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How the U.S. Can Lead on Syria

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Regional allies are looking more and more to Washington for leadership to remove President Bashar al Assad from power and prevent Syria from further collapsing along sectarian lines. The gridlock at the U.N. over how to resolve the 17 month-long sectarian conflict has necessitated a greater need for American initiative in order to secure a political transition in Syria.

Unfortunately for the U.S., none of the policy options available to it are particularly good -- they range from doing nothing to punitive military intervention, and all carry a significant amount of uncertainty and risk of exacerbating the conflict. Faced with as challenging of a crisis as they come but reluctant to militarily intervene, the Obama Administration has relied on a combination of sanctions and diplomacy to play it cool while working closely with the Friends of Syria (FoS), an umbrella organization that brings together the opposition and countries seeking a democratic transition in Syria.

Although the Obama Administration's policies have legitimately kept the U.S. out of another military quagmire in the Middle East, they have not hindered Assad from continuing his bloody onslaught against his own people. Washington's current course of action is unlikely to be sufficient to quell the violence and expedite the removal of Assad, and just because the Administration is entirely correct and completely justified in being averse to putting boots on the ground does not mean that America is left without any arrows in its quiver. There are still defections to engender, sanctions to be widened, and safe zones to consider, all on the international stage. Here are just a few steps that America can take to hasten Assad's departure.

1) Mitigate the Post-Assad Fears of Syria's Powerful Alawite Minority

In order to better incentivize defections, the U.S. should encourage Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the FoS to open channels of communication with Syria's Alawites, the dominant sect of the Syrian regime that makes up the majority of senior level military and government officials. The glue that has held the regime together and prevented senior level defections has been the Alawite's fear that they would be obliterated by Sunni revenge killings if Assad's government were to fall. Thus, America's Sunni allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, that are seen as aiding, arming and influencing the rebels should work to mitigate these concerns by assuring the Alawites of their protection against a vengeful Sunni onslaught in a post-Assad Syria. However, such assurances should contain the caveat that the ability to deliver on them and to secure a pluralistic future for Syria depends on whether the violence can be controlled and therefore also on how soon Assad leaves power.

The U.S. should also firmly articulate at the next FoS meeting that it supports a democratic and non-sectarian post-Assad government that protects all of Syria's citizens regardless of ethnicity, religion or political allegiance. In addition, Washington should push the opposition to both adopt a platform that repudiates revenge killings and issue statements on a consistent basis that convey the same message. If the U.S. and its allies were ever able to convince Alawites to defect from the regime in large numbers, it could trigger a tipping point that would accelerate the end of Assad's government.

2) Make the Multilateral Sanctions Even More Multilateral

It is remarkable what committed and agile diplomacy can accomplish -- in less than one year, the Obama Administration has skillfully convinced countries in Europe and Asia to either sanction outright or reduce their dependency on Iranian oil, which is a critical energy commodity for many economies. The U.S. should now use this model to broaden the scope of the sanctions against the Syrian government by using the full leverage of American diplomacy to get as many Latin American, African and Asian countries on board, especially those that are FoS members.

There are reasons to believe that Syria has eyed these regions to offset the impact of the existing American and European sanctions, making it all the more important to cut off these lifelines. Some prime targets include Brazil and India, which are BRIC countries that, as signified by their respective FoS memberships, are not particularly vested in Assad's survival but are still willing trade partners with the Syrian government. Even if countries don't do all that much business with Syria, the symbolism alone will underscore Assad's growing international isolation. For those nations that import Syrian oil, the U.S. can encourage the Gulf States, who may be the only group of countries more eager than Washington to see Assad go, to replace the supply for the time being.

Also, Washington should not forget about Iraq and Lebanon, the two countries that abstained in the Arab League from voting on sanctions against Syria. Reports have indicated that Assad has tried to beat the sanctions by eyeing corridors in Baghdad and Beirut. Given that these two are historically major Syrian trading partners, it is critical that the U.S. work with the Arab League to reign in deviations from the sanctions and ensure that both countries are in full compliance.

3) Consider the Implementation of Safe Zones

Although there are very legitimate reasons for why the Obama Administration has been reluctant to use hard power in Syria, the U.S. should now consider having a dialogue with the Arab League, NATO and the FoS about establishing humanitarian safe zones along Syria's northern border with Turkey. The goal of the safe zones would be to expedite Assad's departure by offering refuge to defectors, providing corridors for the delivery of humanitarian aid to affected civilians and stemming the violence by protecting displaced Syrians. Should such action be deemed in America's interest and should there be sufficient international support for it, especially from Turkey, then Washington can begin planning for its implementation by discussing with its allies the division of responsibilities for the operation.

Although safe zones are unlikely to bring down the Syrian regime on their own, they can be a critical component of a broader American strategy to do so. They could incentivize more and higher-level defections, mitigate the butchery of civilians and psychologically affect Assad's regime by communicating that the international community is committed to seeing a political transition in Syria. As fighting continues to escalate within Syria, the Administration will have to more heavily weigh the option of safe zones that could dampen the carnage and hinder the violence from spreading beyond the borders of the supposed beating heart of the Arab world.