Center for Strategic Communication

I was invited to testify before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia to be a witness at the April 25, 2012 hearing "Confronting Damascus: U.S. Policy toward the Evolving Situation in Syria, Part II."  The other two witnesses where Andrew Tabler and Mara Karlin. My prepared statement is after the break. [[BREAK]]

My prepared statement follows:

"It is time for the Obama Administration to acknowledge what
is obvious and indisputable in Syria: the Annan Plan has failed." This
declaration by Senators Lieberman, McCain and Graham on April 19, 2012, came
only one week after a United Nations-backed ceasefire came into effect, and two
days before the passage of a
unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing a 300 member
team to monitor the ceasefire.  The
urgent, and admirable, imperative to do something to help the people of Syria
should not rush the United States into a poorly conceived military
intervention. The painstakingly constructed international consensus in support
of diplomacy and pressure should not be abandoned before it has even had a

Nobody expects the current diplomatic path to quickly or
easily end the conflict in Syria, but military intervention does not offer a
compelling alternative.  There are
no cheap or easy forms of military intervention which would quickly bring down
the regime of Bashar al-Assad or effectively protect Syrian civilians. Military
half-measures, including safe zones, humanitarian corridors and arming the
Syrian opposition, would likely spread the violence and increase the numbers of
Syrian dead without increasing the likelihood of regime collapse.  An initially limited intervention would
most likely pave the way to more direct and expensive involvement comparable to
the experience in Iraq.

Rejecting military action does not mean doing nothing. The
United States has effectively taken the lead in constructing an international
consensus in support of diplomatic efforts, including two unanimous Security
Council resolutions and ever-tightening economic sanctions. The Six Point Plan
presented by UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan offers a plausible, if still far from
certain, path towards a demilitarization of the conflict and political
transition. The ceasefire for which the United Nations called has not ended the
killing, but it has substantially reduced the violence even before the entry of
the full international monitoring mission. What is more, the number of peaceful
protests across Syria has significantly increased in the two weeks since the
ceasefire began.  Economic
sanctions are taking a real toll on an increasingly isolated Syrian regime.

It is far too soon to give up on a diplomatic process which
has just begun.  Rather than rush
into a risky, costly and potentially counter-productive military intervention,
the United States should give the current plan time to work.  It should continue to lead
international efforts at the United Nations, promote the demilitarization of
the conflict, continue to increase the pressure on the Assad regime, build on
the efforts underway with the "Friends of Syria" group, support the political
development of the Syrian opposition, and prepare the ground for future
accountability for war crimes.

Limited Military

The calls for U.S. military intervention in Syria reflect an
understandable frustration with the ongoing crisis and with President Assad’s
defiance of international consensus. But we must not forget the lessons of the
poorly conceived military intervention and occupation of Iraq, with its vast
human cost and unintended consequences. Even a limited military involvement in
Syria risks embroiling the United States into a far longer and more extensive
intervention than currently imagined, without protecting the Syrian people from
further atrocities or quickly changing the regime in Damascus. I discuss the problems
with limited military intervention in detail in Pressure Without War: a Principled and Pragmatic Strategy for Syria,
published by the Center for a New American Security on February 21, 2012.  I summarize here some of the key

It is not enough to demonstrate that the cause of
intervention is just. The available military options do not have a reasonable
chance of improving the situation at an acceptable cost, and could easily make
matters worse. Syria is not Libya, where the United States acted with a clear
mandate from the UN Security Council and could use air power in support of a
well-organized opposition which controlled territory.  Syria’s demographics, geography, divided population,
strategic location, military capabilities and international alliances pose a
far more daunting target.  We
should not rely on overly optimistic assumptions about the efficacy of an
intervention, the response of the Syrian regime and its international allies,
or our ability to manage the conflict. There are vanishingly few historical
examples of entrenched regimes embroiled in a civil war suddenly collapsing
after a symbolic show of force from outside. Most likely, limited military
intervention would alter but not end the dynamics of a long conflict,
embroiling the United States directly in a protracted and bloody insurgency and
civil war.

There are at least four different, and potentially
conflicting, objectives for military action against Syria which have been
articulated: civilian protection; regime change; weakening Iran; and political
credibility.  These goals are not
necessarily mutually compatible. 
Arming the Free Syrian Army, for instance, would likely lead to a dramatic
increase in lost civilian lives and have only dubious hopes of speeding regime
change, but increase the chances of embroiling Syria in a long crisis which
would harm Iran.  Those hoping
primarily to change the regime in Syria oppose diplomatic efforts which might
reduce civilian deaths. 

Finally, the United States must not intervene without
international legal authority. 
Acting without a UN Security Council resolution would undermine the
administration’s efforts to restore international legitimacy to the center of
global politics, and would risk deeply undermining both international institutions
and American relations with Russia, China and the developing world.  A UN authorization of force against
Syria is exceedingly unlikely, however, barring a dramatic escalation of
violence.  The support of Arab
regional organizations and of NATO is important, but does not substitute for
the UN.

