–Syrian Support Group in the Wall Street Journal–
How the U.S. Can Help Avert A Failed State In Syria
Time to stop ‘leading from behind’ and get involved before Syria disintegrates.
By NASER DANAN and LOUAY SAKKA
President Obama on Tuesday pledged an additional $155 million in humanitarian aid to the Syrian opposition and refugees fleeing the murderous regime of Bashar Assad, bringing the total over two years to $365 million. The president also pledged, as he has before, that “The Assad regime will come to an end. The Syrian people will have their chance to forge their own future. And they will continue to find a partner in the United States of America.”
While the aid is welcome and the message hopeful, what is missing is any promise of military assistance for the Free Syrian Army. Although Washington has not provided money or weapons to the FSA, it has given a green light to such transfers from other countries (mainly in the Persian Gulf) and it has authorized our U.S.-based nonprofit, the Syrian Support Group, to collect money for vetted Free Syrian Army commanders. The Obama administration has also reportedly allowed some intelligence sharing with the FSA, via Turkish and Jordanian intelligence.
This tactic of “leading from behind” should end. What is now clear to Washington and to other players in the region is that a Syrian endgame is upon us. Bashar Assad has lost control over much of the country, including a number of key military bases and the main highways that provide the lifeline of support to his remaining, demoralized troops. All that Assad firmly controls is Damascus, and his air superiority has been limited by the FSA’s growing antiaircraft defenses, acquired mainly from seized Syrian army depots.
In desperation, the Syrian dictator has resorted to firing Scud missiles toward liberated areas in the north. He may also be transporting chemical weapons with a view to their possible use. Syrians and outside observers alike understand that a regime losing control of its highways, airports and military bases no longer controls the country and that its downfall is within sight.
What is most important now is to avert a failed state, akin to Somalia, that would provide militant extremists with a haven and possible access to chemical weapons in a key strategic location. This could also result in a wider sectarian conflict throughout the region. To assure this doesn’t happen, the Obama administration should take these proactive steps:
• Greater support for the Syrian Opposition Coalition. Mr. Obama has already recognized the SOC as the sole representative of the Syrian people. Now is the time to extend significant financial, diplomatic and technical support so that it can continue to gain legitimacy and be ready to help negotiate a peaceful transition. Such support would include backing the creation of a representative interim government and permitting the interim government access to any frozen Syrian government funds.
• Greater support for the Free Syrian Army. Financial, diplomatic and technical support are needed if the FSA’s new unified command, the Military Supreme Council, is to fill the security vacuum and secure chemical weapons stockpiles when the Assad regime falls, and serve to provide order and security to areas most vulnerable to potential revenge killings in a post-Assad era. This can be further facilitated by helping develop a core group of well-trained elite FSA forces. Such support would also help deter increasing extremism among some groups within the broader armed opposition and help further tip the military balance of power.
• Support a transitional justice plan. With the backing of Washington and the international community, a transitional justice plan would govern a truth-and-reconciliation process for the post-Assad period. But the establishment of such a plan now could also fast-track Assad’s fall by providing incentives—including offers of amnesty—for the remaining members of Assad’s inner circle to defect. The plan could also publicly target a fairly narrow list of gross perpetrators of war crimes, thus letting government officials who are not on the list know that they would not be arrested if they sought a way out of their predicament.
The United Nations recently estimated the death toll of Syria’s civil war at more than 60,000. What began in March 2011 as a peaceful uprising against the Assad dictatorship has morphed into a bloody struggle for freedom, with the potential descent into a wider, sectarian war. Ultimately, the Syrian people will triumph. The U.S. can do more to help them.
Dr. Danan and Mr. Sakka are on the board of directors of the Syrian Support Group, a U.S. nonprofit organization dedicated to the establishment of a free, independent and democratic Syria.