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August 1, 2012

The Case for Expanding Assistance to the Syrian Opposition

by James Dobbins

The following is excerpted from James Dobbins' Aug. 1, 2012 prepared testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs regarding the situation in Syria.

What is important for the U.S. government to do at this stage is forge relationships with those likely to next govern Syria. These relationships should be developed at many levels, diplomatic, covert, military, economic and political, to include democracy building work by our Republican and Democratic Institutes, contacts with individual members of Congress, as well as with all the relevant arms of our Executive Branch.

As we get to know the Syrian opposition better, we will discover, I have no doubt, that not all are democrats, that many are ill disposed toward the United States, and that most if not all are ill disposed toward Israel. We will also discover, I expect, that most are even more ill disposed toward Iran, and therefore not inclined to help Tehran extend its influence into the Levant.

My expectation is that Syria's civil war will result in the regime's collapse, not a negotiated settlement, that the victors will not want foreign troops on the ground, and that there will therefore be no serious consideration of a large-scale foreign manned stabilization force. One can envisage circumstances where very limited external military assistance might be needed, for instance to secure chemical weapons sites, but a far better outcome will be for the regime's armed forces to remain largely intact, albeit under new command, and thus still responsible for the security (and eventual disposal) of these weapons. Contrary to Iraq, where the American military dropped leaflets informing Iraqi troops that they would be killed if they remained in uniform and under arms, the Syrian opposition should be encouraged to assure rank and file Syrian soldiers that they will be safe, and indeed paid and protected as soon as they cease fighting. It appears that the Obama administration is so advising the Syrian opposition.

Having myself helped organize international military operations in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, I would be the last to minimize the complexities, dangers and costs associated with any such effort in Syria. It is for this reason that I do not believe the United States should become the standard bearer for such an intervention. I do believe, however, that the United States should up its assistance to the rebels; quietly let those on the front lines, particularly Turkey and Saudi Arabia, know that it will back initiatives they may wish to take toward more direct military engagement; and provided the earlier mentioned conditions can be met, America should provide those military assets needed for success that only the United States possesses in adequate number.

Ambassador James Dobbins is the director of the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center.