April 10, 2012 | Press Release

What Obama Must Do in Syria After the Failed Annan Plan

A Joint Bulletin of the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)

The Assad regime’s brutality against the Syrian people continues unabated, despite the April 10th deadline set by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to halt the violence.  Yet rather than end the slaughter and begin withdrawing from cities, it is clear the now failed peace-plan has given Assad’s forces cover to continue brutal operations against the opposition.  Just yesterday, for example, news sources report that 35 civilians were killed in central Syria, while government troops crossed international borders with Lebanon and Turkey in pursuit of activists.

With the Annan plan unable to end the crisis in Syria, President Obama should prepare to do much more to bring about the end of the Assad regime and, in the interim, to help the Syrian people defend themselves against the Syrian government’s relentless aggression.  As the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) wrote in November 2011, the United States should pursue a wide range of additional options to achieve these goals:

  • Initiate and intensify direct contact with the Free Syrian Army and associated forces, and provide them with a full range of assistance, including self-defense aid;
  • Establish safe zones for civilians within Syrian territory; and
  • Use limited retaliatory airstrikes against select Syrian military targets in order to protect the safe zones.

Obama Efforts Thus Far Not Enough

As the “Friends of Syria” international conference in Istanbul, Turkey, drew to a close on April 1, 2012, the United States announced it will provide non-lethal assistance, including secure communications equipment and technology, to Syrian opposition groups.  Additionally, the U.S. signaled tacit support to Arab countries providing pay and self-defense aid to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and associated forces.

However, it is premature to conclude that the Obama administration’s recent announcements represent a significant change in U.S. policy.  To the disappointment of the embattled Syrian opposition, the Obama administration apparently continues to hold out hope that negotiations can somehow persuade Assad to halt his bloody campaign of repression.  What is more likely is that the Assad regime will continue not only to cling to power, but also to systematically slaughter the opposition.  Indeed, Syrian government forces have increased targeted attacks against activists over the past week, including through the use of armed helicopters.

Yet rather than cooperate with allies in the region, the White House is using the “Friends of Syria” conference to double-down on its failed diplomatic strategy.  As Tony Badran of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies writes:  “What [the Obama administration] seems poised to do next is to use the threat of this regional support for the FSA in order to get the Russians to pressure Assad to comply with Annan’s plan.”

U.S. foreign policy should not be contingent on the Kremlin’s approval, however.  Russia has repeatedly blocked efforts by the U.N. Security Council to condemn the Assad regime and continues to oppose imposing a political transition upon the Assad regime.  Predictably, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov—and his Syrian counterpart—now claim the Annan peace process was undermined not by the Assad regime’s continued killing spree, but by Turkish assistance to Syrian opposition groups.  It remains unclear why the Obama administration believes Moscow’s policies will change anytime soon.

Policy Options:  Towards a Real Shift in Strategy

Moving forward, the United States can—and should—take additional steps to pressure the Assad regime.

First, it should initiate and intensify direct contact with the Free Syrian Army and associated forces and join Arab countries in providing them with a full range of assistance, including self-defense aid.  In the short-term, this will better enable members of the opposition to defend themselves—and civilians and protestors in specific neighborhoods—against the Assad regime’s continued attacks. Moreover, by establishing and intensifying direct communication lines with various opposition leaders, Washington can use its intelligence capabilities to communicate information on Syrian government troop movements.

Second, the United States should work with like-minded partners to establish safe zones for civilians within Syrian territory.  Despite repeated condemnation from the international community, the Assad regime continues to escalate its war on the Syrian people.   The United Nations now estimates that over 10,000 civilians have been killed during the year-long struggle, and tens of thousands of refugees have fled to neighboring countries.  The establishment of safe zones along the Turkish and Jordanian borders, however, would help to protect Syrian refugees and military defectors, and provide much needed cover to Syria’s political opposition groups and armed opposition forces.

Third, the United States should consider the use of limited retaliatory airstrikes against select Syrian military targets in order to protect the safe zones.  Indeed, Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) advocated this approach in March 2012, declaring that:  “If requested by the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, the United States should help organize an international effort to protect civilian population centers in Syria through airstrikes on Assad’s forces.”

The United States has a moral interest in working with like-minded nations to prevent the slaughter of the Syrian people.  But it also has a strategic interest in seeing the demise of Iran’s key regional ally in the Middle East.  Indeed, the collapse of Assad’s government would further isolate the terror-sponsoring government of Iran, undermine its influence, and complicate continued Iranian support for terrorist groups including Hezbollah and Hamas.  For lawmakers in Washington, there are powerful moral and strategic imperatives to intervene.


Although the Obama administration has repeatedly demanded that the Syrian government end its mass murder of civilians, and that Assad step down from power—and has even noted the strategic importance of Assad’s departure—it has yet to implement a policy that achieves these goals.  This is not so much a question of financial cost or diplomatic and military capabilities, but more a matter of political will.

During a news conference in March 2012, President Obama rightly said:  “What’s happening in Syria is heartbreaking and outrageous.”  But after months of continuing bloodshed, the President now faces a clear choice:  stand with the Syrian people or continue to watch them brutally murdered by President Assad as he consolidates his grip on power.

About the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies is a non-profit, non-partisan policy institute dedicated exclusively to promoting pluralism, defending democratic values, and fighting the ideologies that drive terrorism. Founded shortly after the attacks of 9/11, FDD combines policy research, democracy and counterterrorism education, strategic communications, and investigative journalism in support of its mission. For more information, please visit www.defenddemocracy.org.

About the Foreign Policy Initiative

FPI is a non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code. FPI seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America's global economic competitiveness. The organization was founded in 2009 and is led by Executive Director Jamie Fly. FPI’s Board of Directors consists of Eric Edelman, Robert Kagan, William Kristol, and Dan Senor. Visit our website at www.foreignpolicyi.org for more information.