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March 3, 2013

Still Punting on Syria

By

New Secretary of State John Kerry told a German audience last week that in America, “you have the right to be stupid, if you want to be.”

Ouch. That’s a pretty harsh thing for a US official to say overseas about his country, but perhaps he was reflecting on Team Obama’s strategy toward the bloodletting in Syria — a conflict that has dragged on for nearly two years, taking more than 70,000 lives.

Kerry added to that impression later in the week, when he met in Rome with the Syrian Opposition Coalition.

Some had hoped that our new top diplomat was finally going to get the United States leaning forward in the saddle on Syria. Uh-uh.

The Washington Post had reported that the administration was going to supply the rebels with body armor, armored vehicles and possibly military training— butit seems all Kerry offered was “nonlethal” aid (food and medicine), plus $60 million in other US humanitarian assistance.

While it’s reportedly the first aid the United States has given directly to Syrian opposition fighters, it won’t prove to be a knockout punch to dictator Bashar al-Assad, who still has a death grip on power.

It’s likely the administration got cold feet at the last moment on the proposed military equipment, but knew it had to bring something to the table. Team Obama realizes that many members of the Syrian opposition are writing the Americans off in favor of Islamists and terrorists like the al Nusrah Front, another al Qaeda wing.

The limited US package will be some help to desperate fighters and innocent Syrian civilians, but it’s unlikely to alter the balance of power militarily — or psychologically — in Syria, which is what we should be doing.

The fact is that there are few —if any — good scenarios for the United States coming out of the Syrian civil war. By sitting on the sidelines for two years rather than helping the best of the opposition, we’ve reduced the likely outcome to a range from complete chaos to ongoing ethnic/sectarian violence to an Islamist state — even Assad hanging on.

It’s well past time we try to pick a “winner” and amp up our efforts against the blood-soaked regime.

The worst outcome is the Assad regime’s survival: That means more Iranian influence, more support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, more terrorism, more building of weapons of mass destruction (recall, the Israelis took out a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007, not to mention worries about Assad’s chemical weapons) and more bloodbaths.

No, it’s not time for sending in US troops, but there’s more that we — and others — can do to end this ghastly conflict with some possibility of strategic benefit to usand our friends.

To start, Washington should identify, or develop, an opposition force of moderates that will fight to build a better Syria in a post-Assad period: supporters of free markets, secularism and an inclusive democratic government at peace with its neighbors.

But in trying to accomplish this, we can’t let the “perfect” be the enemy of the “good enough.” We’ve already lost two years to dithering, and time is of the essence.

In addition to nonlethal aid, we could come through on military field gear, transportation and expanded communications and training for the right rebels. Some tactical intelligence could also be shared.

We could also move toward arming appropriate pro-US rebel groups with small arms, ammunition and rocket-propelled grenades. (The rebels want surface-to-air missiles, too, but that transfer would be too risky.)

Yes, we should worry about weapons falling into the wrong hands, but the volatile situation in Syria (which will stay rough even after Assad) guarantees that those who get weapons won’t part with them willingly.

We’ve squandered lots of time and countless opportunities for ending the Assad regime and gaining important influence with its successor(s).

We’re playing catch-up ball here. We’ve got to move beyond cheerleading from the sidelines and get into the game in a serious way if we want any chance of a win for our side.

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

First appeared in New York Post.

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