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.

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.

Indict Assad for War Crimes

The last time a dictator used chemical weapons against his own people -- Saddam Hussein against the Kurds in 1987 and 1988 -- the world turned a blind eye. In 1998, the establishment of the International Criminal Court created a venue for prosecuting war crimes such as the use of "asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and all analogous liquids, materials or devices." British Prime Minister David Cameron has already stated that Syrian use of chemical weapons constitutes a war crime. A complicating factor is that since Syria is not a party to the ICC, the only way that charges of war crimes can be investigated is if the case is referred to the ICC by the United Nations Security Council. A UN commission investigating human rights abuses in Syria has been calling on the Security Council to do just that since 2012. Russia, which wields a veto on the Security Council, has so far blocked consideration of this proposal. Although the United States is not a member of the ICC, it supported a 2011 Security Council resolution giving the court jurisdiction over crimes perpetrated by Gaddafi's regime in Libya.

The Russia Factor

May outside observers believe that the road to Damascus runs through Moscow. As long as Syria can count on the support of Russia, the Assad regime does not have to fear that its escalating use of violence will trigger tough sanctions or lead to the indictment of senior Syrian officials for war crimes. Gaining Russian support is key to the successful implementation of all three options described above. Once the Obama Administration is convinced that Syria has used chemical weapons, its next task will be convincing Russia. Indeed, Syria's use of chemical weapons might be one of the few things that could erode Russian support for the Assad regime. After all, Moscow has warned Damascus publicly and privately not to use these weapons. For Syria to ignore its patron on such an important issue might finally tip the scales between the benefits and costs that Russia derives from protecting its protégé.

On their own, none of these measure look to be true "game changers." In combination, however, they could have a significant impact on the conflict over the longer term. 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. As better-armed rebels make gains on the battlefield against increasingly stretched government forces, the prospect of a negotiated settlement that provides amnesty for lower-ranking Baath Party officials and officers in the military might gain more traction. If even after adopting these measures, the stalemate between the rebels and regime forces continue, political efforts to halt the conflict are stymied, and the government continues using chemical weapons, then the United States and international community will be better able to argue that they have exhausted all non-military means of halting the conflict. At that point, it might be necessary to turn to the ultimate game changer -- the United States military.