Monday, February 6, 2012

What The White House Can Do About Syria

The United States has closed its embassy in Syria and asked Americans in the country to evacuate. The ambassador from the UK has been recalled for consultation but the embassy itself remains open.  These actions come in the wake of brutal attacks by the Assad regime in Homs and elsewhere in the country.

Attempts to pressure the Assad regime took a setback Saturday morning when a draft UN resolution passed with 13 votes but was vetoed by Russia and China, generating considerable ill-will towards those countries from the US, UK, France, and other bill supporters.

The United States now finds itself in a complex foreign policy dilemma.  Even if Saturday's resolution had passed it would have had only a small effect on the Assad regime, which has recklessly killed more than 4000 people since protests in Syria began last year.  Given international support of the US for upholding human rights, the normative power of R2P, and American citizens' support of action on behalf of at-risk populations abroad, the American government is compelled to act.  At a more primal level, no American with any basic sense of decency can feel complacency towards images of children with their jaws blown off their heads and having limbs amputated. 

At the same time, US military action is virtually out of the question.  Syria is using tanks to target opposition forces, limiting the potential efficacy of a no-fly zone.  American support for military intervention in the Middle East is low in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Finally, intervention in Syria could easily become a proxy war with Iran given that the head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) is aiding the Syrians in their military operations.

In addressing the carnage in Syria, the United States should employ two strategies.  The first is to continue to pass sanctions and urge partners and allies in the international community to do so.  Tanks cannot get to Homs, Hama, and Deraa without fuel.  It may very well be that other actors will continue to fund and fuel Syria's military regardless of international action.  However, making it as hard as possible for Syria to continue targeting its own civilians will ensure a minimum of support to the Assad regime.  Additionally, international solidarity against human rights violations may make actors who support Syria now less willing to do so over the long term.

The second capability is to actively support the efforts of regional partners to stabilize Syria's human rights situation.  The violence in Syria is destabilizing for the entire region, and the heavy Iranian hand in that violence is concerning for those who fear the rise of Iranian hegemony.  Israeli intervention is out of the question given its historic conflict with Syria and other states in the region.  That being said, the US should reassure Israel of its support for Israeli security in the event of cross-border violence.  In turn, it should ask the Israeli government not make statements on Syria which exacerbate tensions or de-legitimize rebel forces as affiliated with the "Zionist aggressor."  

Saudi Arabia may be a wiser choice for more direct engagement on Syria.  Saudi hegemony in the region is threatened by Iran-Syria coordination.  If Saudi does not take steps to balance Iran in Syria soon, it's regional strength may weaken.  The United States should signal that Saudi diplomacy to deter Iranian interference in Syria will be supported.  Saudi action in this regard may bring awkward questions about Saudi's influence on human rights in Bahrain.  Saudi intervention in Syria based on concern for human rights would be highly ironic given heavy tear gassing and use of live fire by security forces in Manama.  However, the US can express support for "containment" of Iranian influence in ways which meet security objectives for Saudi Arabia and human rights stabilization for the United States.  

The US can also support Turkish and Lebanese efforts to deal with refugees coming from Syria.  Turkey and Lebanon have both accepted refugees from Syria despite Turkey's tension with Syria and Lebanon's deep mistrust of the country which occupied it from 1976-2005.  This support could manifest itself as physical relief items such as tents and stoves, to granting Syrian refugees in those countries the opportunity to seek political asylum in the United States.

Both strategies are important actions the US government can take towards mitigating the already dire situation in Syria.  The situation there is more than a debate about humanitarianism.  It cuts to the core of who Americans are as a nation, and how we respond to civilians in immediate and preventable mortal danger.

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