May 30, 2012

What the Hell Should We Do About Syria?

Lock up the WMDs

There is little reason to expect a swift resolution to the Syrian conflict. For the moment, Syrian government forces enjoy a tremendous advantage in terms of both manpower and equipment, and the regime has no reason yet to think it will lose. The Alawi minority group -- which fears the loss of its political and economic power -- has strong incentives to act as a spoiler to any potential political settlement.

Which is not to say the United States is powerless. The Obama administration should press for a resolution to the conflict, promoting greater freedom and justice for the Syrian people without becoming mired in Syria's civil war. Working with the U.N. Security Council and the Friends of Syria, the contact group set up to aid the Syrian opposition, the United States should continue to publicize regime atrocities, attempt to establish coherence and inclusion in the Syrian opposition, and exert international pressure on regime officials to promote a political transition negotiated between the Syrian opposition and government. While the Pentagon will and should prepare military contingencies, without a more cohesive Syrian opposition, an international mandate, and a viable strategy for success, the United States should not rev up the B-52s. Under current conditions, military intervention in Syria would, in the words of Foreign Policy's own Marc Lynch, "alter but not end the dynamics of a long conflict, embroiling the United States directly in a protracted and bloody insurgency and civil war."

As the United States works to facilitate a transition, it must also recognize the limitations of its leverage over Syrian actors, prepare for the likelihood of a long conflict in Syria, and work to mitigate the effects of that war on U.S. interests. This means containing the conflict and discouraging human rights abuses while seeking a political solution. At the same time, the United States should counter efforts by other states, including those in the Friends of Syria coalition (think: Saudi Arabia), to empower surrogates with advanced weaponry or otherwise exploit the situation in ways that serve their own sectarian or narrow national interests.

The United States should worry about two particular consequences of the conflict in Syria: terrorism and the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons. The 2007 violence between Lebanese security forces and the Fatah al-Islam terrorist group, led by a militant released by Syrian authorities and resulting in the displacement of nearly 30,000 Palestinian refugees, is a harbinger of the kind of violence that might spill over from Syria. To mitigate the outbreak of limited, terrorist-led sectarian violence in Lebanon and other surrounding countries, the United States should provide security assistance and intelligence support to Syria's neighbors -- as it did in 2007 with arms and equipment, in addition to intelligence support. The United States has excellent relationships with the security services of each neighboring country, which will serve as a valuable asset in the event of a contingency.

The spread of chemical or biological weapons is more difficult to mitigate. None of Syria's neighbors has an interest in such weapons crossing its borders. But the ease with which people and weapons have been smuggled during the conflicts in both Syria and Iraq points toward how porous the Syrian borders with Iraq and Lebanon can be. Both countries have maintained relationships with the Assad regime, and each country should lobby the regime to safeguard its chemical and biological weapons stockpiles. The United States must work with the security services of each neighboring country, meanwhile, to develop plans to halt the movement of such weapons outside of Syria. The last thing this combustible region needs is weapons of mass destruction on the loose.