons is confirmed. Here are three options the United States could pursue: arm the rebels, impose UN sanctions on Syria, and charge Assad with war crimes.

Combining stronger efforts to train and equip the rebels with sanctions that cut off Damascus from importing more weapons would help level the playing field between rebel and government forces.

Arm the Rebels

The United States has so far limited its support to the Free Syrian Army and other groups that oppose the Assad regime to humanitarian supplies and non-military aid such as communications equipment. Last week the United States announced that it would double its aid to the Syrian opposition and possibly expand the scope of the aid to include non-lethal military supplies such as body armor and night vision goggles. The Obama Administration is reportedly considering expanding its support to include weapons. While the rebels already receive weapons from U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the United States could increase the quantity and quality of the rebel's arsenal. The risk that these weapons might fall into the hands of jihadist rebel groups will probably preclude the provision of the weapons that could have the greatest impact on the conflict, such as anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank missiles. Nonetheless, providing less sophisticated weapons such as small arms, ammunition, and heavier weapons such as anti-aircraft guns, armored vehicles, and mortars could help level the playing field between the well-equipped government forces and the rebels who rely largely on captured or improvised weapons. Perhaps more importantly, the United States could increase the effectiveness of the Free Syrian Army by training the rebels on the use of these weapons and providing them with intelligence on the movement of Syrian government forces and their defensive positions.

Impose UN Sanctions

Although Syria is subject to sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union, and Arab League, and others, it has so far escaped comprehensive, multilateral sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council. Since the beginning of the Assad regime's brutal crackdown, Russia and China have vetoed three resolutions in the Security Council that would have imposed such sanctions on Syria. With mounting concern about the use of chemical weapons and a UN fact-finding team (that the Syrian government requested) cooling its heels in Cyprus, the United States could lead a renewed push for UN sanctions on Syria until the Assad government allows the UN team to investigate all claims of chemical weapons use in the country. The sanctions could include a travel ban and asset freeze for high-ranking members of the regime, restrictions on Syria's oil exports, and a ban on exports of weapons and dual-use equipment to Syria. The sanctions resolution should also create a committee to oversee the sanctions and a panel of experts to provide assistance to member states in implementing the sanctions. This model has been useful for strengthening compliance and enforcement with UN Security Council resolutions on Iran and North Korea.

Presented by

Gregory D. Koblentz

Gregory D. Koblentz is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Associate Professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University.

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