POMED Notes: “Getting Serious on Syria”
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) held an event on Monday entitled “Getting serious on Syria: Can we close the Assad era without opening a can of worms?” The discussion was focused on the costs and benefits of a military intervention in Syria and the sectarian repercussions of the fall of the Assad regime. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) opened the event with a keynote address. The panelists were Ammar Abdulhamid, from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Brian Fishman, from the New America Foundation, David Schenker, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Lee Smith, from The Weekly Standard. Michael Rubin, from AEI, moderated.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF version.
Senator John McCain began his keynote by describing the conflict in Syria as “horrifying, heartbreaking, and exasperating” and repeatedly stressed that it “is not a fair fight” due to the regime’s use of tanks, artillery, and helicopter gunships. “The troops appear to be under orders to kill anyone,” Sen. McCain said and added, “the stories from Syria haunt me.” McCain also claimed that a diplomatic resolution to the conflict would not be possible until the military balance of power had shifted on the ground. Because of the obvious failure of Kofi Annan’s peace plan and the growing effectiveness of the Free Syrian Army, “the United States needs to get more involved.” Particularly due to the fact that “the longer this conflict drags on, the more radical it becomes.” Additionally, the Senator outlined his plan for a multilateral military intervention. There would be no “boots on the ground,” but “safe havens” would be established to protect civilians, distribute aid, and enable the opposition to unify effectively. Finally, Sen. McCain said, “Syria today is indistinguishable from Bosnia except for one difference; in Bosnia, President Clinton mustered the courage to intervene.”
In a question and answer session after the keynote, Sen. McCain was asked if Iran would be weakened by the fall of the Assad regime. “There is no doubt that with the loss of Syria, Iran will lose its link to Lebanon,” McCain said. Also, Maliki may reconsider his friendly position toward Iran and the elimination of Assad could persuade Iran to stop seeking nuclear weapons, the Senator claimed.
Ammar Abdulhamid opened the panel discussion urging the Obama administration to intervene in Syria now, rather than wait until after the election. Abdulhamid described how 600,000 Syrians have been displaced throughout the last 15 months and claimed that Sunni populations are being “ethnically cleansed and held under siege.” Abdulhamid concluded saying, “We do not have the luxury of thinking about repercussions forever; the time to act is now.”
Brian Fishman expressed a lack of optimism for McCain’s plan and asserted that “good intentions don’t make good policy.” Syria is not comparable to Libya, Bosnia, Kosovo, or Iraq, Fishman said, because the stakes are higher. The opportunities are high and the risks are high. One of the biggest risks is one of “mission creep.” Fishman argued that the creation of a safe zone isn’t a viable option because the Assad regime would likely react extremely aggressively, thus forcing a United States response and pulling U.S. forces deeper into the conflict. Fishman also expressed a great fear of jihadi groups inside Syria and said that he did “not believe that the Syrian opposition is capable of controlling the jihadi elements.” What the United States should really be doing, Fishman concluded, is focusing on “limiting the spread of the conflict.”
David Schenker noted it had been almost one year since Obama called for Assad to step down and questioned why, with the failure of the Annan ceasefire, there was no talk of a “plan B” for confronting the Syrian conflict. Schenker also pointed out that a sectarian civil war is a good thing for Assad because it protects him from foreign intervention. With the Free Syrian Army now reasonably organized into 300 distinct battalions, Schenker argued that military assistance would be appropriate. His vision included: U.S. special forces on the ground in Turkey, a coalition force with an emphasis on Arab participants, and an increased campaign to derecognize the Syrian government and replace it with the opposition.
Lee Smith proffered a wholly geopolitical approach to the Syria problem and asked “Why is the fall of Assad important strategically?” Smith suggested that the administration’s foot-dragging on Syria revealed that Iran was not the “central issue” it is portrayed as in the media. This is because, if the Iranian threat was significant, the United States would be doing anything it could to confront Iran via Syria. Finally, Smith said that if Syria and Iran were actually important to U.S. foreign policy makers, they wouldn’t be letting Russia take the lead in negotiations with them.
In the question and answer session, David Fishman was asked to defend his critiques of McCain’s intervention plan and his focus on jihadi elements in Syria. Fishman explained that he was worried about military intervention because the loss of Syria as an ally could “entrench Iran’s desire for a nuclear weapon.” Fishman also described how the Assad regime manipulates jihadi groups to keep the Alawites united behind him. Another question was raised about the possibility of an internal Alawi coup. One panelist responded that a coup was perhaps what the U.S. government was waiting for as their solution to the “Assad problem” but asserted that the Syrian opposition would never consider an internal transfer of power sufficient reform to bring an end the conflict.