Yes, America can act in Syria!

Last week, I argued that the United States was not doing enough to engage proactively with the unfolding struggle in Syria, and that this inaction was ceding the field to others in an unwise, unnecessary and avoidable manner. The response from many friends and colleagues was, “What would you have us do?”

Opponents of a more robust US policy toward Syria pointed to statements by unnamed senior US intelligence officials quoted by The Washington Post that President Bashar al-Assad is still “is very much in charge” of the country. They generally ignored the second part of the quote in which the official said that even though “the odds are against them,” Syria’s leaders “are going to fight very hard.”

President Barack Obama and other senior administration officials have implicitly defended a policy of inaction by arguing that “the regime’s days are numbered” and that “it is not a matter of whether but when” the Syrian government is overthrown. If that is the case, then why feel impelled to act?

Although it is difficult indeed to sketch a long-term scenario in which the Syrian regime survives in anything like its present form, nothing is inevitable, and that includes Assad’s downfall. This “inevitability” argument serves as stopgap logic for the United States to continue to do very little to influence events in Syria—a policy, or absence of policy, that may have a great deal of appeal during an election year. Of course, if 8,000 Israelis had died in the past year, its relevance to the American national interest would not be debated.

Obama has said that he would not “act unilaterally” in Syria. This is a shot aimed between the eyes of a straw man. Not even the most vocal proponents of robust American action, such as Senator John McCain, have suggested that Washington do anything unilaterally.

Many close allies and supporters of the administration, including the Center for American Progress in a recent report, have been emphasizing the alleged lack of good options the United States has regarding Syria. A former State Department official, Aaron David Miller, laid out the case for inaction the Foreign Policy website a few days ago. Surveying what he suggested were the options facing American policy, he warned against “reckless ideas of how to make the Syrian tragedy ours.” Miller did admit, however, that “the longer the killing goes on, the more likely we be will dragged into doing more.”

We can be certain that in fact the war will intensify. Miller, the Center for American Progress and others have warned of the difficulties and dangers of creating safe havens or arming rebel groups. No one denies that giving weapons to the rebels carries risks. But critics have yet to answer the point that others will go ahead and arm Syria’s opposition, and by doing so will gain influence, empower their own Syrian allies, and therefore help to define the very nature of the opposition.

It’s a red herring to suggest that because the situation is complex, American leverage is limited and coordination with allies is essential, therefore little can be done. It may be that the diplomatic groundwork and the level of the crisis on the ground, particularly with regard to Turkish policy, is not yet sufficient to establish safe havens or buffer zones. However, that does not preclude developing a policy that anticipates and begins to prepare for limited intervention when it becomes necessary, as even Miller acknowledges it probably will.

In the meantime, there are some clear steps the Obama administration can take to enhance its policies and behave proactively rather than reactively. First, it should stop talking about the “inevitable” fall of the Syrian regime and clearly announce that regime change in Damascus is a goal of US policy. Having determined and announced that, a great deal of clarity should follow.

Second, the United States should, like the European Union and others, formally recognize the Syrian National Council as “a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”

Third, the administration should publish a series of benchmarks that the Syrian National Council, or any other opposition group seeking this role, must accomplish in order to gain eventual recognition as, in effect, a government in exile. These should include, but not be limited to, developing well-structured relations with the Free Syrian Army and other armed rebel groups, and doing much more to reach out to Syrian confessional and ethnic minorities, as well as offering far-reaching, ironclad guarantees about their status in a post-Assad future.

Fourth, Washington should begin identifying those in the political opposition as well as armed groups on the ground that it believes can represent a better future for Syria. And then it must do everything possible, within the bounds of prudence, to strengthen their hands against both the regime and other opposition forces.

None of these are wild-eyed ideas or flights of fancy. Nor are they reckless or ill-advised. In fact, they are the minimum conceivable corrective to a policy of inaction that is both reckless and ill-advised.