Guest Column: U.S. intervention in Syria can’t wait

Jared Szuba

It has inexplicably taken until now, as the Syrian opposition’s death toll surges toward 10,000 and over a year has passed since Bashar al-Assad’s government resorted to unrestricted violence to put down a previously peaceful uprising, for the Western world to provide tangible assistance to the Syrian resistance movement. Until this week, the most that international leaders could muster has consisted of a few feeble words of condemnation and pitifully ineffective economic sanctions. But even now, the granting of “non-lethal aid” (primarily medical supplies with some communications equipment) by the United States and Turkey is nowhere near enough. As British photographer Paul Conroy recently declared after escaping the siege of the Syrian city of Homs, “It’s not a war, it’s a massacre. An indiscriminate massacre of men, women and children.”

This uneasy hesitation should have been expected. Learning from the explosive consequences of heavy Western military presence in predominantly Muslim countries, it’s obvious why the option of inserting significant numbers of ground troops is off the table. Unfortunately, the Syrian opposition is having a brutal time of conducting the fighting themselves.

The improvised Free Syrian Army, comprised mainly of ragtag defectors from Assad’s slaughtering ranks, has repeatedly called for foreign weapon supplies to protect the civilian populace and beat back the onslaught, but arming them could prove gravely reckless. U.S. intelligence agencies have indicated that al-Qaeda may be joining the uprising, complete with suicide car bombings and the vocal support of al-Qaeda’s ringleader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. It was even reported that at least one rebel army commander fought against American forces in Afghanistan.

Though the major opposition groups have disavowed ties with the terrorist network, the U.S. cannot afford to take this risk. Historically, Washington’s arming of opposition groups has tipped the battle scales for the benefit of immediate policy gratification, but this habit perpetually returns to bite the government with troubling human rights headaches (think the Afghan mujahedeen or the Indonesian army in East Timor).

The opposition Syrian National Council and Free Army have also persistently requested a no-fly zone such as the one that was implemented over Libya with overwhelming success. They assert that Western air control would immediately enable the safe defection of tens of thousands of Assad’s soldiers.

Critics retort that unlike Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s legions, the Syrian military has generally brutalized civilians from the ground rather than with aircraft and that armored vehicles are difficult to hit from NATO planes without significant risk of collateral civilian death. Thus, our leaders have shied away from this potential action as well. But it’s only a matter of time before the opposition develops into a serious threat to the regime’s existence. It is then that Assad’s air force will swiftly join in the murder, this time, from the skies and out of reach of the opposition’s AK-47s and RPGs. When heavy air attacks on civilians and rebels are unleashed, it will be truly shameful if the world’s military powers continue to turn their heads.

Offensive military options are not the only weapons being used by the Syrian government. Assad’s army recently planted tens of thousands of landmines along the border with Turkey, viciously blocking a major escape route for refugees fleeing the bloodbath. Turkish leaders have suggested that their military may establish a “buffer zone” on the Syrian side of the border to generate shielded refugee escape routes, but they refuse to do so without international security support to defend against probable attacks from Assad’s forces. This is the closest any capable nation has come to firmly considering a viable plan for effective aid. If Turkey continues to refuse to intervene without foreign security forces, then the international community is morally obligated to provide them, even if it’s only in the form of UN peacekeeping troops.

The United States and all Western powers have major strategic interests in endorsing these two reasonable intervention options. Syrian opposition leaders are bound to evolve into weighty political authorities in the future post-Assad government. To ignore their calls for help now is to imbue in them an unforgettable memory of abandonment later. They will not soon forget the U.S. in 2003 invaded their close neighbor Iraq, and for years imposed economic sanctions upon them that crippled their poor, subsequently chose to stand idly by and watch the butchery of yet untold thousands of their brothers, wives, cousins, husbands, mothers and children.

It’s an understatement to say that the United States is in painful need of strong allies in the region. The longer the Syrian people are massacred, the further the opposition may be pushed to extremist tactics and ideals to achieve their victory. The last thing Washington needs is an extremist-sympathetic (or worse, radicalized) Syrian government grudgingly bitter about the United States’s lack of support in their revolution — which is adjacent to Israel.

Assad will ultimately fall, but the longer he remains in power, the higher the bodies of innocents will pile. The implementation of a no-fly zone and the enforcement of civilian escape corridors are the moment’s most logical potential courses of action, but whatever is done, the ultimate aim must remain restricting Assad’s forces’ capabilities of slaughter. As the late Christopher Hitchens so potently wrote, “Neutrality favors the side with the biggest arsenal.”

Michigan Daily, U. Michigan via UWIRE.