EVANSTON, ILLINOIS – Many Syrians who voted for Bashar Assad in last week’s presidential elections did so in the belief that the alternative to the current regime is a takeover by Islamist radicals. Increasingly Western leaders agree. As Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said recently, “As bad as the regime is, there is something worse — extreme opposition elements.”
This is a cruel irony. It ignores how the United States’ lack of involvement in Syria allowed extremists to flourish in the first place. The question is not whether the Syrian regime is better than Islamist extremism, but how the world can forsake Syrians to suffer oppression by both.
For years, Syria’s besieged opposition has pleaded for help from the international community, to no avail. Instead, al- Qaida-linked groups entered Syria and grew. Awash with funds, largely from private sources in Persian Gulf states, they now impose their rule of terror on many Syrian towns. Mounting evidence indicates that Assad himself facilitated these groups, so that he would have a legion of terrorists he could claim to fight.
Assad will not stop committing war crimes, let alone agree to a negotiated transition, unless pressured to do so. Sanctions and diplomacy have failed. Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, continue to reinforce him with money, arms, fighters and United Nations vetoes.
The international community can still take bold political initiatives such as transferring embassies and other elements of sovereignty from the Syrian regime to the opposition. Yet only a change on the battlefield will counter Assad’s claim, bolstered by the elections, that he is winning the war. That tide is unlikely to shift without U.S. leadership.
President Barack Obama’s pledge to “ramp up support” for the Syrian opposition is thus a welcome signal of engagement. Still, the White House has not offered specifics. Some fear that the aid will be insufficient to make a difference or, if predicated on congressional approval, will take months to go into effect.
There is no time to waste. After more than three years of hunger, exhaustion and burying their dead, Syria’s nationalist rebels are being beaten back by the regime’s military machine. U.S. inaction has been a major contributor to this disastrous outcome.
Rebel forces need serious and immediate training and arming. In addition, more direct intervention should not be ruled out. Many who resist military involvement invoke a choice no less false than the one presented to Syrian voters: Stay out of Syria or becomes embroiled in an all-out Iraq-style invasion.
As James Traub, Frederic Hof and others repeatedly argue, this is simply not true. The U.S. has many options beyond troops on the ground, which no Syrians want. An air bombing campaign could destroy the aircraft that Assad uses to drop barrel bombs on civilians. Targeted strikes could destroy the tanks and artillery formations that he uses to shell communities and starve them.
The U.N. calls Syria the worst humanitarian crisis of the century.
Wendy Pearlman is the Crown Junior Chair in Middle East studies and assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University.