Of the critical global challenges faced by the Obama administration in its final year, Syria may be the most confounding.
The brutal Syrian civil war has reached a crisis point, with more than 250,000 dead and 12 million Syrians homeless. The cancer of this war has metastasized into neighboring countries and the heart of Europe. It could destabilize the Middle East for a generation.
President Obama can no longer avoid providing stronger American leadership to reverse this tidal wave of suffering. U.S. strategic interests and our humanitarian responsibilities dictate a change of strategy.
The United States has fallen short in framing a forceful strategy for it to play its traditional leadership role in the Middle East. As a result, it is in an uncharacteristically weak negotiating position. As former career diplomats, we believe diplomacy is most often effective when it is backed by clarity of purpose and military strength. Those have been noticeably absent in U.S. policy toward Syria.
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The administration should take steps to reinforce U.S. strength in the difficult negotiations ahead in Geneva. It should dramatically expand funding for the moderate Sunni and Kurdish forces that pose an alternative to Bashar Assad’s government and the Islamic State, while asserting active, daily leadership of a strengthened coalition including Turkey, our European allies and the Sunni Arab states.
Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry must also consider stronger measures to protect millions of civilians, including establishing humanitarian corridors to reach those subjected to air assaults and ground attacks. Most important, we believe the Obama team will have to reconsider what it has rejected in the past: the creation of a safe zone in northern Syria to protect civilians, along with a no-fly zone to enforce it.
The White House could press Russia, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, to help organize and protect the zone. The zone would be far more durable and credible with Russian support, and if Russia rejected the proposal – as it probably would – the administration and its partners would be in a much stronger position to take the initiative themselves.
The benefits of a safe zone are manifold. It would be the most effective way to support Syrian civilians and to diminish the flow of refugees. It would strengthen our ability to work closely with our key regional NATO ally, Turkey, which has long advocated this step. For the first time, it would restrict the operations of the rampaging Syrian air force – the largest killer of civilians in the conflict.
We do not minimize the extraordinary difficulty of establishing such a zone in a civil war. Defending the zone, preventing it from being overwhelmed by refugees, grounding it in a convincing legal justification and keeping out jihadist groups would be daunting tasks.
Taking the lead on this initiative would carry dangers for the United States. But critics must also weigh the risks of inaction – which may include thousands more killed, millions more refugees, the spread of the war to U.S. allies and a Russian-Iranian military victory.
We admire Obama and his many foreign policy successes. The president is right that the United States needs to be cautious about intervening in the Middle East. But he has been far too reactive and unwilling to assert U.S. leadership in Syria. We believe the risks of inaction are greater than the risks of a strong U.S. initiative to protect civilians. If we fail to act, the war in Syria will almost certainly grow worse.
Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor on leave at Stanford University, was U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2005 to 2008. James Jeffrey, a fellow at the Washington Institute, was U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012.