Opinion writer April 30, 2012

The United States seems to have two plans to deal with what is fast becoming a civil war in Syria. Plan A calls for the full implementation of the U.N. cease-fire and the complete cooperation of Bashar al-Assad, a dictator who would, at the risk of his very life, give up some power to the opposition. Plan B, on the other hand, envisions a military response through air power. For that to be implemented, Plan A must fail and more Syrians must die.

Just how many more Syrians must die no one can say. But it seems pretty clear that the toll — now in excess of 9,000 — must mount before the United States, NATO and maybe the Turks and the Saudis will move to bring the slaughter to a halt. Bloomberg News reports that “more than 500 people” have been killed since the start of the cease-fire on April 12. This cease-fire is more fire than cease.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. View Archive

Few people in Washington have much faith in the U.N. plan, advanced by former secretary-general Kofi Annan. He has been doing what he has been trained to do — go through the motions of peacemaking. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but there is a protocol to these things that has to be honored. Yet as each ticket is punched, more people die.

Time is not on the side of moderation or accommodation. The longer the killing goes on, the more radical and extreme the anti-Assad forces become. The intelligentsia that initially supported the movement will be marginalized by Islamic extremists — volunteers from nearby Arab countries who can’t abide Assad and his secularism. (Already, bombings have been reported.) As with Saddam Hussein, his late neighbor, Assad and his family have long been at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood and similar organizations. In 1982, Assad’s father killed perhaps 20,000 in the Brotherhood stronghold of Hama. It is now payback time.

Those of us who have long advocated that the United States put some muscle into its diplomacy — even bomb Syrian military installations and impose a no-fly zone — have to concede the difficulties entailed. The Syrian air-defense system is thick, designed by the Russians to deter an Israeli attack. The composition of the Syrian opposition is largely unknown (to quote Butch Cassidy: “Who are those guys?”). More worrisome, Syria has a vast stockpile of chemical and biological weapons. The weapons have not been used — they’re hard to control — but a regime fighting for its life may well use everything at its disposal. Saddam did against the Kurds.

Still, none of this is insurmountable. Israel was able to bomb a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 apparently without losing a single airplane — and whatever Israel can do, the United States can do as well. What’s missing at the moment is not the wherewithal to deal militarily with the Assad regime but the will to do so — and to do so expeditiously. This is a matter of leadership and, so far, Barack Obama has provided precious little.

In “Prague Winter,” her compelling new memoir, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright emphasizes the importance of leadership — or its lack — in world affairs. As a woman, she is the Czechoslovakian-born daughter of Josef Korbel and Anna Spiegelova. As a diplomat, she is a daughter of Munich, the infamous agreement that turned part of her country over to Nazi Germany. She rebuts Tolstoy, “who argued that scholars routinely exaggerate the ability of the great and powerful to control events,” by citing the weak and vacillating leaders who failed to recognize evil and stand up to Hitler. They were accessories before the fact, changing history by inaction.

The Munich analogy can be overdone. (Saddam was no Hitler.) But the supposed antidote to Munich, Vietnam, can also be overdone. Not every military action is a quagmire — and, anyway, quagmires can be avoided by using air power. The military interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya did not require boots on the ground. They ended when they were finished — a brilliant exit strategy.

The Syrian revolution is going to spiral into something awful. The longer it lasts, the more people die and the greater the chance of it spilling across borders. The plan, as it is now, is to wait for the inevitable — the failure of Kofi Annan and, after that, the predictable failure of an arms embargo that will weaken the opposition much more than it will Assad. Somehow, multiple failures are supposed to lead to success. That’s worse than Munich. It’s madness.

cohenr@washpost.com