The news in recent weeks shows that the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad appears closer to the verge of collapse. Rebel groups have finally formed a unified command structure and are pushing on Damascus. These forces have seized surface-to-air missiles, apparently from government stockpiles, and used them to shoot down the regime aircrafts—as many as 17—that have tormented them. This week the United States and more than 100 other nations recognized the opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, as the Syrian people’s official representative. Meanwhile, the regime has started firing Scud missiles at rebel targets, while even Russia is acknowledging the possibility that the regime may fall. With the impending collapse of the Assad regime, the United States must start thinking about the next steps to advance U.S. national security interests.
The United States has pursued a deliberate and cautious policy toward Syria throughout the conflict, recognizing the manifold dangers that the civil war there presents. While the Obama administration has justifiably refused to provide weapons to rebel groups of uncertain loyalty and character, President Barack Obama signed a secret intelligence finding sometime midyear authorizing covert nonlethal support to rebel groups. In November the administration worked to unify the myriad Syrian opposition groups, many of which have conflict with each other, at a conference in Qatar. And despite its general support for Syrian rebels, the administration designated one group—Jabhat al-Nusra—as a terrorist group because of its links to Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The Obama administration has also worked to limit escalation of the conflict. It has moved to protect allies in the region, helping arrange the deployment of Patriot missile batteries by NATO to protect Turkey from potential missile attacks by the Assad regime. The administration has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime represents a “redline” that could trigger U.S. military intervention.
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