As President Barack Obama prepares to embark on his second term, Syria’s civil war looms as perhaps his most urgent foreign policy challenge. With the death toll climbing upwards of 35,000 and the number of refugees approaching 400,000, the Obama Administration has thrown its weight behind the “Seif Plan,” a political initiative taking place this week in Doha with the goal of replacing the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council (SNC) with a more cohesive, representative opposition body. On Wednesday, however, the plan began to unravel, with reports emerging of several opposition groups – as well as key opposition leader Riad Seif, for whom the plan was named – withdrawing from the conference.
This new setback is disheartening, but hardly surprising; previous attempts to unify the Syrian opposition have literally ended in fist fights, providing an almost comically stark illustration of the political infighting that continues to undermine the opposition leadership. Yet even before this development, it seemed unlikely that the Seif Plan would effect much immediate change in Syria’s civil war. Indeed, the initiative reflects a critical shortcoming in the Obama Administration’s Syria policy to this point; Washington remains fixated on the political dimension of what has become an overwhelmingly militarized conflict, one whose trajectory will, for the foreseeable future, continue to be determined by armed groups on the ground—not politicians.
The United States is thus seeking to inject its influence into a political process that remains little more than a sideshow, distracting from the more urgent goal of toppling the regime. While this policy persists, the Administration’s prospects for influencing Syria’s transition are waning; meanwhile, regional actors such as Iran and the Sunni Gulf states are stepping in, deepening Sunni-Shia fault lines and increasing the danger of a drawn-out period of sectarian bloodletting akin to Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. If the second Obama Administration hopes to alter this trajectory and play a constructive role in Syria’s transition, it must be willing to adopt a more direct approach.
One option that Turkey has begun to push in the wake of President Obama’s reelection is for NATO to provide Patriot missiles that could be stationed along Turkey’s border with Syria and used to enforce a safe zone in northern Syria. This would, in theory, bolster Turkish security while providing the rebels with protection from President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal air campaign without committing Western troops or aircraft. This would prove a key step towards a more proactive Western engagement in Syria.
“As the conflict continues to spin out of control, the West’s adversaries – whether Iran and Hezbollah or Sunni jihadists – are positioning themselves to take advantage of the chaos.” – Alex Simon
Whether or not this possibility is pursued, Washington would also do well to initiate a long overdue campaign of providing select rebel groups with the heavy weaponry needed to combat Assad’s superior forces – an option that Britain is reportedly beginning to consider more seriously. Recent developments speak to the potential efficacy of such a policy in helping to offset the regime’s advantage, as amateur video has emerged showing rebels using surface-to-air missiles to bring down regime aircraft. This capability has reportedly forced jets to fly at extreme altitudes, limiting the destructive potential of the aerial campaign that has become a centerpiece of regime strategy. Meanwhile, coordinated provision of lethal aid would give the United States and its allies some degree of leverage in promoting moderate armed groups over their more radical counterparts.
Of course, the strategy of arming the rebels has its own set of drawbacks. Perhaps most glaring is the possibility that American arms could fall into the hands of extremists who would eventually turn those weapons against the United States – a scenario that has played out in recent decades with both the Taliban in Afghanistan and insurgent groups in Iraq. This fear is exacerbated by the Syrian opposition’s lack of unity and coordination, and by reports of a steadily growing jihadist presence on the ground.
This line of argument, however, fails to acknowledge the critical fact that Western inaction may be facilitating the very outcome policymakers hope to avoid. Absent lethal support from Western powers, rebels are heavily reliant on arms shipments from Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; as the New York Times recently reported, these weapons have largely been funneled to hard-line Sunni jihadist groups. Given these countries’ own stakes in Syria as a staging ground for the broader Sunni-Shiite conflict, it is hardly surprising to see their support skewed towards groups with sectarian agendas. Compounding this troubling development are reports that moderate groups feel increasingly forced to work alongside these better-armed jihadist factions, precisely because the West has failed to provide them with desperately needed firepower. It thus appears that the policy of withholding lethal aid from the rebels may well be empowering the very groups the U.S. fears, positioning them for success in a post-Assad Syria.
A second common refrain is that arming Syria’s rebels would contribute to an escalation of the conflict, further undermining any hope of a political solution. This claim is still more problematic than the first, in that it again ignores the very essence of Syria’s civil war in its current form. The conflict has long since escalated to near total war, with Assad apparently prepared to employ any means short of chemical weapons to suppress the uprising. The regime has grown increasingly reliant on indiscriminate bombardments that terrorize civilian populations, with reports emerging of jets dropping cluster bombs and barrels of TNT over largely civilian areas.
It is difficult to see how providing the rebels with heavier weapons could lead to anything much worse than this already unbearable status quo; rather, such weapons could mitigate the single most brutal aspect of the conflict by enabling the rebels to challenge the regime’s control of the skies and thus its ability to slaughter the Syrian population at will. This may not be enough to bring about a rebel victory in the immediate future, but it would be a step in the right direction.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay recently warned of the ominous parallels between Syria today and Bosnia in the 1990s, and nowhere is this similarity more striking than in the West’s decision to withhold arms from the rebels. In Bosnia, the U.N. sought to prevent the conflict’s escalation by imposing an arms embargo on both Bosnian and Serbian forces; this policy did nothing but cement a status quo whereby Serbian forces enjoyed absolute military superiority, allowing them to proceed unchecked in their brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against Bosnia’s Muslims.
In Syria, as in Bosnia, America and its allies continue to champion a political solution that is not forthcoming, withholding arms and thereby leaving Syria’s rebels – and its civilian population – to die by the thousands. Unlike in Bosnia, however, there are clear strategic imperatives alongside the humanitarian ones. As the conflict continues to spin out of control, the West’s adversaries – whether Iran and Hezbollah or Sunni jihadists – are positioning themselves to take advantage of the chaos. Then-secretary of state James Baker famously justified non-intervention in Bosnia with the reasoning that “We’ve got no dog in this fight;” no one would make such a claim about today’s conflict, and yet the West stands by as Syria burns.
With the election finally over and a second term secured, President Obama has the opportunity to move beyond this policy of inaction and play a role in Syria’s future; failure to do so will likely prove both a stain on the Administration’s moral legitimacy and a foreign policy disaster, with consequences that will continue to haunt Washington and its allies for years to come.
This post was originally published by the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
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Alex Simon, a graduate of Princeton University, is currently an intern at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.