The international community is struggling to address the Syrian crisis. Options considered include arming the opposition, negotiating a relief mission with Assad’s permission, establishing safe zones for internally displaced Syrians, and foreign military intervention. While this debate has heated up in the past few weeks, few world leaders have shown any eagerness to act—even though all are convinced Assad’s days are numbered. The problem, however, is that it could be a very, very long time before he is gone. Decisive action of any kind remains elusive.
Syrians are still waiting for aid as the regime denies humanitarian organizations access to besieged neighborhoods. Whatever military aid is reaching the opposition now remains modest. It’s certainly not enough to tip the balance. And foreign military intervention remains the last and least popular option, although President Obama recently ordered the Pentagon to review contingency plans. Given these delays and apprehension, policymakers should consider more creative options for the short- to medium-term.
The goal should be changing the stance of Russia and China as soon as possible. Both countries have refused to criticize the regime or admit the opposition is vastly outgunned. China has shown more flexibility, but it has yet to create any political space for a diplomatic breakthrough, in spite of recent envoy missions to Damascus. The Russians, however, remain steadfast, as the Kremlin continues selling arms to government forces. Without Russian and Chinese backing, it’s hard to imagine Iran alone will be able to protect Assad from the will of his people.
In the coming months, the U.S. should do all it can to change minds in Moscow and Beijing. The best way to do this is to make their rejectionist position morally untenable. In order to do that, Washington, Europe, humanitarian organizations, and all other interested parties should begin a systematic campaign of documenting abuses. Such documentation would complement local claims made by victims and incomplete UN estimates.
The U.S. could offer the most in this case by saturating the skies over Syrian flashpoints with spy planes and unarmed drones. Instead of using American airpower to dismantle Assad’s war machine, and maybe increasing suffering, American planes could be used to visually capture the chaos and report back to world bodies. Drones could collect video of armored tank movements or abuses by individual units loyal to Assad. Images captured high overhead could prove that the crackdown is indiscriminate and unforgivable in scope.
Obviously, you can find hundreds of videos on YouTube documenting Syrian suffering. Many personal accounts are moving and objective observers already know how lop-sided the conflict is. But no country has confronted Russia or China with these abuses in an international forum without relying on disputed casualty estimates, anecdotes, and emotional appeals. Damning intelligence—and a lot of it—might do more. Once made public, findings could also gain traction with citizens around the world who might then encourage their governments to act.
It would be best to approach Beijing and Moscow with videos, images, and other evidence in private, before a comprehensive presentation is made at the UN. This would give both countries time to reconsider their position depending on the gruesomeness of the findings—and shift posture before international outrage swells. Regardless of their response, the U.S. would then be obligated to brief the UN and share undeniable proof of abuses. Regularly scheduled briefings containing fresh evidence would also be appropriate, in order to maintain a sense of urgency and keep the public engaged along with their governments. New resolutions would naturally follow in both the Security Council and the General Assembly, forcing those on the fence to reconsider, and Russia and China to veto without pretense.
This is not an argument for decisive action, I admit that. It will not alleviate suffering sooner than other options. But all options under consideration—safe zones, armed intervention, aid deliveries—might still be months away from realization. In the meantime, the U.S. and others can do more to make the humanitarian case against Assad air-tight.
We must also admit we’re not sure which phase of the conflict Syria has reached. It’s clear Assad feels confident after the month-long siege of Homs and the shelling of the Baba Amr neighborhood, even though he hasn’t done interviews, or made grand speeches recently. But his acceptance of envoys from the UN and their restricted tours of destroyed cities prove he feels a sense of momentum. In short, he can afford to entertain the likes of Kofi Annan without fearing the consequences of the envoy’s failed mission. The regime has forced the opposition to retreat in many areas. Assad must believe he can outlast foreign criticism and rely on China and Russia indefinitely. If this is the case, and the crackdown is downshifting or Assad changes tactics, then a U.S.-led mission to document abuse may not provide enough material to cancel vetoes at the Security Council.
But the cost of this approach is small given the limited risk of collecting intelligence over Syria and the unappealing side effects of other, more aggressive policies. The benefits, though, could be substantial. At the very least, this option has a chance to change minds and strip Assad of his diplomatic armor. More evidence would also grant more legitimacy to any future intervention, in case we see a repeat of the Kosovo intervention of 1999. That intervention, remember, was launched without a UN mandate because Russia was expected to veto any resolution. If we see intervention in Syria, extensive intelligence collection would at least help foreign militaries sort out the reality on the ground, and make better decisions once it became time to choose targets.