Failed efforts to curtail escalating violence in Syria led policy experts to unanimously call for direct U.S. assistance to rebel forces during a hearing at the Capitol on Wednesday, pushing for a new intelligence operation to identify legitimate opposition leaders and supply them with military support.
Experts cited the country's civil war, which according to activists has claimed 19,000 lives so far and shows fews signs of abating, as an increasingly likely spark for widespread ethnic conflict across the Middle East.
With the Assad government composed mostly of Alawites — a branch of Shiite Islam — and the opposition hailing mostly from the Sunni sect, many fear a drawn-out war in Syria could lead to violence elsewhere and give extremist organizations like al Qaeda a foothold in the region.
"Time is an important component in this. The longer it goes on, the greater the prospect that the very people you least want to see involved become more engaged," said Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at the start of the hearing. "The faster it were to change, the less prospect there is for the kind of disruption that threatens the region."
The hearing, the committee's last before the August recess, was convened as a response to ineffective international diplomacy.
China and Russia, wary of U.S. and European interests, continue to block Security Council relations that would imposed tough sanctions or authorized military force against the Syrian government. Thus far, the international community has only agreed on humanitarian aid and a peace-keeping operation.
Among several proposals on Wednesday, one consensus became clear: the U.S. must reach out to opposition leaders directly.
"The key decision here is to focus on the insiders rather than the outsiders," said Martin Indyk, vice president of the Brookings Institution and former ambassador to Israel. "We've spent a lot of effort with the outsiders, and frankly it's failed — at least so far. To get them all to work together in an effective way seems to be a forlorn mission."
Each panel member said the U.S. must begin aiding the opposition leaders that are committed to a overthrowing dictator Bashar Assad — a development most at the hearing viewed as an inevitable — with at least intelligence information and military equipment.
"Once we're satisfied that these are the right people to be arming — people who have some responsibility and consistency — then we should be arming them," Mr. Indyk said.
The panel stopped short of advocating for immediate intervention by U.S. troops, but James Dobbins of the RAND Corporation said such a move could be acceptable if Syrian opposition forces requested it and several other Arab nations supported it.
Mr. Dobbins said the U.S. should at the moment offer its support to those countries which have an interest in the conflict, such as Turkey, which has seen thousands of refugees flood its border in the last year, or the primarily Sunni Saudi Arabia.
"The U.S. should not become the standard-bearer for such an intervention," Mr. Dobbins said. "The U.S. should up its assistance to the rebels (and) quietly let those on the front lines know that it will back initiatives they may wish to take."
Despite the support from the panel to increase U.S. involvement, several committee members questioned the need. Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the panel's top Republican, expressed concerns over the cost of these efforts and whether citizens would support them.
Mr. Kerry also cautioned that the opposition is disorganized, and that finding a movement to heavily support could prove challenging.
Still, the overall sentiment of the hearing was that more action needs to be taken beyond international diplomacy, and direct U.S. interaction with Syrian opposition, including military aid, arose as the most popular suggestion.
"There are difficulties (in identifying opposition)," Mr. Kerry said after the hearing. "Any operation has to be well thought out and carefully planned, and I'd want to see that.
"But we have to increasingly raise the pressure on Assad. We have to change his calculations."
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