Voice of America on June 14, 2013, published an article by Michael Doran on Obama’s lack of leadership on Syria. Excerpts below:
The hour is getting late….Hezbollah has conquered the Syrian town of Qusair…Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has appeared on television and vowed to save the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The timing of the speech made it clear that taking Qusair was crucial to that goal. The town sits on the most important route between the Hezbollah-controlled areas of Lebanon and the Assad-controlled parts of Syria. In rebel hands it was a wedge driving the two apart.
Nasrallah’s speech thus betrayed a key vulnerability – and not just of Hezbollah and Assad. The Islamic Republic of Iran also sees the territorial separation of its two proxies as a grave threat. Therefore, all those who oppose Iran’s intervention in Syria should fix their sites on Qusair. They should begin now to lay plans to retake the town or, at the very least, to make Hezbollah pay many times over for the right to occupy it.
President Obama would be wise to lead this planning effort. After all, every American ally in the Middle East – be it Israel or Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Qatar – is steadfastly opposed to the role that Iran is playing in Syria.
What’s different now? Last year when Obama considered arming the rebels, it looked as if Assad might fall of his own weight. Now there is a clear recognition that he can hang on to power. Unlike the Americans, Iran and Hezbollah have no qualms about intervening on the ground.
Until now Washington’s answer to this disaster has been to issue pious calls for a negotiated settlement between the opposition and the regime. But this idea is utterly fanciful…. Assad will never negotiate himself out of a job.
Toppling Assad, therefore, is a necessary condition for peace.
In a pressure point strategy the United States, together with its key allies, could seek to overcome the fragmentation of the rebels by building up a force of carefully vetted units. In effect, the United States would create the Free Syrian Army’s Special Forces. It would also function as their strategic brain, providing them with intelligence and logistical support – but all from outside of Syria and in concert with key local allies. These elite units would carry out assignments chosen to deliver maximum pain to the Assad regime at minimum cost.
Assad has numerous vulnerabilities that such a force could exploit. He is, for instance, desperate to ensure that the Alawite-dominated areas of the northwest Syria remain connected to Damascus. Fear of losing this connection was precisely why Hezbollah made an all-out effort to clear Qusair, which guards the primary route between the two regions. The Assad regime is a wasp, and Qusair is its tiny waist. A pressure point strategy would dedicate itself to hammering away at this point, cutting the wasp in half while also separating it from Hezbollah.
A pressure points strategy will not strengthen al-Qaida. On the contrary, by building up only vetted units, arms will remain in the right hands. Moreover, the creation of an elite force, backed by the prestige of the United States – would strengthen the non-al-Qaida rebels, who are desperately in need of rallying point.
Of course, the United States should form a supporting coalition to help implement a more aggressive strategy. France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and Turkey are the obvious candidates for such a group. In one way or another, all of them have displayed clear dissatisfaction with the current American policy. The mere creation of such a coalition would therefore hearten both the Syrian opposition and the other regional allies of America. And it would probably also help to defray costs. Who knows? The Gulf Arabs might even foot the entire bill for a more aggressive American policy, just as they did in 1991, after the liberation of Kuwait. That war beat back a tyrant, and it cost the American taxpayer nothing – nothing, that is, but the price of leadership.
Michael Doran is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Saban Center for Middle East Policy.