With the conclusion of NATO's military operations in Libya, it is time for the White House to shift focus to the protests in Syria. Since Syrians took to the streets in March, the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has committed a growing list of atrocities in cracking down on peaceful protesters. The regime has maimed and murdered those it has detained and trained sniper fire on unarmed civilians. It seems Assad will stop at nothing to maintain power.
It took half a year and two thousand dead for President Obama to finally call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to "step aside," but those words were backed by no concrete plan to realize that goal. According to a United Nations report, the death toll in the Syrian spring has now topped three thousand five hundred, with an additional thirty thousand more detained, tortured or missing. The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, recently was recalled due to threats against his personal security, and the Assad regime pulled its ambassador, Imad Moustapha, from Washington. Thus, events have rendered this a crucial moment in determining U.S. policy toward Damascus.
Nearly all of the hindrances to American involvement have dissipated over recent months. The original argument against protecting Syrians held that, unlike in Libya, the Syrian opposition was fractured and the majority opposed Western military intervention. But with the recent creation of the 140-member Syrian National Council (SNC) and its call for international protection from the government's military crackdown, those arguments now hold little weight. Indeed, Samir Nashar, a senior member of the SNC, recently stressed: "We are not living in the age of colonialism, and the Libyan example remains a milestone in front of us, for without military intervention there Qaddafi would have exterminated the people of Benghazi." The concern that asking for international help would mean inviting a foreign occupation is vanishing. The Arab League also has provided cover for foreign intervention by voting to suspend Syria from the league over the weekend. Only Lebanon and Yemen voted against the measure, with Iraq abstaining. Following the vote, Jordan's King Abdullah became the first Arab leader to call on Assad to resign in an interview with the BBC.
Moreover, when it came to Libya, those in favor of military assistance pointed to Qaddafi's loss of high-level officials. Ambassadors abroad resigned from their posts en mass, and, inside the country, many ministers and soldiers also defected. In Syria, the pace in which officers and soldiers are turning away from the regime is quickening, and it would hasten further if people believed Assad could fall. Until August, Turkey was hesitant to abandon the Assad regime and sent its foreign minister to Damascus to discuss concrete steps to bring the violence to an end. Today, Ankara has played a role in the creation of the Syrian National Council by protecting Syrian refugees and dissidents and allowing the council to form on Turkish soil, where it continues to meet. They are also hosting the Free Syrian Army, a militia composed of defectors from the Syrian armed forces.
In terms of humanitarian considerations, there are now more than three times the number of dead Syrians than Libyans murdered by Qaddafi when NATO decided to intervene in mid-March. But unlike Libya—a country that was a previous but not current thorn in America's side—the Assad regime continues to undermine and attack U.S. interests with impunity. Syria is Iran's only Arab ally, and it ships weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, where it serves as a permanent threat to Lebanon's sovereignty and stability. Syria has also served as the primary gateway for foreign jihadists entering Iraq to kill coalition forces. And while it is assumed that Syria's nuclear program was destroyed by a 2007 Israeli air strike, the IAEA has been stonewalled by the regime at every turn.
Perhaps most compelling is that as autumn turns to winter, the result of U.S. engagement in the so-called "Arab Spring" has so far empowered the Muslim Brotherhood in countries relatively friendly to Washington—in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and beyond. Meanwhile, Washington has proved ineffective in getting Iran and Syria to respond to U.S. interests. Taking a pass on Syria now could give Tehran domination over the Shia crescent—from Iran to Iraq to Syria to Lebanon—which it has pursued since its 1979 revolution. The key to any possible gains in the Arab Spring lies in helping the Syrian spring succeed.
The goal of U.S. policy, therefore, should be an end to the violence, the fall of the Assad regime and the creation of conditions for a stable democratic system that protects the rights of the Christian, Kurdish and Alawite minorities. American strategy should aim to weaken those that support the regime within and outside of Syria while encouraging the opposition to demonstrate its goal of a nonsectarian and democratic country.
Barack Obama came into office ready to engage in diplomacy with Damascus as part of his goal to pull Syria out of Iran's orbit and weaken the regime in Tehran. Bashar al-Assad has already cast his dice, and he is betting on Iran while gambling away his people's future. The end of the Assad regime would be a major setback for Iran's regional ambitions and a tremendous benefit to the U.S. and the Middle East.