In the days after the massacre of more than 100 Syrians in the town of Houla — a killing spree by regime loyalists that left 34 women and 49 children under age 10 dead — Washington’s U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, reportedly told a closed-door Security Council meeting that “we’re just sitting here watching this movie in slow motion, and we all know what’s going to happen.”
The Obama administration’s approach to Syria is little more than this sort of hand-wringing, which plays to Bashar al-Assad’s regime as tacit permission to continue killing thousands.
But it need not be this way. President Obama has asserted that “Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way,” even issuing a presidential directive underscoring that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” Pretty rhetoric, but the president has the chance to actually do the right thing, to go beyond saying we should prevent atrocities and truly prevent them. And in this election year, intervening in Syria — to support the rebels and boost security for the people — is good policy for Obama the president and good politics for Obama the candidate.
Despite helping to oust Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi last year, the president made clear his distaste for getting involved in the Libyan conflict, and he has been even more squeamish about tackling the more formidable problem of Assad. As administration and military leaders constantly point out, Syria is no Libya. The opposition is divided, with al-Qaeda groups and ultraconservative Salafist Muslims among its ranks. The regime is well-armed, there have been few defections, and neither NATO nor the Security Council has the appetite to topple another Arab tyrant. All this is true, but mutable.
Obama could double down on the light arms that the Saudis and Qataris are supplying to the Free Syrian Army and could transfer more substantial weaponry to groups reportedly in line to be vetted by the CIA. Far from intensifying a conflict that is claiming thousands of lives, effective weapons may finally give the edge to the opposition and coax more significant defections from the Syrian army.
This is the kind of boldness that would suit Obama politically; it would illustrate that he is not bound by the veto of the international community, nor held back by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s refusal to abandon an allied thug. Arming the opposition, which some claim would be the prelude to another Iraq war, would in fact be an un-Bush strategy of allowing others to fight a war that America wishes won.
Also in the un-Bush category, which appears to be dear to this president, the administration could work more closely with the Syrian political opposition to develop a blueprint for a transition. It’s true that the opposition is divided, but that hardly distinguishes it from any other dissident political movement. It requires a firm guiding hand to focus on planning a transitional government, along with financial and technical support — in other words, policies Washington could embrace without great cost. The prospect of a U.S.-assisted democratic transition would assuage the concerns that many in the West and in Syria have about a post-Assad government.