Reuel Marc Gerecht has a typically perspicacious op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today advocating a stepped-up CIA campaign to oust Bashar al-Assad. He notes: “A coordinated, CIA-led effort to pour anti-tank, anti-aircraft, and anti-personnel weaponry through gaping holes in the regime’s border security wouldn’t be hard.”
Not only would this help to end the bloodshed (estimates are that close to 20,000 people have already been killed), as Gerecht argues, but it would also, as I have previously argued, give the U.S. the ability to shape a post-Assad regime. There is great danger not only in the continuing consequences of all-out civil war in Syria, which could give al-Qaeda and other extremists room to operate, but also great danger in a splintered, chaotic post-Assad environment where the most organized groups could be composed of Sunni fundamentalists backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. An active American role now, whether overt or covert, could give us great influence with the rebels and help to avert some of the worst dangers if and when Assad is eventually topped. That is what happened in Libya, and the result is that a secular coalition has won its recent election.
Such action would, however, require a level of commitment that the administration has not hitherto displayed. As Gerecht notes, the administration seems to be hoping that Russia can somehow be persuaded to abandon Assad, which seems unlikely. Or else the administration may simply be hoping that Assad will be overthrown even absent much action on the part of the U.S. But, even though there have been a few more defections from the regime in recent days, the Assad inner circle seems to be holding firm. And even though the rebels increasingly control the countryside, the regime appears firmly ensconced in the major cities. With Russian and Iranian support, the regime could stay in power, in at least part of Syria, for a considerable time to come. That is a terrible outcome and one that vigorous American action can help to avert.