In addition to weaponry, the FSA needs training, resources, and intelligence support. It currently lacks a sound military strategy. Only the Americans, working together with Arab partner nations, have the requisite diplomatic and military resources to help the FSA develop this capacity. It is often said that the United States has no successful track record of providing this kind of assistance. But that is simply false. In fact, in recent months it has enjoyed a number of quiet successes in Yemen. With a very light footprint, the Pentagon has helped train and equip the Yemeni army, giving it the wherewithal to retake territory that it previously ceded to al Qaeda. While the American drone campaign has grabbed the headlines, the effort to build partnership capacity holds out the greatest long-term promise. The partnership being developed in Yemen is precisely the model that is needed in Syria.
It is important to remember that arming the FSA is a political act. The most important decision of all is simply to provide lethal assistance. The goal of the operation is to build a force on the ground that is more likely to respect American interests and that is committed to building a nonsectarian, stable Syria. Even the provision of light weaponry would be a good start to this project.
This policy does entail the risk of unintended consequences. Some arms may flow to al Qaeda. Some groups may take American aid and then turn against the United States. But inaction also carries risks. The current hands-off policy has hardly succeeded in preventing extremists from acquiring arms. It has simply given them time and incentive to develop their own independent sources of external support.
By establishing itself as the most important international player shaping the conflict inside Syria, the United States will lay the groundwork for helping the Syrian people forge a genuine national dialogue on the nature of their transition. This should include the creation of a national platform that brings together Syria’s diverse ethnic and religious communities — including Sunnis, Shiites, Alawis, Christians, and Kurds, as well as tribal and religious figures — to discuss the future of the country. In particular, it should include Alawis who enjoy wide legitimacy within their community, but who are also willing to talk about a post-Assad Syrian regime.
At the same time, the United States should bring together key international and regional powers to create an international steering group. This group — including China, Russia, Turkey, and key Arab and European states — should agree on a number of basic goals for the transition and set benchmarks for their effective implementation. The immediate focus should be on protecting civilians, minorities, and vulnerable groups through the creation of an international stabilization force; addressing humanitarian issues; safeguarding chemical and other unauthorized weapons; and supporting Syrian-led transitional governance and transitional justice efforts.
For this to succeed, Obama must first persuade Russia to abandon its demand that Assad play a role in the transition. If Moscow remains defiant, however, the president must be willing to pursue an independent policy — while still keeping the door open for Russian President Vladimir Putin to eventually join the international consensus.
The Syria challenge is difficult. Its intractability is what initially made nonintervention attractive. But developments on the ground have since made it an increasingly dangerous option for American interests. It’s time Obama listened to his foreign-policy and national security advisors.
Michael Doran is the Roger Hertog senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Salman Shaikh is director of the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Together they recently co-authored « The Road Beyond Damascus. »