Neither the war-weary American public nor the Syrian opposition wants to see a full-scale U.S. land invasion to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and install a U.S.-backed government. Both fear that a massive intervention would mean a repeat of Iraq. But that doesn’t mean the United States lacks options in Syria. Washington should pursue a measured but assertive course.
The United States should start by deterring the regime from using its most lethal tools, namely surface-to-surface missiles and chemical weapons. Such deterrence will require taking out the bombs filled with sarin gas that, according to The New York Times, were placed last year “near or on” Syrian air bases.
Second, to protect Syrians in opposition-controlled territory from attacks by the regime’s Scud missiles and fixed-wing aircraft, the United States should establish 50- to 80-mile-deep safe areas within Syria along its borders with Jordan and Turkey.
Third, Washington needs to work directly with opposition forces on the ground in Syria (as opposed to just those outside it) to push back the government’s forces, deliver humanitarian assistance, and, most importantly, check the growing influence of Islamic extremists. This should include the provision of arms to vetted armed groups on a trial-and-error basis, with Washington monitoring how the battalions use the intelligence, supplies and arms they receive.
Those who oppose increasing U.S. aid to the opposition tend to point to its uglier elements, particularly to fighters affiliated with Al Qaeda. But only by getting involved can the United States shape the opposition and support its moderate forces. Although anti-Americanism is growing among the rebels, there is still time for a ground-up strategy to win back their trust. This could be achieved through backing the more liberal, secular, and nationalist battalions and isolating — and possibly launching drone strikes against — those extremist forces that refuse to accept civilian authority during the transition.
With U.S. help, there are good reasons to believe that moderates within the opposition can prevail. The main reason that extremist groups have come to play such a big role in the opposition is that the anti-Assad forces have had to turn to the Gulf states for weapons and money — and the sources there have favored the extremists, who, according to some estimates, account for up to a quarter of all the opposition fighters. The United States could earn the influence it seeks by providing intelligence, military training and weapons of its own.
Finally, after stepping up its involvement, Washington should seek talks between the regime and moderate opposition forces, sponsored by either the United Nations or, given the U.N.’s poor track record, another party, such as Switzerland or Norway.
The timing of such talks, which would need to come on the heels of a cease-fire, would largely be dependent on the course of the war and on when Russia and the United States could arrive at a common vision for the transition and an understanding of how to get to that point.
Only by raising the costs of diplomatic intransigence for both the Syrian government and Russia, with a clear show of U.S. support for the opposition, is Washington likely to persuade the Kremlin to play a constructive role in the conflict’s endgame. By tipping the balance on the ground toward the opposition, Washington could convince the regime — or at least its patrons in Moscow — that the conflict will not end by force alone. What is more, such increased U.S. support for the opposition would give the Americans more leverage to bring the rebels to the negotiating table.
The ultimate goal would be the reunification of the country within a democratic and decentralized structure that recognized regional differences. If the United States wants a Syria that is united, stable, and eventually more democratic — and perhaps no longer allied with Iran — this is the least bad way to get there.
Andrew J. Tabler is senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria. This piece is adapted from a recent article in the July/August edition of Foreign Affairs. Tabler recently spoke about Syria locally in a program sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.