All forms of limited intervention would likely begin with
significant initial air strikes to eliminate air defenses, establish control of the skies and allow freedom of action by the forces involvedSyrian anti-aircraft
capabilities may not be particularly formidable, but no country would risk
flying in Syrian air space until these capabilities are destroyed.  Yet many Syrian anti-aircraft
capabilities are located in or near urban areas, which means that significant
civilian casualties could result from any attempt to eliminate them.  There is little doubt that the U.S.
military could do this if called upon, but it would not be a costless
enterprise and would not alone likely end the conflict.

More likely, a no fly zone would pave the way towards a more
expansive air campaign targeting Syrian regime ground forces or defending
designated safe areas. Many argue that a bombing campaign might force the
regime to the bargaining table, boost the morale of the opposition and
demoralize regime supporters. Perhaps, but this would be a risky gamble with
fleeting benefits, and would likely evolve into a longer-term commitment. There
is little reason to believe that the regime would quickly crumble, or that more
opposition would rally, in the face of such strikes.  What is more, significant civilian casualties or
easily-stoked nationalist anger at a foreign bombing campaign have a poor record of success. Indeed, they may well rally Syrians around the regime rather than turn
them towards the opposition.  

Using air power to protect civilians and defend the
opposition within safe areas or humanitarian corridors is even more
complex.  Such safe areas could
most easily be established and protected along the Turkish border, but most of
the threatened civilians live in other parts of Syria. Humanitarian corridors
would be extremely difficult to protect, and could create a new refugee crisis
if desperate civilians rush into designated safe zones or neighboring
countries.  Protecting either would
require a serious commitment of resources.  Declaring a safe area without defending it effectively would
only repeat the painful mistakes of history.  In Bosnia, thousands of people were murdered in Srebrenica
and other designated safe areas when peacekeepers lacked the means to protect
them.  Even historical "successes"
are sobering.  Operation Provide
Comfort, established in northern Iraq after 1991, was envisioned as a
short-term crisis response, but turned into a 12-year commitment that ended
only when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.  Creating and protecting a safe area in Syria
would therefore require a significant and lengthy investment of troops and
resources, and would not likely hasten Assad’s collapse.

The United States and its partners could conduct an extended
tactical air campaign, becoming a de facto air force for the FSA, targeting
Syrian regime forces and evening the military balance in favor of the
opposition. But in contrast to Libya, there are no front lines to police, few
tank convoys to destroy on desert highways and no offensives by rebel armies
for which an air campaign would clear a path. Regime
forces and the opposition are primarily clashing in densely packed urban
areas.  Civilian casualties would
inevitably result from a bombing campaign against ill-defined targets in urban
areas with extremely limited human intelligence.  And such a campaign in support of a fragmented and weak
opposition would almost certainly escalate.

Finally, some are calling on the United States government to
arm the opposition, providing advanced weapons, communications equipment and
other support to even the balance of power and would enable the Syrian
opposition to defend itself and take the fight to Assad.  This is often presented as the least
intrusive path.  But in fact it
might be the worst of all the options. Providing arms to the opposition would
not likely allow it to prevail over the Syrian military.  The regime would likely discard
whatever restraint it has thus far shown in order to avoid outside
intervention. What is more, the Syrian opposition remains fragmented,
disorganized and highly localized. Providing weapons will privilege favored
groups within the opposition, discredit advocates of non-military strategies,
and likely lead to ever more expansive goals. It could further frighten Syrians
who  continue to support the regime
out of fear for their own future, and make them less likely to switch sides.  Arming the FSA is a recipe for
protracted, violent and regionalized conflict. It would be foolish to assume
that an insurgency once launched can be easily controlled. It should also be
sobering that the best example offered of historical success of such a strategy
is the American support to the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union, which led
to the collapse of the Afghan state, the rise of the Taliban, and the evolution
of al-Qaeda.

In short, limited military options do not have a reasonable
chance of ending Assad’s regime quickly or at an acceptable price. 

Give Annan Plan a

Military options therefore do not offer a magic bullet for
protecting Syrian civilians or forcing a change in the Assad regime.   The current diplomatic strategy
faces long odds as well, but does at least have at least some prospect of success
and should not abandoned prematurely. 
It is highly unlikely that Bashar al-Assad or his regime will
voluntarily comply with a ceasefire, and even more unlikely that they will
surrender power.  But international
diplomacy does not depend on Assad’s good intentions. Instead, it aims to
demilitarize the conflict and create the political space for change driven by
Syrians disgusted by the destruction of their country. Demilitarization through
a ceasefire and political opening would undermine Assad’s survival strategy,
not save him from an otherwise certain defeat.

Syria today remains deeply divided between a growing and
resilient opposition and a still substantial pool of regime supporters.  The violence, relentless propaganda,
and deep fears about the future have polarized the country and helped to keep
significant portions of the Syrian population on the side of the regime.  At the same time, the resilience and
spread of opposition protests despite massive regime violence clearly
demonstrates that the regime has lost legitimacy with an equally significant
portion of the population. Assad has proven unable to kill his way to victory,
but his regime’s survival is at the same time well-served by a violent and
polarized arena.

