As the unrest in Libya and Egypt over the past two weeks demonstrates, extremist forces can benefit from instability in the wake of political transitions. In that respect, the Obama administration's Syria policy risks the worst possible outcome -- prolonging the conflict, fomenting sectarian strife, empowering radicals, and collapsing the state institutions that will be needed to stabilize the country after the departure of President Bashar al-Assad. It is time to change course.
Instead, the United States and relevant allied and friendly countries should empower the moderates in the opposition -- including through the provision of arms and other lethal assistance -- and encourage a coup by officers willing to break with Assad. The United States should then assist in brokering a power-sharing arrangement between these forces that will marginalize extremists and attract the support of all of Syria's diverse communities.
America has important interests at stake in Syria, including the opportunity to transform this pivotal Middle Eastern country from an Iranian proxy that sponsors terrorism, pursues weapons of mass destruction, and brutalizes its own people, into a stakeholder of regional stability. American credibility is also on the line, in light of President Barack Obama's call for Assad to step down. If Syria descends into chaos, Iran and other adversarial actors are better adapted to prevailing in such environments. Tehran has already deployed elements of its elite Quds Force, both to bolster Assad and to prepare for a wider struggle for influence. Thus, U.S. interests can only be secured through a stable transition -- one in which the Syrian state remains intact and a more liberal government emerges with the capability and will to prevent an extremist takeover.
To date, the administration has been too passive, particularly in its refusal to provide arms and other lethal assistance to the opposition. I see four concerns driving this policy. First, the administration may fear that the provision of lethal assistance could put the United States on a slippery slope to military intervention. Yet, as the United States has shown in other cases -- as in its support for the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s -- a strategy based on arming local allies does not necessarily lead to direct military involvement.
Second, the administration may worry that stronger action could lead Russia to be less cooperative, not only in Syria but also on other issues such as Iran's nuclear program, or could provoke Iran to retaliate against U.S. interests elsewhere in the region. However, the fact is that U.S. restraint has not won Russian cooperation for a diplomatic strategy at the U.N. Security Council to address the crisis in Syria or to restrain Iran. In fact, Tehran has been escalating its support for Assad and is already pursuing an aggressive policy to undermine the U.S. position in the region.
Third, the administration may fear that the United States would be blamed for any spillover of weapons into neighboring countries or would have to assume some responsibility if rebel groups used U.S. arms against civilians of a rival sect. Yet the current policy -- which outsources the provision of lethal aid to regional partners like Turkey and the Gulf states -- raises the greatest risk of spillover or rising sectarian violence given that our regional allies already are providing arms to sectarian or religious extremists. The best hope to avoid negative externalities is for the United States to lead the covert arms shipments and channel them to moderates who seek an inclusive and tolerant Syria.
Fourth, the administration may calculate that the status quo -- a protracted and mutually painful stalemate on the battlefield -- will likely produce conditions for a negotiated settlement. In this view, both sides will eventually tire of the fighting and accept the reality that outright victory is impossible. Pragmatists will become stronger, ultimately carrying the day, and thus create the circumstances for diplomacy leading to cease-fire talks and an interim authority acceptable to both sides.
There are serious problems with this approach. The belief that a settlement will spring forth amid continued fighting is fanciful. It might take a very long time for a mutually painful stalemate to come about. Further bloodshed and brutality are more likely to harden positions and lead to a fight to the death than to produce an opportunity for a negotiated settlement. A longer war favors the extremists and works to the disadvantage of moderates. The chaos of war could create opportunities for al Qaeda and outside Islamists to make inroads among the local population.
The longer the war goes on, the greater the likelihood that it leads to the disintegration of state institutions, jeopardizing prospects for a stable post-Assad transition. Dissolution of the Syrian national army would leave postwar Syria without a needed mechanism for curtailing warlordism -- a problem that has plagued Afghanistan since the post-Soviet period.