- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Obama has made it official: The United States wants regime change in Syria. On Thursday, Mr. Obama joined British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in demanding that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad immediately give up power. “We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way,” Mr. Obama said. “He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

America has strategic and humanitarian interests in a change of power in Damascus. Syria is an important Iranian ally, a regional adversary of the United States, and a designated state sponsor of terrorism since December 1979. The Assad regime has brutally suppressed the popular six-month uprising, with an estimated 1,800 people having been killed thus far. Damascus has declared the rebellion over several times, but the Syrian people continue to press their case for freedom in the face of armored assaults and coastal shelling from regime warships.

Explicitly backing regime change is commendable, but whether the Obama administration will be willing to back up its declaration with sufficient pressure to make it happen is another question. The White House has pursued a number of initiatives against the Assad government, including banning oil imports from Syria, freezing targeted assets of regime leaders and supporters, sanctioning the Commercial Bank of Syria and the Syrian-Lebanese Commercial Bank, suspending licenses related to Syrian Air’s Boeing 747 aircraft, and revoking commercial export licenses pertaining to official Syrian VIP aircraft. These actions express American displeasure with the Assad regime’s actions but will not by themselves lead to a transfer of power.

The Syrian rebellion won’t prevail without some form of military assistance, but recent efforts to support an Arab rebellion don’t encourage optimism. Even with air support and other assistance from the United States and NATO, Libyan rebels have been unable to dislodge Col. Moammar Gadhafi. If the United States and its NATO allies had taken the fight to the regime directly instead of masking intervention under the pretext of protecting civilians, the war would be over by now. The lesson learned against Tripoli is that if force is going to be used, the conflict should be short, sharp and decisive. Libyan operations have ground on too long, cost too much and thus far produced stalemate instead of victory. Conflict with Damascus is even riskier because Damascus has powerful Tehran as an ally.

Next steps could include the Libya model of a United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone, coupled with a no-tank zone similar to that imposed in Iraq in the 1990s and a ban on Syrian warships operating in the Mediterranean. The United States could continue to reach out to Syrian dissident groups as legitimate agents for the Syrian people, perhaps leading to a government being granted international recognition. This would lay the groundwork for the type of meaningful international intervention that should have taken place in Libya. Calling for Mr. Assad to step aside is useful, but regime change won’t happen if Mr. Obama again leads from behind.

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