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Opinion: Syria and the best of bad options

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The increasingly catastrophic conflict in Syria has led many world leaders -- from members of Congress to diplomats in the Arab League -- to call for a robust international intervention, along the lines of the NATO-led air campaign that helped topple Libya's Muammar Qadhafi.

The temptation has been growing among many -- admittedly even with this writer -- to bring an end to the pro-Iranian Baathist regime in Damascus quickly through an air campaign. While a U.S.-led coalition could overthrow the corrupt and brutal state of Bashar Assad relatively quickly, and hand power to the opposition, we should resist the temptation of direct intervention, in the form of airstrikes or the insertion of ground forces.

At the same time, the timid steps taken by President Obama, essentially confined to modest economic sanctions and some kind words for the opposition, have emboldened the Syrian dictatorship and convinced Russia and Iran that they can continue to support Assad with impunity.

Between sending in the Marines, and tolerating the intolerable, however, there is a third option: letting the Syrians fight, and win, their own war.

The United States and its allies should openly recognize the opposition Syrian National Council, and equip the Free Syrian Army with humanitarian and military aid. This would allow the Syrians to liberate their own nation, rather than receiving it at the hands of Western power.

While a campaign of this type, with free Syrians fighting on the ground, might lead to more casualties in the short run, it would lend legitimacy to the opposition's final victory. Winning against Assad could also assist in creating a new common bond among the Syrian people in the struggle against the current regime.

Most importantly, the U.S. should guarantee an easy exit, in the form of immunity from prosecution, for the key figures of the regime. Safe havens for Baathists leaders, including Bashar Assad and his family, would discourage them from waging a war to the bitter end. We should also allow the al-Assad family to maintain a significant percentage of their wealth, estimated in the billions.

While it seems unlikely that any Arab state would be willing to host the Assad circle as permanent refugees, perhaps Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan or some other pro-Baathist nation could be persuaded, with adequate payments from the overseas bank accounts of Syria's current ruling class, to accept a few dozen well-heeled refugees from Damascus. With, for example, even 10 percent of their net worth left to them, Syria's current leaders could ensure for themselves a lifetime of luxury and protection, while allowing their people to be free of their onerous presence.

It may seem contrary to the idea of justice to allow a brutal dictator to flee into the security of exile, even if this refuge is as unwelcoming as Minsk or the windswept Kazakh steppes. However, one only has to compare Tunisia -- where the exile to Saudi Arabia of former dictator Ben Ali enabled a peaceful and rapid transition to democracy -- with Libya, which endured months of civil war and 30,000 deaths before Muammar Qadhafi died at the hands of insurgents.

Qadhafi, under international indictment for war crimes, was not guaranteed exile by the West, even though several nations seemed willing to offer. Libya has still not emerged as a stable state and remains hobbled by damage done to its infrastructure during its recent civil war. Surely it would have been worth considering such an option for Libya to avoid the conflict it endured.

In some ways, the NATO-led intervention made conditions in Libya worse, as the hasty ending of foreign air support to the interim government weakened their ability to defeat regime holdouts and rebellious tribes who had been allies of Qadhafi.

While Syria has unfortunately already endured much loss of life at the hands of the Assad regime, it is not too late to avoid a full-scale civil war and an even greater humanitarian disaster.

Neighboring Turkey, which has provided support to the Syrian opposition, could be a partner in a U.S.-led effort to equip the free Syrians for victory over Bashar Assad. By all accounts, the official Syrian army is militarily incompetent, equipped with outdated Soviet equipment, and losing soldiers at all levels to defections.

The time is now for diplomatic recognition of the Syrian opposition, a public announcement of military aid to the free Syrians, and an open door into exile for regime leaders. Not only would the U.S. and NATO avoid another direct and costly intervention, but these measures could also help bring to a rapid end the anti-American and pro-Iranian regime that currently rules Damascus.

There are no guarantees that a new government in Syria would be more stable, more pro-Western, or less anti-Israel. Given that uncertainty, it makes even more sense to avoid risking U.S. casualties in a nation not considered a vital American interest.

If, however, we can offer diplomatic and material support to the Syrian opposition, we will create opportunities for a better relationship with a new government. Certainly this possibility is more preferable than our toleration of a cruel anti-American regime, and its daily massacres of its own people.

Dr. Wayne H. Bowen, professor and chairman of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University, is also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

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Wayne Bowen
The Pen and the Sword
Wayne Bowen received his Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University, and is also an Army veteran.