The United States has a Strategic and Humanitarian Interest in Syria

Sunday, September 1, 2013
The Ambassadors REVIEW

Does the war in Syria constitute a strategic concern for America, and if so, is there a way to protect those interests, without the threat of military force? Recent history seems to indicate that military intervention in the region deteriorates, rather than advances, US strategic interests.

America already has experienced a significant deterioration in our strategic inter­ests in this conflict. If Iran, Syria and Hezbollah further tip the balance in their favor, this will result in a strengthened axis of resistance against US interests, stretching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This will represent an unstable, long-term situation for the United States, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and our allies in the Gulf.

A solution in Syria which halts this surge against our strategic interests will take leadership by President Obama to communicate a clear vision and mission, and to execute that mission. This is something he has been unable to do thus far, which has caused confusion with the American people, our elected officials, and our allies in the region.

While the United States wants to punish Syria for the use of chemical weapons, we should have a more long-term goal: to drive Syria and its benefactor, Russia, to the table to negotiate a settlement that forces the Assad regime to step down, and to create an orderly transition leading to a democratically elected government. Unlike Iraq where we were not invited in, the Syrian opposition, which constitutes a majority in the country, has asked for US support and leadership in support of this objective.

Unfortunately, the Syrian government and the Russians are not yet interested in a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Yet events this September have shown that only when the threat of force is imminent is there an interest to sit down and talk. The threat of a military strike against Syria seems to be the trigger that impelled Russia to undertake recent negotiations on Syria’s chemical weapons.

The threat of force therefore must be “on the table” as a means of achieving a negotiated settlement to the conflict and an orderly transfer of power from the Assad regime. How do we accomplish this without putting US boots on the ground, and avoiding radical opposition forces from taking over in Syria?

The militant jihadists, who are the core radicals in the conflict, number in the few thousands, although they are widely dispersed and can be difficult to identify. The larger group of anti-regime forces is organized as the Free Syrian Army, under the central com­mand of a credible general, and made up of multi-religious, multi-ethnic fighters, who mirror the diverse Syrian population that has co-existed for centuries. Secretary Hillary Clinton and General David Petraeus called for the arming of these rebels more than a year ago to no avail. Secretary John Kerry made another attempt to convince President Obama earlier this year of the need to arm the Free Syrian Army.

Finally, in September the President announced that arms were flowing to the rebels under General Salim Idriss, head of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army. Although it would have been easier a year ago, before the heavy counter offensive by the Assad regime that included the use of chemical weapons, there is still enough time to achieve the mission. A key factor is for the President to convince the Qataris and Saudis, who are supplying arms and money outside the command control center, to get behind American leadership and that of General Idriss in support of the Free Syrian Army and to stop supplying arms and money to the radical rebel factions.

Such an approach will require the President to explain plainly and in detail why it’s in America’s national interest to support the Free Syrian Army, and display the leadership that gives confidence to our Arab and European allies to direct arms and money to a friendly and allied central command. The objective is not to topple the Assad regime directly but to drive them and Russia to the negotiating table, so that the chances for an orderly transfer of power are enhanced. If instead the rebel opposition has to drive Assad out of office, it should be the Free Syrian Army doing it, not radical rebels.

Regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons, the President made an important and compelling case for military action, as it goes against American values and principles enshrined in international agreements. Some would argue that in light of the weariness of the American people to get entangled in another military intervention, the President had to seek Congressional support for military action. Regardless of the merits of going to Congress for approval, by using the threat of force, the President succeeded in encouraging Russia to negotiate a plan for Syria to give up its chemical weapons.

However, if force must eventually be used, the targets selected should include the military and defense capabilities of Syria, as part of the larger strategy regarding a transition of power in Syria. The chemical weapons issue should not be a goal in itself, but rather an objective in support of a larger mission.

Whatever the final outcome of the negotiated agreement with Russia to remove Syria’s chemical weapons, America must preserve its sovereign right to act against those who would do us and our allies harm. The United States must assert the leadership that our allies demand in order to ensure a coordinated approach to the instability and conflict in Syria, including preserving our right to use force if necessary and the flow of arms to the Free Syrian Army.