Syria Lurches From Bad to Worse

Jan 09, 2014 | Updated Mar 11, 2014

In three years of bloodshed, more than 125,000 people have been killed in Syria. Tens of thousands have been maimed. Barrel bombs filled with explosives and shrapnel dropped from helicopters are the regime's newest way to inflict death and suffering. Starvation is another. Approximately 3 million Syrians have become refugees (Washington Post, Dec. 15, 2013, p. A1). Yet there is no end in sight.

The few rays of hope that the butcher Assad could be forced from power or that a peace conference could end the carnage have been extinguished. Aided by unlimited Russian and Iranian support, Assad has strengthened his hand against the disorganized rebels.

Assad appeared to be in trouble several months ago when the tide of battle was turning against him. He apparently decided to flaunt President Obama's much publicized red line and resort to chemical weapons. Had the Americans bombed critical Syrian positions including air bases, Assad might have been doomed. But once Obama decided not to bomb, American officials from Secretary of State Kerry on down were scrambling to create a new Syrian policy.

They decided on a two-pronged approach: Supply non-lethal aid to moderate secular rebels and work toward a January 22 peace conference in Switzerland in which Assad would agree to a handover of power to a transitional government, or at least to end the war. The last couple of weeks this entire strategy has been going up in smoke.

For starters, our partner in Syria, the moderate secular rebels, known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or Supreme Military Counsel (SMC), whom the Obama administration designated as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, has been routed by Islamist rebel groups. In a humiliation for the United States, the Islamic Front, an alliance of Islamist rebel groups that exclude those backed by Al Qaeda, attacked the SMC headquarters and chased our ally, General Salim Idris, the head of the FSA, out of the country and into Turkey.

As if that wasn't enough, the Islamists seized control of FSA bases and in Atmeh, the warehouses holding the materials which the U.S. had supplied to Idris and his forces. There wasn't even a fight. Idris and his troops simply abandoned their headquarters and warehouses and fled. This prompted the U.S. government to cut off all aid to the rebels for fear it would fall into the wrong hands (Financial Times, Dec. 14, p. 4).

At this point, we have no ally in Syria with any strength or credibility. The U.S. has a choice of backing the Islamic Front, which it finds repugnant, or it can acquiesce to Assad's continued rule. Another bad choice. The January peace conference in Switzerland will be a farce if it even occurs.

To a large extent, the Obama Administration is responsible for this mess. Early in the war we could have supported Idris with arms and equipment that would have strengthened his troops against Assad. He was pleading for the help, and had we provided it, this probably would have prevented Islamist fighters from coming into Syria. But we supplied far too little too late. In the words of one antigovernment activist who fled Syria, "The U.S. is supporting us with expired tuna, and in this way they think they are supporting the revolution" (New York Times, Dec. 12, 2013, p. A10).

Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been complaining to the administration for months that the moderate opposition was being weakened by a lack of U.S. support, fueling the rise of Islamists (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 12, 2013, p. A11). What makes the situation even worse is that while we were dithering, Russia and Iran have been supplying Assad with whatever he needed. Increasingly, the war in Syria, particularly with Shiite Iran's involvement, is shifting from a war to overthrow Assad to a religious struggle between the Shiites and the Sunnis, whose Islamist fighters are being armed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The U.S. has become a passive bystander, marginalized and irrelevant.

The prognosis for Syria in 2014 is grim. It seems likely that Assad will remain firmly entrenched in power. Sunni warriors from outside the country known as Islamists will continue to battle fiercely against Assad. The war will grind on; the death toll will mount. Hundreds of thousands of additional innocent Syrian civilians will die or if they are fortunate enough to escape Syria to Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan, have their lives uprooted. Those three neighboring countries will suffer upheaval from the refugees. Putin and the Iranian leaders will be smirking. And Washington will continue searching for a Syrian policy.

It is an absolute travesty that the United States stands by as Assad bombs and starves his people. We have options with threats of military strikes to force Assad to permit humanitarian relief. Yet we do nothing. Justifiably, the United States is and will be judged harshly for its inaction in Syria.