What Should U.S. Policy Be in Syria?


December 11, 2012

CFR.org expert roundup with Max Boot, Brian Fishman, Ed Husain, and Andrew Tabler

Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations:

The beginning of wisdom on Syria is the realization that the current policy—which consists of calls for Bashar al-Assad to step down coupled with a small amount of humanitarian and non-lethal assistance to his long-suffering people—isn't working. The war continues to rage on, more cruel than ever (at least 40,000 killed so far), and it is spilling over into neighboring states (refugee flows, cross-border firing into Turkey and Israel, and increased instability in Lebanon), while in Syria itself, jihadist groups appear to be growing in strength.

It is high time for the United States to get off the sidelines as allies such as Turkey and Israel, Britain and France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been urging it to do. As a first step, Washington should assemble a coalition to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria. The United States would have to take the lead in dismantling Syrian air defenses, but could then hand off the enforcement of the NFZ to allies, as was the case in Libya. (Even if the United States and its allies are not willing to send aircraft over Syria, a more limited NFZ could still be enforced by Patriot batteries in Jordan and Turkey.)

This would instantly ground Assad's most potent weapon—he has been using airpower heavily, especially in the north, where he has lost control of the countryside. It would also interdict Assad's main supply artery from Iran—flights over Iraq. If the Syrian air force is grounded, rebels will be able to establish liberated territory from the Turkish border to Aleppo. Eventually, coalition aircraft could provide close air support for rebel operations, with air strikes being called in by coalition commandos on the ground.

The United States should also provide weapons directly to the rebels. This would not only help to shorten the war, but increase U.S. influence with the rebel forces. Washington could provision the supply of weapons on pledges from rebel groups to work together and respect democratic principles in a post-Assad Syria. Even more importantly, training camps could be established in liberated territory to provide cohesion and unity of command to scattered rebel forces.

While all this military activity is going on, U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers should be working to buttress the provisional government that will take power after Assad's downfall. It is vitally important to start planning now for a post-Assad Syria if it is to avoid becoming another Somalia—or even another Libya.

Other responses available at CFR.org

“Destined to be the classic account of what may be the oldest . . . hardest form of war.” —John Nagl, Wall Street Journal


"Enormous, brilliant and important…. Terrific… Astute… Boot’s Invisible Armies should be required reading in the White House and Pentagon." —Michael Korda, Daily Beast

Other Books