Serious About Syria


Serious About Syria

Jul 1st, 2012 2 min read
James Jay Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

In late October 1956, the British, French and Israeli governments concluded a secret agreement. They would seize the Suez Canal and topple Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser -- retribution for Nasser's decision to nationalize the canal.

The Middle East was about to explode.

But once the invasion was well under way, an incensed President Eisenhower stepped in. He forced the coalition to withdraw its forces, then whipped off a two-page memo on how to handle the ripple of global problems triggered by the "Suez Crisis." In his memoirs, he recalled, "It was not going to be easy to pick up the pieces. ..."

Ike's legacy shows what real foreign policy leadership looks like. The fact is, American presidents still always have options beyond just "leading from behind" or bombing the heck out of a problem, so long as they have energy, courage and judgment.

No foreign policy crisis in the world today calls more for a dose of old-fashioned "I like Ike" leadership than Syria. Damascus is one of the world's worst candidates for direct military intervention by the West. Many of the same toxic dynamics that drove the frenzy of violence in Iraq in 2006 are present in spades in Syria. Indeed, Syria holds every prospect of becoming deja vu Iraq in a very small space.

Similarly, feel-good proposals like throwing arms to the rebels; setting no-fly and/or no-drive zones; establishing humanitarian corridors; or undertaking some kind of Libya redux don't make much sense either. The "incremental" approach to the use of force is always chancy. It's like not having enough money to play high-stakes poker and hoping the others guys fold before the bidding goes too high.

Nor can the U.S. "outsource" the problem to countries like Russia, a regime that has been propping up the Assad family for decades.

The U.S. has an interest in seeing a legitimate government in Syria -- one that respects its neighbors' sovereignty, does not sponsor terrorism, respects human rights and wants to build a constructive civil society.

It cannot happen without American leadership, but it must be the right kind of leadership. What's needed is leadership that holds countries like Iran and Russia accountable for supporting the murderous regime in Damascus -- leadership that will take the time and effort to discreetly sort through the opposition so that we can support and foster only those elements that will not bite the American hand that helps them.

Above all, we need leaders who can lead other nations. The Syria situation cries out for the United States to form a "leadership group" with countries both in and outside the region that share common interests in advancing peace and freedom in the area. This might include Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf coastline countries, Jordan, Britain, France and Japan. Together they we could forge a proactive, positive agenda.

At the same time, the U.S. and its Middle East partners need to continue to update their contingency plans for dealing with the fallout of a destabilized regime. These tasks include: cutting off pipelines that funnel foreign fighters and material support to terrorist groups; dealing with spillover refugee populations; getting humanitarian assistance to the people who need it; taking measures to keep chemical weapons, materials and technology from "walking" and proliferating; and preparing to deal with the discharge -- accidental or otherwise -- of chemical weapons.

An absence of U.S. leadership is just as perilous as direct military intervention or feel-good measures that wind up dragging America deeper into the conflict. A void of American leadership only emboldens our enemies. Prudent American leadership can make the world a better, safer place for all.

Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Examiner