Five guidelines for US role in Syria

The civil war in Syria has reached a stalemate. While strategic military steps like arming the opposition or establishing a no-fly zone present complications, the US can do other things to bring aid, support the opposition, undermine the Assad regime, and counter a rising Islamist influence. Here are five guidelines for the US in addressing the conflict in Syria:

3. Understand the costs of hesitation

Diplomatic efforts  – such as the proposed Geneva conference – are futile for the time being, as neither the opposition nor the Assad regime is willing to concede its position. Ultimately, there will be a victor in this war. To attempt to negotiate an agreement or maintain the status quo simply won't work and will lengthen the war, leading to more death, radicalism, and injustice.

Members of both sides of the conflict have diverse stakes in the outcome. Both the Assad regime and members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are aware that “giving in” could result in eradication and death. The US is one of the few powerful entities that has the unique ability to push this perpetual stalemate in favor of the FSA, freedom, and the promise of a secular, democratic government.

So far, the Assad regime has been able to prolong its inevitable demise by exploiting sectarianism and involving outside actors, such as Iran, Russia, and perhaps most significantly, Hezbollah. Another key Assad strategy has been to play on Western fears of radical Islam taking hold in Syria and as part of the opposition forces – preventing US intervention on behalf of the rebels. At the very least, the US should be more aware of these aspects of the regime’s strategy and make a greater effort not to play into them.

Policymakers, both in the Obama administration and Congress, should not limit the scope of their discussion to the dangers of political Islam taking rise in a post-Assad Syria. People are being slaughtered by the thousands, and fundamentalism is but one of many dangers for the future.

Short of taking strategic actions like establishing a no-fly zone and arming the Free Syrian Army – options that the US should not take off the table yet – there are other steps Washington can take. The US should be more clear in its ideology and politics. Despite Obama’s calls for Assad to step down, the US continues to be perceived as ambiguously neutral. This lack of clarity has fueled the rise of radical Islamists in Syria and reinforces their concept of themselves as the only legitimate opposition to the regime.

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