Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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What Next on Syria?

by Elliott Abrams
February 21, 2012

Syrian tanks are seen in Bab Amro near the city of Homs February 12, 2012. Syrian forces resumed their bombardment of the city of Homs on Monday, with government troops concentrating their fire on Baba Amro neighbourhood in the south of the city and al-Waer in the west. Opposition campaigners said tank fire was concentrated on two large Sunni Muslim neighbourhoods that have been at the forefront of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. (Courtesy Mulham Alnader/REUTERS) Syrian tanks are seen in Bab Amro near the city of Homs February 12, 2012. Syrian forces resumed their bombardment of the city of Homs on Monday, with government troops concentrating their fire on Baba Amro neighbourhood in the south of the city and al-Waer in the west. Opposition campaigners said tank fire was concentrated on two large Sunni Muslim neighbourhoods that have been at the forefront of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. (Courtesy Mulham Alnader/REUTERS)

What should the United States do about the continuing attacks by the Assad regime on the population of Syria? The Council on Foreign Relations asked several Senior Fellows to answer that question, and the short replies are here.

My own reply was this:

Pundits are used to analyzing the gap between what our ideals suggest and what our security interests require. In Syria, there is no such gap. The Assad regime is vicious and repressive, and has in the last year killed more than 6,000 protesters. It has no legitimacy and holds on to power by brute force alone. It is also Iran’s only Arab ally, the arms supplier to Hezbollah, and an enemy of the United States that worked hard to send jihadis to Iraq to kill Americans.

So the fall of the regime should be an American policy goal, and in this we will have considerable Arab and European support. The likely Sunni-led replacement will not have the close relationship with Iran and Hezbollah that the Assad clique has established. Thus far, we have imposed sanctions on Syria and made many demands. The problem is that our speeches and even our sanctions have not helped defend the people of Syria against Assad’s bullets.

The opposition movement began peacefully and was met with bloody repression by the regime, so it is now trying to defend itself and to fight back. The so-called Free Syrian Army, which began with little more than press releases, is now a force in the thousands and we should be helping arm and fund it.

The United States should encourage the arming and funding of the opposition, to give them a better chance to defend themselves and the protesters and to overthrow the regime.

Why? Because the real questions in Syria now are who will win and how long will this take. We ought to find an Assad victory (or perhaps one should say an Assad, Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and Hezbollah victory) unacceptable. Moreover, we should avoid the false moral equivalence that leads people to say, “Oh, don’t arm anyone, just call for a ceasefire.” As in Darfur or Kosovo, such calls are in reality an abandonment of people fighting against oppression.

Every passing week not only brings more blood, but also makes reconciliation and internal peace that much harder when the conflict ends. What should we do? The United States should encourage the arming and funding of the opposition, to give them a better chance to defend themselves and the protesters and to overthrow the regime. Whether we best do this ourselves or through others is a tactical question; we should do what will work. But we should be determined that the decades of murder and oppression under this regime in Syria will soon come to an end.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    Western aid to the Syrian opposition should be no less open than that provided by Russia to Assad . The immediate problem lies in establishing a supply point and the courage to do it . We are well past the point where sanctions alone will end Assad’s regime any time soon .

  • Posted by Jack Goldstone

    I agree with you. At this point, failure to provide armed support — which I would advocate in the form of arming Syrian opposition groups to create and defend safe zones and aid corridors — will result in the current uprising being crushed, leaving in place a paranoid and unstable Syrian regime and paving the way for a more radical successor regime in the future. It is probably true, as many claim, that arming the opposition will prolong the conflict compared to not doing so — without this step, Assad will likely respond to diplomatic and economic pressure by using overwhelming force to crush the opposition movement as soon as possible, before economic sanctions peel away his support among the business elite. But our choice is between the peace of the graveyard and the loss of any future Western influence with Syria — which will move far closer to Iran and Russia due to their active support — or supporting a struggle for freedom in which the West will have some influence and build positive support throughout the Muslim world for acting in support of the promises and ideals it has spouted over the past year.
    The belief that a solely defensive or humanitarian course is possible is, sadly, a pipe dream. Assad will attack or seek to prevent any ‘safe zones’ as he knows their establishment would end his ability to crush the uprising — and if the uprising survives it is only a matter of time until Assad falls.
    So let us be honest; we either provide support for Syrians to fight against their regime — arms, communications, intelligence, nonlethal aid — or Assad teamed with his Iranian supporters will emerge feeling stronger than before. That is not security, but a more dangerous situation for the region.

  • Posted by Eric

    Supporting opposition to Assad is in direct support of President Obama’s ideas for national security. Items three and four of the President’s National Security Strategy dated May 2010 states: “Respect for universal values at home and around the world; and
    • An international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.”
    Either we can sit by and ignore our own National Security Strategy at the risk of allowing more tyranny in a region that is already marked by violent instability, or we can provide the necessary resources for the opponents of Assad to do the job. Allowing Assad and his regime to stay in power while it is clear that it is no one’s best interest, outside of Assad’s and Iran’s, is not prudent. The West could always use more allies in the Middle East, and Western backed opposition could be the gateway towards a civil and benevolent economic partnership.

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