July 20, 2012

Danielle Pletka is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

After months of bloodshed, some in Washington continue to suggest that Syria’s fight has little to do with the United States. They’re wrong. Principle aside, we have interests in ensuring the stability of a pivotal country in the Middle East — and not simply because Bashar al-Assad’s regime has nuclear- and chemical-weapons programs.

The question is: How does the United States make a difference, in spite of the international community’s paralysis and the Obama administration’s reluctance to support the Syrian opposition?

First, Washington must stop subcontracting Syria policy to the Turks, Saudis and Qataris. They are clearly part of the anti-Assad effort, but the United States cannot tolerate Syria becoming a proxy state for yet another regional power. If we have an interest, we have an interest in helping to lead Syria toward a stable future, not beholden to any nation.

For decades, Damascus has been the linchpin of Iran’s Middle East strategy: Syria is the conduit by which Iran arms Hezbollah, a training ground for Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and a way station for terrorists to destabilize Iraq. Assad and his father, who also ruled Syria, also had their own priorities, including the domination of Lebanon (occupied by Syria for almost three decades), the management of a series of puppet governments in Beirut and the sponsorship of Palestinian terror groups dedicated to Israel’s destruction.

While Bashar al-Assad will eventually go, there is no heir apparent. Syria will not replicate the Tunisian, Yemeni, Libyan or Egyptian models: There is, as yet, no haven from which a transitional government can begin work; there have been few dramatic defections and even fewer among defectors who might claim a presidential mantle. Organized political parties are few, and there is a divide between those working outside Syria to liberate it and those fighting inside.

It’s tempting to embrace the Syrian National Council (SNC), the Turkey-based umbrella group of political resistance to Assad. The SNC has a democratic manifesto and a nominally inclusive vision, and it is working up transition plans for Syria’s political, economic and military future. But many believe that the SNC has become Ankara’s creature, the Muslim Brotherhood in all but name.

There are at least three other largely Sunni groups in Syria — the Supreme Council for the Syrian Revolution, the Local Coordinating Committee and the Syrian Revolution General Commission — all of which work with local-level branches of the Free Syrian Army and have some claim to represent part of a liberated Syria. Then there are two large Kurdish groups that stand for Syria’s 2.5 million-strong Kurdish minority. Finally, there are the Alawites, who make up around 12 percent of Syrians and from whom the regime’s stalwarts are drawn.

The rebel groups don’t stand alone; many have a special relationship with outside patrons: The Syrian National Council with Turkey; the Syrian Revolution General Commission with Qatar and Saudi Arabia; and the Supreme Council for the Syrian Revolution with other Islamist hard-liners. Each is receiving arms and support from outside parties all too happy to pick sides. And each falls somewhere along the spectrum from democratic to fundamentalist Salafi Islamists. Meanwhile, the al-Qaeda-related groups that have joined in the fighting have no interest in seeing a secular democratic Syria rise from Assad’s ashes. Neither does Iran or Hezbollah, which threw in its lot with Assad from the get-go.

Given the opposition’s progress — four members of Assad’s inner circle died last week as fighting continues to rage across Damascus — and Washington’s sclerotic decision-making, it’s probably too late for the United States to begin directly arming the opposition. But it’s not too late to step in more aggressively with willing allies such as the Turks, so long as we cooperate without ceding total control. That would not have to mean boots on the ground — but much could be gained from a joint air-patrolled safe zone for the Syrian population and safety corridors for refugees. These first steps could go a long way toward restoring U.S. credibility in the Middle East.

On the political front, it is, first and foremost, time to stop insisting that the opposition isn’t “viable.” It clearly is. Second, the Obama administration should encourage all parties to work toward a common, inclusive vision of the kind articulated by the Syrian National Council, without putting all the eggs in the SNC basket. To that end, Washington should work quickly in cooperation with our European allies to establish confidence and credibility in a national leader who is committed to democratic governance. We should put our shared diplomatic muscle behind credible parties with serious political and economic plans — a strategy that helped edge out the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya. Third, the United States should support the formation of transitional governments at regional levels or, better still, a transitional national government in areas dominated and held by the rebels.

Last, we must hold out prospects for a partnership with the United States. The Syrian people have watched their neighbors, the Russians and others prop up the Assads for decades. Washington has been better, if not perfect; working together with an emerging government, we have a chance to serve both principle and interest in promising a better future for all Syrians.