AEI panel: U.S. must intervene in Syria

President Bashar al-Assad has left the United States with no option other than military intervention, according to a panel hosted by the American Enterprise Institute on June 25, 2012.

Arizona Senator John McCain spoke to a room of about 100 people. He argued that given Assad’s military domination of the opposition, Assad had little reason to consent to diplomatic efforts by the international community. Regarding the violence “the clear trend is toward escalation,” McCain said.

U.S. intervention, in the form of arms supplies and air support, would help end the fighting and save civilians, he said, but intervention is also in the U.S.’s best interest because of the relationship between Syria and Iran. McCain called for multilateral action with Turkey, along with other Arab and European allies, to help create safe zones in Syria, which would lay the foundation for a post-war government. The U.S. would need to work outside of the U.N. Security Council, McCain said, in order to avoid the likely veto from Russia or China.

With Syria, “our interests are indivisible from our values,” McCain said.

When asked on the repercussions of arming the growing, though still small, number of jihadists in the Syrian opposition forces, McCain said the longer the conflict lasts the more likely jihadists will become more important to the movement. In a sense, the presence of jihadists should spur the U.S. to help end the conflict quickly and not wait for it to get more volatile.

McCain also commented on Russia’s “losing alliance” with Syria, saying that the Kremlin is doing dramatic damage to its image in the Arab world by supporting Assad with weapons, new or refurbished.

First for the panelists was Ammar Abdulhamid, the director of the Tharwa Foundation and member of the Syria Working Group at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Any decision made by the U.S. would have to come soon to stop ethnic cleansing and end the terror campaigns of Assad’s forces.

“Time is not on our side. It has never been on our side,” Abdulhamid said.

Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is thought to be one of the largest in the world, and may include mustard gas as well as VX nerve gas, the most toxic chemical weapon.

Next on the panel was Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Fishman argued that U.S. military

intervention would not “produce the endpoints we would like to see.” The safe zones that McCain proposed would lead to mission creep: Assad forces would launch attacks on the zones and, in defending the safe zones, U.S.-allied forces would need to press forward until the mission became to unseat Assad.

Fishman also expressed concern over what will happen to Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, and their potential migration into the hands of Hezbollah or Al Qaeda. “This is a very ugly and dangerous situation,” Fishman said. Securing the stockpiles would require numerous personnel for an extended period of time, in order to neutralize or destroy the weapons, and would almost certainly lead to casualties.

When confronted on the need to stop Syrian civilians from being killed, Fishman argued that while the U.S. should attempt to stop suffering when it could, “most of the killing is being done by men with AK-47s, and those are hard people to bomb.” He also argued that Syria’s importance is mainly because it aligns with the U.S.’s national interests.

Third speaker on the panel, David Schenker, the director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute, argued that the Obama administration has been too ambivalent on Syria. Growing civil war and unrest will lead to ungovernable areas in which Al Qaeda will establish and entrench themselves.

The last panelist was Lee Smith, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Smith wanted to investigate the reasons behind the U.S.’s recent policies regarding Syria. He asked why, if Iran depended on Syria, is the U.S. not supporting a proxy force in the Syrian opposition.

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