March 6, 2012 | Philadelphia Inquirer

Diplomacy Alone Won’t Topple Assad

The yearlong uprising in Syria has presented the United States with an opportunity to deal a strategic blow to Iran's network of alliances in the Middle East. By ensuring the downfall of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Washington would topple Iran's only Arab strategic ally of more than 30 years, thereby advancing U.S. interests in the region.

However, the Obama administration doesn't see it that way. The White House has made it clear that it will only pursue diplomatic options to “isolate and pressure” Assad to “step aside” and “allow a democratic transition” to take place. It has ruled out integrating any military component to its policy. In addition, the administration has gone to great lengths to assert repeatedly that it only supports “peaceful” opposition in Syria, and that it remains against supporting the armed opposition.

But the administration is twisting itself in knots. On the one hand, it argues that arming the opposition would “further militarize the situation” and would even “expedite” a civil war. On the other hand, it concedes, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently did, that “there will be those who are going to find ways to arm these Syrians who are under attack.”

Indeed, the Saudis and the Qataris have both publicly advocated arming the Syrian opposition. But that's because Riyadh and Doha recognize full well what's at play in Syria: Assad's allies in Tehran and Moscow are providing the firepower needed to ensure the Damascus regime's survival. So while Washington may not prefer that Syria become a conflict zone, it's too late.

Consequently, as Iran's regional adversaries digest the fact that the United States won't counter Iranian and Russian efforts to sustain Assad's military campaign, they are likely to fill that void themselves. This ensures that the Syria crisis will become a theater for a regional proxy war. But not just any proxy war, but one funded and powered by dangerous regimes. The absence of the United States means that it will not be able to influence or manage the competing agendas of the various regional actors that will be drawn in to support their choice of fighters on the ground.

This hands-off approach, therefore, greatly increases the likelihood that unsavory actors will step in and gain a foothold in Syria. Meanwhile, the administration has pointed to the possible movement of some jihadis from Iraq into Syria as a reason for not supporting the armed opposition. But this argument is unconvincing.

In truth, the creation and supervision of a framework that allows monitoring of the flow of weapons and its recipients offers a much better chance of minimizing the risk than merely sitting on the sidelines.

The administration believes that arming the opposition is futile. Secretary of State Clinton raises the additional point that the Syrian resistance has no equivalent of Libya's Benghazi – a base of operation outside the reach of the regime. However, the fact that the rebel Free Syrian Army managed to hold off the regime from retaking the city of Homs for a month, despite a brutal siege and sustained bombardment, suggests that with the proper advice, help with organization, and adequate weaponry for urban warfare, the rebels can pose a considerable challenge to the Assad regime.

Not reaching out to the armed Syrian resistance would be a missed opportunity to weaken the Iranian axis. It would also be a missed opportunity to do the right thing.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. E-mail him at [email protected]

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Issues:

Iran Syria