By Senator Chris Coons
As Syria approaches a turning point in the uprising against President Bashar Assad's repressive regime, it is time for the U.S. to engage with rebel leaders directly and materially to encourage an outcome that brings peace to Syria, stabilizes the region and promotes American values.
Recent developments -- including the defections of the former prime minister, several diplomats and generals; the resignation of United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan; and the increasingly horrific attacks on civilians ordered by Assad -- paint a picture of a desperate regime that has lost all legitimacy and is clinging to control of a country on the precipice of change. If the U.S. fails now to take a more decisive role in shaping Syria's future, it risks a post-Assad Syria transforming into an anti-American haven for jihadist threats to the West and our regional allies.
President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have gone to extraordinary lengths in their tenacious diplomacy and are to be applauded for leading repeated multilateral efforts at the U.N. to stop the violence, but the opportunity now confronting the United States is limited. Every day we wait, the cost of engagement gets bigger, its potential impact smaller and the risks more dangerous.
Direct U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict should take several forms, starting with increased humanitarian aid and support for regional allies, such as Turkey and Jordan, that are taking in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the escalating violence. Secretary Clinton's recent announcement of millions in additional humanitarian assistance was a strong first step. In parallel, the U.S. should continue enforcing the toughest possible sanctions on the Assad regime and call on its allies to do the same.
The ordinary Syrians who first demonstrated against Assad's regime and who are openly challenging Assad's brutality have repeatedly asked for American help. Today, they question whether our brave words at the U.N. will ever translate to support on the ground. There is little time left to find constructive partners among the Syrian rebels and to press for a path consistent with American values.
In line with proposals already floated by the Obama administration, the U.S. should strengthen its direct engagement with Syrian rebels by providing more robust support -- up to and including lethal aid -- to opposition groups that specifically commit to building a pluralistic and democratic Syria. Increasing support for responsible opposition leaders is an investment in a post-Assad Syria that is more likely to become our partner than our enemy.
Engagement with rebels must also come with reciprocal commitments to no reprisal killings, and to allowing unimpeded access for humanitarian organizations, journalists and human rights advocates. Accepting U.S. support should also mean the rebels must reject support from al-Qaeda and other jihadist organizations. Foreign fighters are already taking advantage of the turmoil and crossing into Syria from Iraq and Lebanon, seeking to expand their reach. Given Syria's robust military assets and sizable chemical weapons stockpile, the jihadist influence cannot be allowed to take hold in an emerging power vacuum.
Though we shouldn't give up on winning NATO or U.N. support, we can't keep waiting for a consensus to emerge while Russia and China shield the brazen Assad regime from accountability. U.N. investigators declared that Syrian government forces and the civilian shabbiha militia have committed war crimes against the Syrian people -- crimes that will certainly continue without greater intervention.
The U.S. should redouble its efforts to assemble a coalition of allies to diversify and strengthen conditions-based aid to rebel groups. As opposition groups demonstrate they are reliable partners, such assistance should including greater intelligence sharing, training and logistical support, and, ultimately, lethal aid and the defense of safe havens for innocent civilians through the enforcement of no-fly zones over Syrian air space.
The Syrian people are crying out for freedom and are being murdered for it. The heart-wrenching reports of patriotic rebels struggling to prevent government forces from massacring innocent civilians cannot be ignored.
Without question, America is a country weary of war. The last U.S. servicemembers to return from Iraq have been home for just a few months, and given our ongoing commitments in Afghanistan, no one wants to risk needless entanglement in another complex conflict in an unstable region.
The will to do what is difficult because it is right has always been part of our national identity, though, and America now has a moral and strategic imperative to stop these unconscionable acts of violence against innocent civilians.
For the safety of Syrians and the security of Americans, now is the time for the U.S. to act.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.