After the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda, the world said: Never again. And there have been interventions to stop the killing — in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya. But these have been the exception, not the norm. Even now, as horrifying violence unfolds in Syria, the U.S. and its allies find reasons to limit their response to economic sanctions accompanied by strongly worded, but ineffectual, statements of condemnation.
This, despite the fact that the stakes in Syria are higher, from a strategic standpoint, than in Libya. By the time NATO acted against Moammar Gadhafi, he was an isolated despot who had given up sponsoring terrorism and building weapons of mass destruction. Not so with Bashar Assad: His regime sponsors Hezbollah and Hamas. It has a large stockpile of chemical weapons and would be on its way to developing nuclear weapons had not Israel bombed its nuclear reactor in 2007. And it has close links to the Iranian regime, which is the No. 1 enemy of the U.S. and its allies in the region.
Moreover, the longer Assad stays in power without being able to stop the uprising against his government — which is now more than a year old — the greater the odds that regional powers will be drawn into the fray and that extremist groups such as al-Qaida, already responsible for several grisly bombings in Syria, will be able to establish safe havens on Syrian soil.
There are risks in a post-Assad Syria, to be sure, but toppling him as swiftly as possible — something sanctions have shown no sign of achieving — holds out the promise of meeting significant strategic as well as humanitarian objectives.
Those in favor of a go-slow approach will admit much of this but then argue that there are no good options for intervention. It is true that action to topple a regime always carries risks. It is never an operation to be undertaken lightly, as we learned in Afghanistan and Iraq. But no one is proposing sending U.S. ground troops into Syria; the riskiest option of all isn’t on the table, nor should it be.
Even less risky options, such as airstrikes, would be harder in Syria than in Libya because the Syrian opposition is less unified than in Libya, and it does not control any cities or discrete territory. Thus it would be harder to strike regime assets without injuring civilians.
But is this an argument for simply sitting by and letting the killing continue? That isn’t a “good option” either.
Luckily, as the Syria expert Andrew Tabler, among others, has argued, there are other choices.
First, we should become more closely involved in organizing the Syrian resistance by providing it with communications gear, intelligence and other nonlethal assistance. As CIA and special operations officers develop closer ties with the rebels, they will develop the contacts necessary to funnel weapons into the right hands and to avoid arming jihadist extremists.
U.S. diplomats and intelligence operatives can also work with the opposition to draft plans for a democratic, inclusive, post-Assad government. This would ease qualms among Kurds, Christians and other Syrian minorities — along with businessmen and other stakeholders in the Assad regime — who have so far hesitated to embrace the rebellion.
It would also help if safe zones were established along Syria’s borders with Jordan and Turkey, where refugees could escape Assad’s oppression. Turkey and Jordan have the military capability to defend such zones from the Syrian army, and there are indications that Turkey, which already hosts the Free Syrian Army, might be willing to do more if it received American support — which hasn’t been forthcoming so far.
In addition, the U.S. and our NATO allies could strengthen sanctions on Syria by mounting a naval blockade of the Syrian coastline. This would make it more difficult for Syria’s principal supporters, Russia and Iran, to provide arms to the regime.
Airstrikes to protect safe zones or take out key regime targets are a more aggressive option that needs to be considered. The Air Force and Navy have shown the ability to accomplish such goals with few if any losses and relatively little collateral damage.
With Russia blocking action at the United Nations, the most difficult part of any such operation might well be winning international approval. That did not stop President Bill Clinton from intervening in Kosovo, and it need not stop it in Syria, particularly if we can win the backing of NATO and the Arab League.
• Boot is a contributing editor to Opinion, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the forthcoming “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare From Ancient Times to the Present.”