SYRIA, for Israel, is a conundrum. The ousting of its despotic ruler, Bashar al-Assad, would remove Iran’s sole Arab ally and cut the Iranian conduit to its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. That is in Israel’s strategic interest. On the other hand Israel does not relish post-Assad chaos in Syria that allows sophisticated weaponry to fall into the hands of Al Qaeda splinter groups that love a vacuum and loathe Jews.
So it was interesting to hear Israel’s outgoing defense minister, Ehud Barak, speak in favor of Assad’s departure at the Munich Security Conference, saying he hoped to see it happen “imminently.” No option on Syria at this stage of its unraveling is without significant risk. But the worst course is the one President Obama and Western leaders have fallen into: Feeble paralysis most foul.
Israel has just bombed a Syrian convoy of antiaircraft weapons in a sortie that also hit a weapons research center — with no response from Assad beyond a belated grumble that this was “destabilizing” (that process seems advanced already). Just how much of a paper tiger Assad has become is one question raised by this attack. Another is whether the Western use of force will inevitably provoke a strong Syrian riposte; it seems not.
Syria, 22 months into its uprising, presents an unconscionable picture. Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special representative for Syria, summed up the disaster in a leaked report to the Security Council on Jan. 29. He spoke of “cities that look like Berlin in 1945.” He decried the 60,000 killed, the massacres, the 700,000 refugees (rising to one million in a few months), the more than two million internally displaced and the tens of thousands of detainees. He warned of neighbors including Jordan and Lebanon collapsing under a further flood of refugees.
“I am sorry if I sound like an old, broken record,” Brahimi told the Security Council. “But I seriously don’t see where else one should start or end except in saying that things are bad and getting worse, the country is breaking up before everyone’s eyes; there is no military solution to this conflict — at least not one that will not destroy Syria completely and destroy also the nation of Syria; Syrians cannot themselves start a peace process, their neighbors are not able to help them; only the international community may help.”
But of course the “international community” — that awful phrase — is divided, with a Libya-burned Russia and an anti-intervention China deep in a blocking game. Brahimi wants a transitional government formed with “full executive powers” (this, he explained, is diplomatic speak for Assad having “no role in the transition”). The government would be the fruit of negotiations outside Syria between opposition representatives and a “strong civilian-military” government delegation. It would then oversee a democratic transition including elections and constitutional reform.
This sounds good but will not fly. I agree with Brahimi that there is no military solution. Syria, with its mosaic of faiths and ethnicities, requires political compromise to survive. That is the endgame. But this does not mean there is no military action that can advance the desired political result by bolstering the armed capacity of the Syrian opposition, leveling the military playing field, and hastening the departure of Assad essential for the birth of a new Syria. Assad the Alawite will not go until the balance of power is decisively against him.
The United States does not want to get dragged into another intractable Middle Eastern conflict. Americans are tired of war. My colleagues Michael Gordon and Mark Landler have revealed how Obama blocked an attempt last summer by Hillary Clinton to train and supply weapons to selected Syrian rebel groups.
Nor does Obama want to find himself in the business of helping Islamist extremists inherit a Syrian vacuum. The opposition coalition is divided and lacks credibility. But the net result of these concerns cannot be feckless drift as Syria burns. Senator John McCain was right to say here that, “We should be ashamed of our collective failure to come to the aid of the Syrian people” and to answer a question about how to break the impasse with two words: “American leadership.”
An inflection point has been reached. Inaction spurs the progressive radicalization of Syria, the further disintegration of the state, the intensification of Assad’s mass killings, and the chances of the conflict spilling out of Syria in sectarian mayhem. It squanders an opportunity to weaken Iran. This is not in the West’s interest. The agreement that Assad has to go is broad; a tacit understanding that it is inevitable exists in Moscow. The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, spluttered in justified incredulity at the notion the opposition would sit down with a regime that has slaughtered its own.
It is time to alter the Syrian balance of power enough to give political compromise a chance and Assad no option but departure. That means an aggressive program to train and arm the Free Syrian Army. It also means McCain’s call to use U.S. cruise missiles to destroy Assad’s aircraft on the runway is daily more persuasive.