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July 12, 2012

How President Obama should start leading on Syria


Here’s a novel notion: Considering what’s at stake in Syria for U.S. interests, how about Team Obama leading for once from the front, rather than from “behind”?

After 16 months and nearly 20,000 deaths, it’s past time.

Sure, some don’t mind seeing Syrians spar with each other for nearly a year and a half; it keeps the roguish regime of strongman Bashar Assad from causing tons of trouble outside its borders.

But framing Syria’s future is pretty darn important for us. The country is strategically located in the Middle East’s Levant; that’s why plenty of world leaders have been fawning over the Assad regime for several decades now.

Plus, Washington designated Damascus a state sponsor of terrorism way back in 1979. It has supported Hezbollah (in Lebanon) and Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (both in Gaza) with arms, funds and political backing at places like the UN.

And who can forget the terrorist “rat lines” that ran out of Syria into Iraq, causing some of the war’s darkest days for US troops?

In short, we’re not in the least indebted to this regime.

Syria is also a WMD problem. It’s believed to have a huge chemical weapons arsenal (e.g., nerve gases Sarin, Tabun and VX) and probably biological weapons, too. Making sure this stuff doesn’t go walking is another reason we need some skin in the regime-change game.

By the way, the Assads were also building a covert nuclear facility with Pyongyang’s assistance — and outside the IAEA’s supervision — until the Israeli air force bombed it in 2007. (Syria has been trying to hide the evidence of this nuclear site ever since.)

Not to mention that Syria is an ally of our enemy Iran, so removing the current regime would leave Tehran without an important regional pal at a time when it’s increasingly isolated due its nuclear naughtiness.

And, of course, Syria and our ally Israel have fought no less than four wars (1948, 1967, 1973 and 1982) as well as indirectly duking it out during Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah some six summers ago.

Without question this is a regime that we’d like to see go — and soon.

But Team Obama is relying on nothing more than heated rhetoric about Assad’s days being numbered, economic sanctions and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Six-Point peace plan. These approaches are proving fruitless.

It’s time for us to amp it up a bit and take steps to try to mold the outcome of the Syrian “civil war” to favor US interests. Here are a few forward-leaning ideas:

First, end the outsourcing of our Syria policy to the UN. Instead, lead a limited group of like-minded states (e.g., Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, etc.) to work to oust the murderous Assad regime. Assad-enablers like Russia, China and Iran need not apply.

Second, finally help to organize the highly-fractured opposition — a situation the regime has widely exploited — into a cohesive political force that we can support, meaning one that’s as democratic, secular and pro-American as possible.

Third, look to support this opposition militarily with things like intelligence and secure communications gear — and, later on with arms — if we’re confident of who we’re dealing with and that these weapons will make a difference in the fight.

Lastly, work to tear away at the fabric of the regime using, for example, “psy-ops” — psychological operations such as radio broadcasts, texting and e-mails to recruit or demoralize loyalists, bumping up high-level defections.

Of course, any of these could backfire. We can just sit by, letting the meat grinder turn and hoping for the best. But doing next to nothing to shape post-Assad Syria probably poses a greater risk to U.S. interests than boldly taking thoughtful action.

Peter Brookes is senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

First appeared in the New York Post.

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