Truman National Security fellow Joshua Walker: Next Steps for America in Syria

The Arab Spring’s most significant crisis has been unfolding in Syria for more than a year and a half. The lack of international leadership and political will has led to one of the most explosive and potent caldrons of instability that the Middle East has ever experienced. The regional impact, regardless of the  eventual outcome on the ground in Syria, has long-term consequences that outweigh the short-term considerations that are currently holding back U.S. policymakers from acting.

Since making the “wrong” decisions about Syria could have serious repercussions for the neighborhood and America’s own interests, the Obama Administration has been cautiously weighing its options as it decides how to deal with President Bashar Assad and the ongoing humanitarian disaster unfolding on the 24-hour news cycle. In an ironic twist of fate, at precisely the moment when American leadership is being questioned, Iran and Russia’s newfound swagger and emergence as regional kingmakers has threatened traditional American leadership in the region. As the United States discusses its “pivot” to Asia and Europe continues to be consumed by its own existential crisis, Turkey is reconsidering its traditional bias toward Europe, and the Arab League continues to save for future contingencies.

The United States and its allies acted in Libya to depose the region’s most isolated dictator in a relatively smooth humanitarian intervention. Rather than championing this successful example of regional and transatlantic cooperation, the Libyan coalition has no appetite to help depose the Assad regime that has killed more than 13,000 civilians — many of them women and children — in cold-blooded massacres in front of United Nations observers. In the absence of the international consensus that the Administration deems necessary for any further action, there have instead been increased calls for humanitarian support, echoed at the Friends of Syria conferences, as well as UN/Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s ill-fated six-point peace plan. Despite taking the rhetorical lead and being encouraged by its transatlantic partners and the Arab League to take a more aggressive role, Washington and its allies remain on the sidelines while Moscow and Tehran are actively throwing their resources and rhetoric behind Damascus.

In an election year, domestic concerns always trump international crises. But the fate of a president seeking a second term has often hinged on taking principled stands and demonstrating leadership. In the midst of news coverage showing the savagery of Assad who has lost the credibility and legitimacy to be ruler of Syria, American leadership does not need to take the form of direct military intervention or boots on the ground. Instead, it could take the form of limited punitive airstrikes. A minimal show of force that prevents Syrian forces from using heavy artillery, helicopters and radars against the Syrian people would fundamentally tip the scales.

Acting on a call from the Arab League and responding to NATO’s contingency planning, America could work in tandem to lessen the humanitarian disaster in Syria. Neighboring countries have already seen a tremendous influx of refugees, and Turkish officials have already indicated a willingness to create and enforce “humanitarian corridors” on Syrian soil to guarantee the security of its own southern border as well as the welfare of civilians fleeing violence. American leadership should generate the requisite domestic will and translate it into a mandate to establish a buffer zone for the Syrian opposition on the Syrian-Turkish border, similar to the no-fly zone in northern Iraq. By focusing on “regional solutions for regional problems” that allies in the Arab League and Turkey have been calling for, Washington would be leading the initiative without being out front.

Our choices regarding Damascus will have long-term consequences in terms of its regional alliances and the region’s integration with the West. Regional policies such as that of the Arab League and Turkey can complement American concerns if framed within the broader perspective of the transatlantic alliance that prioritizes common goals and interests over short-term tactical differences.

Getting Syria right is critical for America’s credibility in the region and the ultimate outcome of the Arab Spring. As the Administration continues to cautiously weigh its options, Assad’s ongoing onslaught against his own people will force America to lead a more robust international response – or explain why it sat idly by as the region burned. Regardless of whether Washington tries to keep its strategic options open by seeking to preserve the status quo, events on the ground in Syria could rapidly force American leaders into moving beyond rhetoric and intervening in either a limited humanitarian or full-scale manner. Having called for Assad’s removal, the status-quo is untenable given that the Pandora’s box that Damascus has unleashed directly impacts America’s interests in the region.

Joshua W. Walker is a Truman National Security Fellow and Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States