Who Will Save Syria?

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The Syrian uprising began nearly a year ago, and despite renewed international efforts, the regime has intensified the killing. The death toll, approaching 8,000, is now five times what it was in Libya on the eve of the NATO intervention there. These are “crimes against humanity,” a United Nations panel concluded recently.

Those of us who supported military action in Libya hoped that it might set a precedent that the United States and Europe would act quickly and decisively to protect civilian populations in the event of mass slaughter during the Arab Spring. The Syrian opposition has issued unambiguous calls for foreign military intervention. This is no Western imposition. It is Syrians—like Libyans before them—who are pleading that the West do more, not less.

Already, military intervention enjoys considerable Arab and Muslim legitimacy. The Turks, Qataris, Tunisians and Saudis have all called for various degrees of intervention, whether through “safe zones,” peacekeeping forces or arming the Syrian rebels. But these countries cannot do it on their own. They are waiting for the United States to lead efforts to assemble a coalition that can intervene effectively and then help stabilize Syria after hostilities cease.

No doubt the risks of intervention are considerable. But so too are the risks of not intervening. Opponents of intervention have warned of militarization, civil war, Iranian intervention and an exodus of refugees. Well, all these things have already come to pass. Syria today is in danger of becoming a failed state. The regime has lost control over large swaths of territory. Al Qaeda and other extremists are hoping to take advantage of the growing power vacuum. Can the world afford a failing state and protracted civil war in such a vital region?

If the objective of intervention is to protect civilian populations, then the first step is for the United States to help other countries provide Syrian rebel forces with both light arms and more advanced antitank and antiaircraft weaponry. The right to self-defense is a right guaranteed by international law. The second step would be the designation of liberated zones—particularly those along the border with Turkey—as safe havens, as was done in Bosnia during the 1990s. To protect these areas, air power and some special forces, preferably soldiers from Arab nations or Turkey, would be needed. The goal would not necessarily be regime change but rather to demonstrate international resolve, encourage regime defections and compel the Syrian government to alter its calculations about the use of force.

Currently, President Bashar Assad believes he can outlast the opposition and ultimately obliterate it through sheer force and brutality. Helping the rebels peel off large pieces of territory would demonstrate to Assad that he cannot win militarily, breathing new life into diplomatic efforts or—at the very least— securing cease-fire agreements around key population centers. Such efforts could be accompanied by a naval blockade and an air campaign against key government and military positions and installations— as in Bosnia, Kosovo and, more recently, Libya. In Bosnia, NATO power forced the Serbs to the negotiating table, eventually leading to the Dayton Accords and the introduction of multinational peacekeeping forces. The Gaddafi regime in Libya showed more interest in negotiating with the opposition after, rather than before, military intervention. Within a few weeks of the start of the NATO operation, Gaddafi envoys were engaging in cease-fire talks. In late May, an increasingly desperate Libyan regime went further, offering to negotiate with rebels and institute constitutional reforms. Intervention and diplomatic efforts need not be mutually exclusive. They should proceed in parallel.

None of this, though, will be possible without U.S. support and leadership. Despite budgetary constraints, this is not the time for the Obama administration to shrink from the challenge at hand. Even if the United States insists on “leading from behind,” it still needs to lead.