President Barack Obama’s decision to strike Bashar Assad’s regime has perplexed many people. For the last two years, the White House, with the clear support of the military and a majority of public opinion, has resisted greater involvement in Syria. However, in a surprising turnabout, the president is now claiming that core American interests are at stake. Is he correct? If so, are military strikes, even of a limited nature, the best way to safeguard those interests? Here, in an effort to answer those questions, are five basic propositions.
1) At stake in Syria is the future of the regional order in the Middle East.
The struggle for Syria is now more than just a civil war; it is also a regional conflict that pits – to put it in simplified terms – Iran and Hezbollah against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms. The United States has a strong interest in seeing Saudi Arabia, the Syrian rebels, and their allies win this conflict. They are fighting not just for Syria, but for an international order that will protect vital American interests.
2) The only route to a political solution in Syria is regime change.
From the beginning, the Obama administration has failed to acknowledge this fundamental truth, instead pursuing a negotiated settlement – an agreement on a transitional government acceptable both to Assad loyalists and the Syrian opposition. Supporters of this approach justify it by saying, “There is no military solution to this problem. We have no choice, therefore, but to follow a political track.”
While this sounds reasonable, the chances of success are nil. Bashar Assad will never negotiate himself out of a job. His regime, one of the most repressive in the world, will not willingly convert to notions of democratic legitimacy. His security services, infected with the crudest forms of sectarian bloodlust, will not open their doors to the Sunni majority. His Iranian patron, desperate to maintain a strategic foothold in the Eastern Mediterranean, will not stand by idly as Sunni Muslims take a position of influence in the government commensurate with the size of their community.
The administration’s current policy is, therefore, a pipe dream.
3) The United States should work as aggressively as possible to build up the Free Syrian Army
(FSA), even if it cannot commit the resources necessary to bring Assad down directly. The goal, in that case, should be to shift the balance of power on the ground against Assad and his international backers. Total victory may be beyond the immediate reach of the rebels, but the United States still has an interest in joining the fray, if only to see its allies gain the upper hand.
But gaining advantage on the ground is by no means the only benefit to the United States. The events of the last week teach us that, left unchecked, the conflagration in Syria, can be expected to force the United States to take action unilaterally. Knocking back the Iranians and Assad, bleeding their ally Hezbollah, aiding the Syrian refugees, building up the FSA – all of these steps and more are not simply efforts “to solve” the Syrian problem. They are, in addition, vehicles for promoting the establishment of a new regional order that serves American interests. Together they represent the simplest path available to ensure that the United States, in a pinch, is not left exposed, with no coalition partners, and with few options other than unilateral military strikes.
4) Supporting the FSA is not synonymous with supporting Al Qaeda.
A dangerous strategic doctrine has taken hold in some quarters, according to which it is wise for the United States to, as Sarah Palin recently said, “Let Allah sort it out.” Iran and Al Qaeda, so the argument goes, are locked in mortal combat. Both are enemies of America, so the United States should allow them to kill each other.
This argument is false on its face. The conflict, far from burning itself out, is generating new threats to American national security by providing both Iran and Al Qaeda with unprecedented opportunities to expand their influence throughout the region. Al Qaeda, for its part, is building a safe haven in the heart of the Arab world, a magnet for jihadis from across the globe. Meanwhile, Iran is recruiting Iraqi Shiite militiamen, training them in Iran, and then sending them to Syria to fight.
Lost in the mix are the average Syrians, the regular people who are smashed between the hammer of Assad’s tyranny and the anvil of the global jihad. Only the United States has the military and diplomatic resources to build structures that can draw on the energies and ambitions of those people. The goal of American policy, therefore, should be to build up a third Syrian force, the alternative to Assad and Al Qaeda. Even if Assad remains in power, this third force can function as an invaluable ally of the United States on the ground.
5) Military strikes on the Assad regime are an effective means of containing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
While the kind of limited strikes the president has described will not significantly degrade the war-fighting capability of the Assad regime, they will have a powerful impact on the morale of the opposition – a factor one should never underestimate in war.
A question mark now hovers over the future of American power. A number of developments — the “rebalancing to Asia,” the sequestration cuts, and a general war weariness — have given rise in the Middle East to the belief that the United States is no longer a dependable ally. The apparent confusion and disarray the Obama administration exhibited last week have deeply strengthened that belief. Erasing it should now be the top priority, and a strike is the first step toward doing so.
Congress, therefore, should authorize the use of force in Syria. However, it must also impress upon the president that his own misdiagnosis of the Syria problem has strongly contributed to the problem. A strike is a first step toward repairing lost American prestige, but it must be coupled with a paradigm shift in the White House.
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