In the days after the massacre of more than 100 Syrians in the town of Houla — a killing spree by regime loyalists that left 34 women and 49 children under age 10 dead — Washington’s U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, reportedly told a closed-door Security Council meeting that “we’re just sitting here watching this movie in slow motion, and we all know what’s going to happen.”
The Obama administration’s approach to Syria is little more than this sort of hand-wringing, which plays to Bashar al-Assad’s regime as tacit permission to continue killing thousands.
But it need not be this way. President Obama has asserted that “Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way,” even issuing a presidential directive underscoring that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” Pretty rhetoric, but the president has the chance to actually do the right thing, to go beyond saying we should prevent atrocities and truly prevent them. And in this election year, intervening in Syria — to support the rebels and boost security for the people — is good policy for Obama the president and good politics for Obama the candidate.
Despite helping to oust Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi last year, the president made clear his distaste for getting involved in the Libyan conflict, and he has been even more squeamish about tackling the more formidable problem of Assad. As administration and military leaders constantly point out, Syria is no Libya. The opposition is divided, with al-Qaeda groups and ultraconservative Salafist Muslims among its ranks. The regime is well-armed, there have been few defections, and neither NATO nor the Security Council has the appetite to topple another Arab tyrant. All this is true, but mutable.
Obama could double down on the light arms that the Saudis and Qataris are supplying to the Free Syrian Army and could transfer more substantial weaponry to groups reportedly in line to be vetted by the CIA. Far from intensifying a conflict that is claiming thousands of lives, effective weapons may finally give the edge to the opposition and coax more significant defections from the Syrian army.
This is the kind of boldness that would suit Obama politically; it would illustrate that he is not bound by the veto of the international community, nor held back by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s refusal to abandon an allied thug. Arming the opposition, which some claim would be the prelude to another Iraq war, would in fact be an un-Bush strategy of allowing others to fight a war that America wishes won.
Also in the un-Bush category, which appears to be dear to this president, the administration could work more closely with the Syrian political opposition to develop a blueprint for a transition. It’s true that the opposition is divided, but that hardly distinguishes it from any other dissident political movement. It requires a firm guiding hand to focus on planning a transitional government, along with financial and technical support — in other words, policies Washington could embrace without great cost. The prospect of a U.S.-assisted democratic transition would assuage the concerns that many in the West and in Syria have about a post-Assad government.
Another political virtue is the impact intervention would have on Iran. Ousting Tehran’s last reliable satellite regime and replacing it with a Sunni, democratic government would reassure our friends in the region that Washington is determined to stand up to Iran when necessary. Even those who oppose involvement in the Syrian conflict allow that the loss of Assad would be a blow to the Islamic republic.
There is another strategic dimension to Assad’s ouster. Right now, the fighting in Syria risks spreading to the rest of the Middle East. Lebanon, intertwined with Syria for decades, has seen violence between pro- and anti-Assad factions. But Jordan and Iraq also risk being drawn in. Both governments rule fractious populations that could be moved to take on their U.S.-supported leaders. Far from increasing the odds of spillover, facilitating a resolution in Syria would probably contain the fighting and undercut outside groups such as al-Qaeda, which look to take the battle to Syria’s neighbors. This is the kind of confrontation with “violent extremism in all of its forms” that Obama promised in his 2009 speech in Cairo.
Word throughout the region is that Obama is comfortable subcontracting U.S. Middle East policy to Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Both countries were deeply involved in Libya and Yemen, but both support versions of Islam in which extremists thrive. Political opponents say Obama has been uninterested in responding to the rise of such Islamist groups in places such as Egypt; working to ensure that moderate secular and Islamist groups take the helm in Syria would take the steam out of those accusations.
None of these moves entail huge risks for the president. There are other steps he could take that would be more complex, including ordering the U.S. military to provide air cover for the opposition, perhaps with NATO backing; working with Turkey and the Arab League to establish safe corridors for refugees; or working with others to create Syrian safe cities. Those actions could help a desperate population but might carry greater political risk for the president. However, with Mitt Romney supporting stronger efforts to oust Assad, Obama has more room to maneuver — if he wants it.
The administration has fooled itself into thinking that U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan and Putin — whom they hope to persuade to abandon Assad — are the keys to managing the Syria problem. But Syria is proving unmanageable, and the stain of indifference to the death and brutality is spreading. Many have said that a policy pursuing Assad’s ouster is a rare confluence of strategic and moral imperatives. For Obama, it makes political sense as well.
Danielle Pletka is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.