A series of meetings at the U.N. Security Council late last week took some steps toward building a consensus on the growing crisis in Syria, but ultimately it failed. With China and Russia voting against the Security Council resolution, the international community is left scrambling to act as the situation on the ground continues to worsen. Diplomats are now looking at alternative options and trying to figure out how best to proceed given the inability to move anything comprehensive at the United Nations. In the aftermath of such an unfortunate final outcome, the international community must now pivot to help end the violence in Syria and provide some measure of protection for innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.*
The security environment in the Middle East is already fragile, and a steadily escalating conflict in Syria that could become a proxy war between competing regional and global powers would be disastrous for the region and U.S. national security interests.
Indeed, National Intelligence Director James Clapper recently noted in his testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that “[i]n Syria, regime intransigence and societal divisions are prolonging internal struggles and potentially turning domestic upheavals into regional crises.”
Recent conflicts in the region indicate the potentially worrisome impact such violence could have on its future: Over the past 30 years, civil wars in Iraq, Algeria, and Lebanon claimed more than 100,000 lives each, and the ensuing traumas have profoundly affected political and regional dynamics.
The strategic interest of Syria to the United States cannot be understated given the long and complicated history of Syria’s role in the region and its relationship to various terrorist groups that seek to directly attack America and its close allies. But with our core American values of human rights and dignity, the current crisis is an equally important test case for American diplomacy.
Notably, the Obama administration seems to be on the precipice of a new Syria policy, illustrated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to the United Nations early this week. Her attendance signals a new level of diplomatic engagement and a willingness to take a strong, bold stance in support of civilians and their call for a responsive and accountable government—even in the face of tough opposition. Similarly, President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union address articulated unequivocally that there could be “no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change cannot be reversed, and that human dignity cannot be denied.” Instead of calling for political reform on the margins of a difficult bilateral relationship, the administration is now centering its Syria policy on the need for change.
Civilian protection is an increasingly important pillar of President Obama’s foreign policy agenda—as has increasingly been the case in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, and Libya—and the administration is well positioned to lead key countries toward additional protection measures in Syria short of military intervention. We outline these below.
Why military intervention won’t work
External military intervention of the sort we saw in Libya is simply not viable in Syria right now. There are a variety of reasons including the complexity of the conflict; the lack of a safe haven such as the one Libyan rebels had in Benghazi; Syria’s proximity to other flashpoints such as Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq; and the Syrian military’s arsenals of chemical weapons and missiles that could hit these neighboring regions. There also isn’t as wide support for such action as there was for Libya. Another possible complication is the Lebanese terrorist organization and militant political party Hezbollah and how it might respond to direct military intervention.
But the responsibility to protect does not directly translate to military intervention especially when the costs of such an operation would appear to outweigh the benefits, as is the case in Syria. Arming the opposition is not a viable option either because the United States lacks sufficient intelligence on internal opposition dynamics as well as their goals, objectives, and intentions.
One important option, however, would be for the United States to significantly scale up the number of Syria’s recent military defectors and other known dissents by developing a strategy encouraging greater defections. The United States could help galvanize defections by providing communication devices, leaflet drops, and other similar tactics that might incentivize lower-level officers. Working closely with those who have already defected to suggest tangible incentives for others could be an important catalyst that tips the balance. If the Free Syrian Army, the main armed opposition group, and political opposition agreed, senior-level officials considering defection could be promised safe harbor—or a safe environment—at least until a viable transitional government is established.
A nonmilitary approach to help end the conflict
The United States can also take many more steps by working closely with a broad range of actors to stop the violence in Syria especially if the deadlock continues at the U.N. Security Council. A multitiered approach is essential.
First, the Obama administration should lead the establishment of a formal international contact group, or “Friends of Syria,” that would include European allies, Turkey, and selected members of the Arab League. This group can help prepare for the transition in Syria and coordinate a plan with Syrian opposition figures for the post-Assad period. This would ensure the international community is not long on hope and short on planning—a challenge that has plagued far too many political transitions around the globe.
Second, once formed, the contact group can help coordinate diplomacy with key partners and address complicated relationships such as that of Syria-Iraq. The group can also serve as an important new coalition to build support for target sanctions, for critically needed humanitarian access to displaced persons inside Syria, and ultimately for a post-Assad regime plan.
Further, the contact group can devise a plan to help protect Syrians fleeing violence across borders with the guidance of neighboring countries such as Turkey and Jordan. Although information remains hard to come by, the humanitarian situation is clearly volatile and many relief groups remain concerned about their ability to respond, particularly given the divergent information about how many people are actually in need of assistance. U.S. diplomats and development experts can play a key role in shoring up contributions from the international community to mount a robust humanitarian response.
Third, the international community—working with the United Nations and Arab League—should draw a clear line in the sand on issues of accountability. These markers should apply to both the regime and the opposition. Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, recommended in early December that Syria be referred to the International Criminal Court—and the opposition has recently made a similar request for an ICC investigation. An investigation that looks at both sides of the coin would ensure Syrians in both camps are held accountable for any reprehensible activity while signaling the importance of accountability.
Fourth, given the significant weapon flows into Syria, and particularly in light of the potential for any language on arms restrictions to be removed from the U.N. resolution, the Obama administration should encourage the Arab League to support a regional arms embargo while continuing to work the Security Council members as well.
The likelihood of Russia agreeing to an arms embargo is slim, but there’s no reason other relevant members couldn’t agree to uphold one themselves—even without a U.N. resolution. By uniting around their common position, aligned countries would force those who refuse to stop selling weapons to an irresponsible government to stand on their own and face the music. Finally, as Mark Hanis and Andrew Stobo Sniderman wrote in a New York Times opinion piece earlier this week, we need to consider how to use innovative technology that can help us better understand what’s actually going on inside Syria.
Humanitarian drones may be one option, but another one to consider is something similar to the Satellite Sentinel Project, which the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and our colleagues at CAP’s Enough Project use to monitor events along the Sudan border. This project helps build intelligence on human security by using satellite imagery and field analysis to inform and influence public policy. If NGOs are already using such a groundbreaking approach to monitor and report on violence, there’s no reason governments couldn’t do the same, particularly given the lack of access for independent observers throughout Syria.
Taking leadership to protect civilians and prepare for a Syria without Assad
The deliberations at the United Nations this week produced mixed results. The diplomacy there served to underscore the urgency of the crisis in Syria, but it didn’t achieve unified consensus among U.N. Security Council members on enough concrete steps to stop the bloodshed in Syria.
Despite these divisions—and until the United Nations can align on action—the Obama administration can continue playing a leadership role to build international unified action on protecting civilians in Syria without turning to direct military intervention.
* This paragraph was updated on February 6, 2012, due to events at the United Nations.
Sarah Margon is Associate Director for Sustainable Security, and Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.