Sometimes in life, no matter what you do, you just can't win. Ask the Mitt Romney campaign or the 0-13 Indianapolis Colts. For the State Department, such is the case when it comes to Syria.
As Syria enters its 10th month of unrest and revolt, there are still no dignified or viable options when it comes to dealing with the Assad regime.
For the United States and its regional allies, such a conflict would be nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. If Tunisia was the spark that began the Arab Spring, Syria could be the propane tank. Should civil war break out in Syria, the entire Levant region could explode.
Unlike the other countries in the throes of revolution, America has neither the political sway nor the capacity to engender reform in Syria. Worse, it is powerless when it comes to protecting the opposition from a Syrian military that is operating on shoot-to-kill orders.
Humanitarians argue that the U.S. should intervene on the Syrian opposition's behalf. Realists fiercely oppose any intervention. In truth both are right. The U.S. is damned if they do and damned if they don't.
How can America and the West claim they are the guardians of democracy while they passively watch thousands of Syrian civilians be tortured and killed? At the same time how could NATO intervene when the largest opposition groups can't even come to an agreement as to whether they even want foreign intervention and support?
Ultimately America - at least for now - must err on the side of caution. Assad is a despicable leader who must be overthrown; but that is a job that must be left up to his people.
Those who argue that Assad is as bad or worse than Gaddafi must realize that while true, a military operation in Syria would be infinitely more risky than the mission was in Libya. Logistically, Libya was as uncomplicated as it gets. Because 90% of Libyans live by the sea and it was a revolt led by the Eastern half of the country, NATO simply had to patrol and protect one major highway from oncoming Gaddafi tanks. In Syria, opposition members and Assad loyalists often live side-by-side in closely quartered cities and towns that run adjacent to one another. Intervening in Syria wouldn't entail protecting vast stretches of desert highway, it would be urban warfare.
If Israel's targeted bombings inside a similar urban environment in Palestine are any indication, a NATO campaign would likely be inaccurate, bloody, and diplomatically ruinous. America should not jeopardize the lives of the very civilians they are trying to protect from Assad.
So long as Syrian opposition groups remain vague and indecisive as to the next steps, America cannot risk its own credibility on such a tenuous mission.
However, there are ways for America to help to expedite Assad's demise.
First and most importantly is Turkey. A month ago, reports surfaced that Turkey was threatening to cut off Syria's power. Turkey must follow through with this plan. While it will negatively impact thousands of Syrians in the short term, it will dramatically increase the pressure and disfavor of the Assad regime. The Syrian government's inability to supply power would be a crippling blow to the credibility of the government and more of an already edgy population may be incited to act should their businesses and daily lives be further affected.
Secondly, the U.S. and the West should get more involved in tightening the noose around Assad from outside of Syria. The Arab League has already taken laudable measures to end trade with Syria and freeze its foreign assets. Now America and the West should further step up and take action.
Key to preventing sectarian violence and a future prolonged civil war is making sure that the vast majority of Syrians turn against Assad and put aside religious or ethnic differences for a common purpose of seeing an end to his reign. Similar to cutting off electricity, one such measure the West could employ is to ensure the border crossings are shut and access and trade greatly restricted into and out of Syria. In order to do this, The West must apply pressure on Jordan and Lebanon to guarantee they will fully comply. Convincing Lebanon to do so will be particularly difficult as the Lebanese economy relies heavily on Syrian routes and markets for trade.
For now at least, America simply cannot afford to intervene. In the meantime, America should actively look to continue isolating Assad internationally and among his own people.
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