Since the September 11th attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi, the violence sparked across the Middle East, primarily in response to a short trailer promoting an anti-Muslim film, has dominated international news coverage. Anti-American protests, some peaceful and some deadly, spread to as many as 20 countries across the Arab world. The violence raised questions about the ongoing relationship between countries swept up in the Arab Spring and the U.S. It also thrust foreign policy to the forefront of the presidential race, with Romney questioning the strength of Obama's leadership and Obama recognizing limits of his ability to promote mutual respect and understanding in the region. In the press, some commentators have suggested withdrawing American aid to countries like Egypt and Libya; others gone so far as to identify the violence as the beginning of America's inevitable retreat from the Middle East.
But for most of the summer, the focus was elsewhere in the Middle East -- Syria -- and the world community cannot afford to lose focus there. Over the past 18 months, attacks by the Assad regime on its people have resulted in over 20,000 civilian deaths and hundreds of thousands of refugees. Thus far, the U.S. has only pursued peaceful solutions to the crisis. Some of the same White House officials who supported intervention to protect civilians in Libya less than a year ago have opposed comparable action in Syria, citing fears of full-blown civil war. Intervention in Syria was considered more likely to require boots on the ground, raising questions about the administration's willingness to protect civilians and American values in all cases. The international community has succeeded only in drafting an unimplemented six-point peace plan, as well as a communiqué calling for a political transition signed off on in June.
But the situation on the ground has changed. Civil war is now a reality as atrocities by the Assad regime continue unchecked. On Monday, as the world leaders gathered in New York for the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, the new Syria peace envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, confessed that prospects for any settlement remained dismal and that Assad still clung to the idea that pre-revolution Syria could be resurrected. With shortages in food and medical supplies looming, Brahimi told reporters, "The situation in Syria is dire and getting worse by the day." This report comes less than a week after at least 30 Syrians, and as many as 100, were killed when government warplanes bombed a crowded gasoline station, according to activist groups.
Obama should use his speech to world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly today to demand that the Security Council authorize the use of force in Syria, so that the Obama Administration in connection with NATO and other Arab states can enforce a no-fly zone south of the Syria-Turkey border to safeguard Syrian civilians and refugees. As demonstrated by the gasoline station attack, Assad has begun deploying helicopters and jets to terrorize civilians and prevent the rebels from establishing control over a large swath of territory. A no-fly zone could give the rebels the foothold they desperately need to protect themselves and the civilian populations that support them. Unfortunately the Security Council has been sharply divided on the issue of Syria, with Russia and China previously vetoing three resolutions. Recognizing that a resolution may be unlikely, President Obama should also make the case for use of force in Syria under the doctrine of responsibility to protect for the limited purpose of stopping atrocity crimes.
Given Assad's recent comments about the future of the country, the Obama administration must accept that a political transition in Syria is possible only following a military victory by the rebels. At the same time, recent events have proven that oratorical support for democratic aspirations alone is not enough to engender goodwill in the Middle East. This is where the response to the Libyan tragedy should influence Syria policy. If the U.S. wants to improve its image in the eyes of those on the streets of Benghazi and Cairo, it should protect civilians and their human rights even when politically or logistically inconvenient -- beginning by leading a no-fly zone in Syria. The U.S. is most secure when it stands up for the values it holds dear at home and abroad, rather than just paying lip service to ideals. And if it remains on the sidelines in Syria, the Obama Administration will have little influence with those who ultimately prevail in that country, and even less little ability to help achieve security and democracy in the Middle East more broadly.