Safe Areas in Syria

05/07/2013 12:55 pm ET | Updated Jul 07, 2013

President Barack Obama pledged a new "calculus" if Syria used weapons of mass destruction. Establishing "safe areas" within Syria is a proportional and effective response, which serves several goals. It warns Assad against expanding the use of WMD; provides a locus for Syria's opposition; and provides opportunity for a multilateral response, sharing the burden between NATO members and Gulf States.

Obama is responding deliberatively, carefully considering intelligence on the use of sarin gas by Syria's armed forces. A precipitous move would be in error. The Bush administration's manipulation of intelligence to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq is a cautionary tale.

An abundance of caution, however, sends mixed signals. Assad may be testing Obama's resolve to enforce red lines. Protracted deliberations by the Obama administration could be interpreted as weakness, triggering more attacks using chemical weapons or their transfer to extremists in the region like Hezbollah.

After dire warning that the use of chemical weapons would be a "game changer," America's credibility is at stake. Nothing is more corrosive to the credibility of the United States than a gap between its rhetoric and its actions. Inaction would have far-reaching implications beyond Syria. Iran is monitoring Obama's response to gauge how the United States might respond should it cross the nuclear threshold.

Simple steps are required to establish safe areas in Syria. A legal mandate is needed to authorize activities opposed by Assad's regime. Funds are required to pay for ground operations and a no-fly-zone. A country must be prepared to put boots on the ground and lead the operation.

While Security Council authorization would be preferable, international consensus is unlikely. Russia and China strongly objected, stiffening their support for sovereignty and blocking efforts by the UN Security Council to intensify pressure on Assad.

Two years ago, NATO obtained a mandate to prevent atrocities in Libya and used it to force Muammar Gaddafi from power. Under Article 5 of the NATO Charter, an armed attack against one NATO member is considered an attack against all members. Syria has already shot down a Turkish plane; Syrian artillery, which could potentially deliver chemical weapons, has shelled villages in Turkey. The North Atlantic Council would be well within its charter responsibilities to authorize military action against Syria.

Obama recently met with officials from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Gulf States are already spending huge sums supporting Syria's opposition and would be prepared to foot the bill.

Turkey is a front-line state most affected by the flow of refugees and instability from Syria's civil war. Turkey also has military capabilities. It is the second largest army in NATO; Incirlik Air Force base is a few minutes' flying time from the Syria border, and could serve as a staging ground for the no-fly-zone. Turkey has experience with NATO command, having led the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan.

The optics of international action would be better if troop-contributing countries included Arab states. Obama recently met King Abdullah II of Jordan to discuss a more robust response to events in Syria. In addition to a safe area in Syria's North and East encompassing Qamishli, a safe area on the Jordanian border near Deraa could be considered. The Arab League should authorize its members to send forces. Even a symbolic contribution would lend credibility to a Turkish-led and NATO authorized mission.

Many benefits would result. Safe areas would create a space for refugees to return to Syria. Their return would relieve the political stress and economic burden on Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, which are already inundated with refugees. More than 1.4 million people have already fled the conflict.

Safe areas would also provide a venue for the Syrian opposition and locus for a government in exile. It would also bring the Diaspora together with Syrians in-country, enabling a more coherent and united opposition.

In addition, safe areas can also serve as a buffer zone putting distance between Syrian forces and front-line states. They can also function as a forward position staging ground for military operations. If Assad responds by ratcheting up his attacks, including expanded use of chemical weapons, the international community would be compelled to undertake a massive military operation to preempt the further use or export of WMD.

While achieving some short-term strategic objectives, safe areas could also tilt the balance on the battlefield, leading to Assad's overthrow. With intervention comes responsibility to build peace afterward. Failings in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya highlight the importance of a credible local partner with integrity and grass-roots support, to whom the international community can transfer power. Reconstruction and nation-building require an enduring commitment and sustained cooperation from the international community.

Even a limited U.S. military role requires domestic political backing. Obama will have to explain why America's engagement is in America's national interest, and a moral necessity. The American public is weary of war after more than a decade of combat on remote battlefields.

Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. His most recent book is Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and U.S. Intervention (www.liberatingkosovo.com)