OpinionEditorial

Obama's least bad options on Syria

SyriaUnrest, Conflicts and WarBarack ObamaBashar AssadInternational Military InterventionsRussiaU.S. Military

Thanks in large part to Russia, the ally and enabler of President Bashar Assad, international negotiations designed to end Syria's brutal civil war have lived down to expectations. As fruitless talks in Switzerland were coming to a close last week, the White House said that President Obama would be looking at a "wide range of policy tools and options" to influence events in that country.

But those who believe Obama is on the verge of military intervention are likely to be disappointed. Now, as before the Geneva conference, the most widely discussed scenarios for U.S. military action offer no guarantee of ending the violence, and could exacerbate the suffering of the Syrian people.

If the only criterion for such intervention was mass suffering, Syria would certainly qualify. An estimated 100,000 people have been killed, more than 2 million have fled the country and 4.5 million have been internally displaced. Although opposition forces also have been guilty of barbarism, the Assad regime has relentlessly attacked civilians.

Advocates of a more muscular U.S. policy point out that in 2005, a United Nations summit embraced the notion of the Security Council's "responsibility to protect" populations threatened by "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity." They recall that in 1999, faced with the ethnic cleansing of Albanian inhabitants of Kosovo, NATO launched bombing raids to bring pressure on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw forces from the area, despite Russian opposition.

But an attack on Syria would have far greater repercussions than the bombing of Yugoslavia, potentially enmeshing U.S. forces in a protracted conflict and unleashing terrorist attacks against Americans.

Apprehension about another military commitment in the Middle East is why some prominent critics of Obama's Syria policy propose measures short of intervention: a no-fly zone enforced by U.S. air power or a dramatic increase in aid to "responsible" rebel forces. But a no-fly zone would require attacking Syria's air defenses, and an infusion of military assistance could end up prolonging the violence and empowering anti-Assad groups sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

If military action is untenable, what "policy tools and options" might Obama pursue? The most effective tools may be diplomatic. Obstructionist as it has been so far, Russia still might be persuaded to support a Security Council resolution calling on Assad to allow the delivery of food and medicine.

So far diplomacy has not delivered either a political breakthrough or relief for the men, women and children who have been brutalized by the conflict. No wonder Lakhdar Brahimi, the special U.N. envoy for Syria, apologized to the Syrian people as the negotiations adjourned. But diplomacy is still preferable to the alternative.

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