December 13, 2011 | Quote

‘No substitute for US leadership on Syria’

WASHINGTON – Syria is too important a country for its crisis to be handled by any actor other than the United States, experts on Mideast geopolitics and national security said late last week at an annual policy conference in Washington.

The US and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions on Damascus and last month the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership. But Western leaders have been loath to consider military intervention in Syria.

Tony Badran – a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Washington think tank that organized the event – said neither the Arab League nor Turkey wield the necessary military or diplomatic clout to end a nearly nine-month government crackdown said to have killed at least 4,000 people.

“Syria is a pillar of the Iranian axis. Only the US can do this – it can’t be outsourced,” Badran said. “The US acting like a human-rights NGO just won’t cut it.” 

Turkey, which shares a 900-km. border with Syria, has raised the possibility of creating a buffer zone along their the frontier, but has also shrunk from the prospect of large-scale military action.

Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said military operations in the country would present difficulties not encountered in this year’s NATO intervention in Libya.

“Unlike Libya, Syria has a massive air defense system. The US could handle it, but not the Turks,” he said.

Current and former US officials from both sides of the aisle called for Washington to show greater leadership against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York) said America must honor its responsibility as the champion of freedom-seeking peoples worldwide.

“People care what the US says and look to it as a beacon of democracy. Shame on us if we shirk that duty,” said Engel, who in 2003 sponsored the Syria Accountability Act aimed at ending the regime’s support for terrorism in Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq.

Diplomatic cables published last year by WikiLeaks showed a number of Arab leaders pushing for military action against Iran’s nuclear program and a tough policy against the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. Engel said action against the Syrian regime would likely be similarly well-received in private, even if condemned in public.

“Just as other countries vilify Israel but secretly approve of what it does, so too with the US,” he said.

John Hannah, an Foundation for Defense of Democracies fellow and national security adviser to former vice president Dick Cheney, said the Syrian crisis must be viewed first and foremost as an opportunity to weaken Iran.

“This opportunity to take down this anti- Israeli, anti-US dictator [Assad] who is Iran’s sole Arab ally and has extended its tentacles into Lebanon and Gaza is absolutely imperative,” Hannah said. “It needs to be seen not just as a humanitarian crisis, but an opportunity to weaken the Iranian regime.”

James Woolsey – chairman of the foundation and a former CIA director – lashed out at the Obama White House’s foreign policy toward the leaders of Syria and Iran.

“From the start the administration gave the impression it would be easy on enemies and tough on allies. All it needs to do now is pretend Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are allies,” he said.

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