The Price of America Not Leading in Addressing the Conflict in Syria

This story has generated a buzz here at Doha, Qatar, where I’ve been attending the Brookings Institution’s U.S.-Islamic World Forum. A number of well-informed people believe that President Obama is indeed inclined to begin arming the Syrian opposition.

Let’s hope so. The hour is getting late. Last Wednesday, Hezbollah conquered the Syrian town of Qusayr. The week before, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, appeared on television and vowed to save the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The timing of the speech made it clear that taking Qusayr was crucial to that goal. The town sits on the most important route between the Hezbollah-controlled areas of Lebanon and the Assad-controlled parts of Syria. In rebel hands it was a wedge driving the two apart.

Nasrallah’s speech thus betrayed a key vulnerability – and not just of Hezbollah and Assad. The Islamic Republic of Iran also sees the territorial separation of its two proxies as a grave threat. Therefore, all those who oppose Iran’s intervention in Syria should fix their sites on Qusayr. They should begin now to lay plans to retake the town or, at the very least, to make Hezbollah pay many times over for the right to occupy it.

President Obama would be wise to lead this planning effort. After all, every American ally in the Middle East – be it Israel or Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Qatar – is steadfastly opposed to the role that Iran is playing in Syria. But until now Obama’s key decisions on Syria have reflected nothing if not a firm commitment to remain aloof. Not only has he nixed all previous proposals for direct American actions, such as imposing a no-fly zone, but he has also objected to the indirect approach of arming the opposition, lest American weapons find their way into the hands of al Qaeda.

What’s different now? Last year when Obama considered arming the rebels, it looked as if Assad might fall of his own weight. Now there is a clear recognition that he can hang on to power. Unlike the Americans, Iran and Hezbollah have no qualms about intervening on the ground. With their direct aid, Assad is carving out a rump Syrian state. Ethnic cleansing, aided by chemical weapons, is a primary tool for the job. Jordan is now awash in refugees, and the ongoing Syrian conflict threatens to destabilize the country. The conflict in Syria is also spilling over into Lebanon and Iraq, where sectarian tensions are at an all-time high since 2006. In the parts of Syria that are lost to Assad, an al Qaeda safe haven is rising up, smack in the middle of the Arab heartland. American inaction has thus enabled a simultaneous revitalization of Iran and al-Qaeda.

Until now Washington’s answer to this disaster has been to issue pious calls for a negotiated settlement between the opposition and the regime. But this idea is utterly fanciful, and the Obama administration is growing increasingly aware of the unreality of its policy. Assad will never negotiate himself out of a job. Even if he was inclined to do so – and he is not – a deal is a practical impossibility, due to the fractiousness of the opposition. Rebel leaders speak only for their own groups. An agreement by one leader would never be binding on the others. The war will go on no matter what.

Toppling Assad, therefore, is a necessary condition for peace. Unfortunately, the term “regime change,” has become nearly synonymous with direct American intervention on a massive scale. It need not be. As Senator John McCain explained in an important speech at Brookings on June 6, President Obama has options of a limited nature that would expose Americans to minimal risks. The president must simply explain to the American people and its allies that, while he is steadfast in his dedication to seeing the Syrian rebels dismantle the Assad regime, he also has no intention of taking responsibility for governing the entire country. Instead, he intends to offer the rebels assistance that is limited in scope yet highly effective.

Call it the pressure points strategy. According to this concept, the United States, together with its key allies, would seek to overcome the fragmentation of the rebels by building up a force of carefully vetted units. In effect, the United States would create the Free Syrian Army’s Special Forces. It would also function as their strategic brain, providing them with intelligence and logistical support – but all from outside of Syria and in concert with key local allies. These elite units would carry out assignments chosen to deliver maximum pain to the Assad regime at minimum cost.

Assad has numerous vulnerabilities that such a force could exploit. He is, for instance, desperate to ensure that the Alawite-dominated areas of the northwest Syria remain connected to Damascus. Fear of losing this connection was precisely why Hezbollah made an all-out effort to clear Qusayr, which guards the primary route between the two regions. The Assad regime is a wasp, and Qusayr is its tiny waist. A pressure point strategy would dedicate itself to hammering away at this point, cutting the wasp in half while also separating it from Hezbollah.

Qusayr is hardly the only point where the regime is vulnerable. Half of Aleppo and the entire countryside around it – reaching all the way to the Turkish border – are already in the hands of the rebels. Strong and effective external support, therefore, is all that is needed to remove Syria’s largest city from Assad’s grip.

A pressure points strategy will not strengthen al Qaeda. On the contrary, by building up only vetted units, arms will remain in the right hands. Moreover, the creation of an elite force, backed by the prestige of the United States – would strengthen the non-al-Qaeda rebels, who are desperately in need of rallying point.

Of course, the United States should form a supporting coalition to help implement a more aggressive strategy. France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and Turkey are the obvious candidates for such a group. In one way or another, all of them have displayed clear dissatisfaction with the current American policy. The mere creation of such a coalition would therefore hearten both the Syrian opposition and the other regional allies of America. And it would probably also help to defray costs. Who knows? The Gulf Arabs might even foot the entire bill for a more aggressive American policy, just as they did in 1991, after the liberation of Kuwait. That war beat back a tyrant, and it cost the American taxpayer nothing – nothing, that is, but the price of leadership.

But if President Obama is briefed on something resembling the pressure points strategy, he will undoubtedly ask whether it puts the United States on a slippery slope to direct intervention. After all, the strategy does not outline a guaranteed route to victory. The only answer that his aides can give him is this: “Sir, this is not a recipe for winning; it’s a recipe for not losing. Under the circumstances, it’s the best we can do.” Will that be enough to convince him? We’ll soon find out.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the Weekly Standard under the title “The Price of Not Leading“.