NEW YORK – Much of the debate over what to do in the Middle East tends to pit realists against idealists. Bahrain is a classic case, as is Saudi Arabia and, for that matter, Egypt: calls for the United States and other countries with interests and influence in the region to stand up for democracy and human rights run up against concerns that national-security interests will suffer if pro-Western authoritarian regimes are ousted. European and US policymakers often attempt to square the circle with a compromise policy that is inconsistent and satisfies no one.
Syria offers a stark contrast to this pattern in the sense that strategic and humanitarian interests are aligned. Many governments have a strategic desire to oust a regime that is closely allied with Iran and Hezbollah. And there is a humanitarian desire to get rid of a regime that has killed as many as 15,000 – if not more – of its own people.
But an armed intervention would be a large undertaking, one requiring not just considerable air power (given Syria’s extensive air-defense network) but also ground forces, given the existence of at least two capable divisions that remain loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The sectarian nature of Syrian society all but guarantees that the presence of troops from other countries would be both prolonged and difficult.
One alternative to direct military intervention is to provide arms and other forms of support to the opposition. This is being done. The case for helping people defend themselves is obvious. But arming the opposition is not without its drawbacks. It risks fueling a civil war and encouraging regime loyalists to dig in. In addition, arms provided to fight the regime will be used by factions to fight one another if and when the regime is removed, thereby making the aftermath in Syria that much more violent.
But intervention need not be defined as either armed intervention or intervention with arms. There is much more that the world can and should be doing to bring about the removal of the Assad regime.
For starters, economic sanctions can be increased. The rule of thumb should be that Syria will be the target of sanctions no less stringent than those being applied to Iran. Syria’s energy and banking sectors should be fully covered.
The elites in Syria who still support the regime ought to pay an additional price. Cutting off air travel to and from Syria would increase dissatisfaction among those who regularly visit London, Paris, and other Western capitals.
Likewise, those Arab governments unhappy with the state of affairs in Syria can do more to bring about change. They could suspend all ties with Syria, and they should scale back commercial and diplomatic relations with Russia, the regime’s most important external backer, until the Kremlin alters its policy.
Moreover, the diplomatic mission led by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan under UN auspices needs to be fundamentally recast. The time to try to broker a compromise, with Assad’s regime agreeing to reforms that would satisfy the opposition, is long gone (if it ever existed). The purpose of diplomacy now should be to bring about an exit for Assad and his inner circle, and to establish a process for moving to a new, more representative political order based on the rule of law.
We are already beginning to see some of those closest to Assad desert what they rightly view as a sinking ship. One way to accelerate this trend is to threaten war-crimes indictments by a certain date, say, August 15, for any senior official who remains a part of the government and is associated with its campaign against the Syrian people. Naming these individuals would concentrate minds in Damascus.
Defections will also increase if the Syrian opposition demonstrates that the alternative to the Assad regime is one that is truly open and inclusive. The minority Alawites fear that they will suffer the fate of the minority Sunnis in post-Saddam Iraq. The only way to reassure them (and to encourage them to defect) is with an opposition that becomes truly national and articulates principles that appeal to all Syrians. Western governments need to work much more closely with the divided and relatively inexperienced opposition if this imperative is to be met.
In short, the crisis in Syria warrants outside intervention, but mostly with tools other than arms. What is needed is an approach that hastens the demise of the Assad regime and increases the odds that what comes after will not be an orgy of vengeance, violence, and chaos. The human and strategic stakes call for no less.