According to the WikiLeaks cables, the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia encouraged the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” — that is, to strike Iran if it wanted to cut off its nuclear weapons program and stabilize the Middle East. Needless to say, the Obama administration did not heed the advice. It instead acquiesced to Iran’s nuclear program and sat by as Iran sunk its teeth into four Arab capitals and increased support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

The next best option to hitting Iran still remains: Knock out its most reliable ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The administration, no doubt in an effort to win its deal with Assad’s patrons in Tehran, has paid lip service to Assad’s ouster but done nothing meaningful to advance it. Voices on the right and left declared it preferable to leave him there, lest the country fall entirely within the control of the Islamic State, which took root in Syria only because of Assad’s prolonged, bloody war against his people. That assessment was faulty, for so long as Assad remains, non-jihadi forces will never prevail. Now Assad’s ouster is not only beneficial but essential in order to undo the multiple fiascoes President Obama’s foreign policy has spawned.

Michael Singh and Elliott Abrams write that the current Syrian refugee crisis is “symptomatic of the Obama administration’s broader attitude toward the Syrian conflict: bide our time and hope it goes away or can be contained.” Likewise, allowing Assad to remain and bolstering Iran through a lopsided nuclear deal has only encouraged Russia to enter the picture. Seeing a strategy to both problems, they recommend an end to our passivity:

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Rather than being cowed by Vladimir Putin’s gambit, the U.S. and its allies should continue to insist that any diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict require Mr. Assad to step down and a representative government to succeed him. And we should reinforce this position with action. A good place to start would be the creation of “safe zones” in Syria that could offer a haven to refugees and places to work with the Syrian opposition. Maintaining such zones would require a significant Western contribution, including air support and perhaps limited personnel on the ground. But as the refugee crisis and ISIS-inspired terror attacks demonstrate, inaction has not spared the U.S. from the costs of Syria’s conflict.
U.S. agreement and contribution to creating such zones in Syria should be tied to our regional allies agreeing to provide financial and military support–including in the form of ground forces able to help police the areas. Just as important, our allies must agree to refrain from supporting extremists and, instead, act jointly with the U.S. to channel support and aid to responsible elements of the Syrian opposition. Together, we should redouble efforts to stanch the flow of men, money, and materiel to Mr. Assad and ISIS, which prosper in perverse symbiosis with one another.

In sum, Iran, the Islamic State and Russia are all benefiting from Assad’s continued rule of terror. So long as he remains in power, the Islamic State draws support and a rationale for its violence. So long as Assad remains, Iran’s influence and prestige grows. And so long as Assad remains, Russia has a toehold to reenter the Middle East and assert power to the extent unimaginable during the Cold War. Removing Assad and bolstering non-jihadi forces, by contrast, would be a step toward deterring Iran, weakening the Islamic State and checking Russian ambitions. As an added bonus, efforts to diminish both Iran and the Islamic State’s influence in Iraq would be enhanced.

There is no easy solution to the plethora of interconnected disasters over which Obama has presided. Nevertheless, we must start somewhere, and removing Assad would be a step in the right direction, improving the humanitarian situation and restoring some semblance of American leadership and credibility in the region. We should hope Obama gets over his aversion to American leadership in time to start cleaning up the mess he has made over the past 6½ years.

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