Secretary of State Clinton revealed Tuesday that Russia is sending helicopter gunships to Syria and called Moscow’s claims that its arms are not used against Syrian civilians “patently untrue.” Russia’s support for the Syrian regime is not new. Yet even as the Obama administration ups its pressure on Vladimir Putin to abandon Bashar al-Assad, it is still struggling to find a path that can end the violence in Syria and begin a political transition without demanding deeper American engagement. But as the helicopter headline indicates, violence is taking a tighter hold on the Syrian crisis. The time may quickly be drawing near when U.S. interests in regional stability will demand more than diplomacy.
The current situation is a diplomatic and military stalemate, albeit a bloody one. U.N. envoy Kofi Annan has had zero success in establishing a real cease-fire or moving Assad into negotiations with the opposition. The U.N. monitors sent into Syria have not even been able to visit sites of recent suspected massacres and are themselves now targets of attack. The armed rebellion has been unable so far to dislodge the regime, but neither has the regime’s violence crushed the rebellion. Russia is still blocking stronger action at the U.N. Security Council. But more direct action, such as working with those who are arming the Syrian opposition, creating safe-zones on the borders of Syria, or threatening military intervention by a U.S.-led coalition, are risky endeavors and not saleable to a war-weary U.S. public—or a war-weary U.S. president.
In the absence of good options, the administration is flailing away at Russian support for Assad, calculating that losing Russian support might make the Assad regime give up the fight and yield to a negotiated transition. Given the resolve that both Putin and Assad have shown so far, it’s a long shot at best. The real danger, though, is not that diplomacy will fail. The real danger is that during the time spent cajoling Russian officials in Moscow, Los Cabos, and New York, events in Homs, Daraa, and Damascus will drive the crisis over the abyss into an entrenched, sectarian conflict with spiraling regional consequences.
A U.N. official Tuesday finally acknowledged that Syria has entered a full-scale civil war. As the government has escalated its violence and diplomacy has yielded no gains, the armed rebels have garnered increased support and expanded their effectiveness. In the past week, they have fought the Syrian army on the outskirts of Damascus, taken over an air-defense base, and welcomed increasing numbers of defectors from the military. With the right equipment, training, and tactics, it’s just possible that the rebels could force the Syrian military to crack and abandon Assad. In this way, they could bring an end to the crisis and set Syria on a new path—a more democratic one, one hopes. As it is, though, their victory would be won in the face of determined American neglect.
If, however, the Syrian military holds fast to the Assad regime, then the war will heat up and regional stability will be the loser, along with Syrian civilians. In this case, American interests could be challenged far more directly than they have been so far. Fighters, smugglers, and refugees crossing borders could shake security in Turkey, a NATO ally, and threaten the hard-won, fragile equilibrium in Iraq. Bitter sectarian fighting in Syria is already echoing in Lebanon, with fighting in the streets of Tripoli threatening Lebanon’s precarious peace. Jihadis from Afghanistan and Iraq are already being drawn to this new struggle of mainly Sunnis against an Alawite regime many view as heretical. Should the Syrian government lose control over more of its territory, its chemical and biological weapons could fall into dangerous hands.
All these frightful trends are already emerging—and they will accelerate every day that the diplomatic wrangling continues. By the time the international community has persuaded itself that all peaceful options to stop the killing have been exhausted, the deterioration on the ground will vastly complicate the inevitable next set of options: more direct forms of intervention, including even the threat and use of force.
In short, the Syrian crisis and American efforts to resolve it are being shaped—and constrained—far more by the violence on the ground than by diplomacy at the United Nations. The more quickly this crisis can be decisively resolved, the better for regional security and American interests. This argues for more active U.S. engagement now, directed not only at the Russians but at the Syrian government and its opponents, to try to shape and contain the battle yet to come.