As many as 30,000 people may now have been killed in Syria, while the great democracies of the world have stood on the sidelines. The Bashar al-Assad regime is willing to kill as many people, for as long as it takes, in order to stay in power. The only way forward is for this regime to be defeated. Others – Iran, radical Sunni extremists, Al Qaeda, even Russia – have stepped in for their own darker reasons.
With almost no practical support from the West, what began as lofty aspirations by the Syrian people for a more democratic and just government have been hijacked in part by other forces in the region. Whether driven by a humanitarian impulse to stop the mass killing, a national interest in preventing wider conflict in the Middle East, or a strategic move to blunt Iran’s influence in the region, US involvement and leadership will be critical in building an international coalition to address the Syrian crisis.
The Arab Spring has proved to be the most significant political and security development in the world since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet America scarcely treats it as such. The call for greater democracy and justice in the Arab world should be music to American ears. After decades of tyrants who ran corrupt and oppressive systems, scape-goated the United States and Israel, and inadvertently created radical Islam as their main source of opposition, the people of the Arab world are demanding change.
As messy and risky as this transition is proving to be, greater democracy, opportunity, development, and justice in society is the only remedy for the ills plaguing the broader Middle East, and in turn plaguing the world. The United States has been far too timid in offering assistance to real reformers in the Arab world, while simultaneously far too passive in countering the impact of violent extremists. Drones are handy for taking out key terrorist leaders, but not a substitute for a wider policy.
The policy must include bold support for freedom, democracy, tolerance, and good governance, backed up by substantial US assistance, including security assistance, to those who share these goals. At the same time that policy must reduce assistance to governments that do not share these goals. And America must maintain a relentless focus on disrupting terrorist groups throughout the region.
Kurt Volker is executive director of the Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership, based in Washington, D.C., with a presence on ASU's Tempe campus. He is also a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a member of the Atlantic Council’s strategic Advisory Group. He is a former US Ambassador to NATO.