The ceasefire, as American officials have consistently
noted, is only one part of the Annan plan, but it is an extremely important one
which will test whether the regime can survive de-escalation and
demilitarization of the conflict. 
Unsurprisingly, Assad has complied only partially with the
ceasefire.  Deaths dropped
significantly after the ceasefire came into effect on April 12, but killing has
continued at a lower level and there have been many reports of violations and
attacks.  But the pressure to
comply will continue. The expanded UN monitoring team now entering the country
may have a restraining effect, though their limited numbers and mandate will
not alone be sufficient. There has been a noticeable upsurge in peaceful
protests across Syria since the ceasefire came into effect. The focus of its
efforts must still be to increase the odds of a "soft landing" after the fall
of the Assad regime, one which avoids a chaotic state collapse and instead
produces an inclusive and pluralistic political alternative.

The United States should continue to support these efforts
to demilitarize the conflict. It should continue to maintain the hard-won
international consensus at the Security Council and push Syria’s allies who
have supported the current track to pressure Damascus to comply.  It should also continue to support
parallel efforts to pressure Assad and to help strengthen the fragmented and
weak Syrian opposition.  Economic
sanctions and the civil war itself have combined to badly hurt the Syrian
economy and to increasingly isolate the Syrian elite.  Such efforts should continue and expand, with more targeted
sanctions at both unilateral and multilateral efforts. These should be tied to
the other elements of the Annan plan beyond the ceasefire, including a strong
push towards a genuine political process. 
The Syrian opposition should continue to reach out to and attempt to
reassure minority communities and those still supporting Assad out of fear that
they will be included and protected in a new Syria.

Should the ceasefire take effect, the U.S. should not allow
a decrease in deaths to cause international focus on Syria to lag. There should
be constant, daily diplomatic pressure and the mobilization of international
condemnation.  It should continue
its effective efforts to disseminate credible information about regime
violations of the agreement, such as the satellite images posted by Embassy
Damascus. It should push for the regular release of the reports of the UN
monitors and accountability for violations of the mission’s terms, and also
insist on other elements of the plan such as access for journalists.   It should make a particular
effort to convey credible information about regime violence to audiences inside
of Syria and to break through the propaganda which sustains the regime’s hold
on core constituencies.

The U.S. should also continue to collect information about
regime atrocities for future war crimes trials.  The "Syria Accountability Clearing House" proposed at the
recent meeting of the "Friends of Syria" is an important starting point for
future accountability.  If it is
unable to secure Security Council support for a referral to the International
Criminal Court, the U.S. should push for the creation of an independent war
crimes tribunal for Syria. 

Overall, it is easy to share the frustration with
international efforts to respond to the atrocities in Syria.  Many thousands of Syrians have died as
the world has struggled to find an adequate response.  There are no guarantees that the current UN plan will
succeed either, but it must be given the opportunity to develop.  There are no good alternatives.  Limited military intervention is
unlikely to either protect civilians or hasten Assad’s fall, and would signal
the end of the diplomatic alternatives currently unfolding.  For now, the United States must stick
with "Plan A" and give diplomacy a chance to succeed.

The discussion which followed was productive. We agreed about many points but disagreed about the potential
for the U.N.’s Annan plan and about the likely value of arming the
opposition or creating safe areas. 

While the other witnesses saw little
to no chance for the plan to work, I argued that the painfully
constructed international consensus in support of the Annan plan should
be maintained. I pointed to a number of positive signs, including the
leap in peaceful protests following the ceasefire, and argued that it
was important to allow time for a plan which was never meant to work
instantly.  I agreed, however, that the UN must continue to push the
Assad regime hard to comply with all elements of the plan, deploy the
full monitoring contingent immediately (which would help overcome the
problem of regime forces attacking after monitors leave an area), and
issue regular, public reports on compliance.  

As for arming the
Free Syrian Army and other forms of military intervention, I argued that there is little reason to believe that such moves  would help, and many strong reasons to believe that they would make
the situation considerably worse. Those arguments are covered in the prepared statement above, and despite the growing public demands for such intervention I’ve seen astonishingly little substantive argument which would change this strategic assessment. 

I also offered thoughts in response to interesting questions about the role of Turkey (its Kurd obsession complicates things), al-Qaeda (exaggerated for now, but in many ways that organization’s best chance to regenerate itself in the Arab world by posing as a defender of Sunnis in a war zone should things continue as they are), the Saudis and Qataris (eager, as always, to fight Iran and Syria to the last American), and China (very different than Russia, few real interests in Syria but many in the oil-producers of the Gulf).  

It was good to have a substantive, respectful discussion of these excruciating issues in Congress, even if most likely no minds were changed. I will update with a full transcript when one is available.