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Obama's post-election Syria policy is unlikely to change, but it should

Obama’s policy of 'staying the course' in Syria should be weighed against worsening strategic realities in the country and region. Only a careful military program to help the rebels, including arming and training them, can stem the growing costs of US inaction.

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While the situation in Syria is tragic and keeps worsening by the day, Obama seems to have made it clear that his top Middle East priority is Iran, not Syria. But one can make a persuasive case that the Iranian and Syrian problems are linked in important ways. Indeed, the road to concession in Tehran on the nuclear issue can be through Damascus. There may be no better way for the United States to push Iran to compromise in nuclear talks than by denying it its only strategic ally in the Arab world. Assad’s departure will give the US leverage with Iran.

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But that is not the case that the Obama administration is making. Instead, it seems convinced that intervention in Syria is too risky and complicated. Better keep the Iranian and Syrian files separate.

Meanwhile, Syria is rapidly disintegrating, more than 100 people on average are dying every day, and the civil war’s spillover is destabilizing key US allies. The Assad regime also appears to be flirting with the possibility of military conflict with its neighbors, Turkey and Israel. And Al Qaeda is seriously gaining ground in the Middle East.

At what point do the costs of deteriorating conditions in Syria become intolerable for the US and force a shift in the Obama administration’s policy?

Obama has clearly stated that his red line on Syria is the movement or usage of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. (Mind you, there is a difference between “movement” and “usage” – and I would be much more concerned about the latter.) But as horrible as chemical weapons are, aren’t the previously mentioned scenarios worse? Moreover, this red line is itself weak and is not likely to deter Assad, partly because it lacks credibility. Thus far, Obama has done little to back up calls for the Assad regime’s violence to stop.

Washington desperately needs a more coherent Syria policy, of which the red line is only one part. This new policy should hinge on a comprehensive program to work with America’s Arab and NATO allies to vet, train, and arm the Syrian rebels. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is doing the right thing by helping the Syrian political opposition get its act together. Her boss must now provide them with the military tools and training they need to overthrow the Assad regime.

Arming the rebels avoids the many pitfalls of direct military intervention (Libya-style no-fly zones or Iraq-style invasions). And it allows Syrian opposition forces to bring down the regime on their own and build alongside the political opposition a better future for their country.

Bilal Y. Saab is executive director and head of research and public affairs of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) North America. He is also a non-resident scholar with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.


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