The conflict in Syria continues unabated and despite President Obama’s recent decision to send small arms and ammunition to the rebels, there remains significant pressure on the United States to do more. Following his return from a visit to Turkey and Jordan, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin discussed the impact the situation in Syria is having on the region and the implications for U.S. national security interests. Jessica T. Mathews moderated. 

Senator Carl Levin

Senator Carl Levin has represented Michigan in the United States Senate since 1978. He is currently chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Jessica T. Mathews

Jessica T. Mathews was appointed president of the Carnegie Endowment in 1997. Her career includes senior positions in the White House, State Department, Congress, Council on Foreign Relations, World Resources Institute, and the Washington Post.


Jessica – Thank you for that introduction and for your leadership at the Carnegie Endowment.  This Endowment has been an important forum for the discussion of foreign policy issues for more than a hundred years, and we appreciate all that you do here. Your globally focused think-tank is a gift to the world.

As Jessica mentioned, I’ve just returned from a five-day trip to the Middle East with Senator Angus King of Maine.  We’re in an eventful, indeed a chaotic period in that part of the world.  In Egypt, the military has removed a democratically elected President.  In Syria, a major insurgency is attempting to remove Assad, while his regime continues a brutal reign of terror against the Syrian people.  In Turkey, President Erdogan has stumbled in his response to peaceful demonstrations, setting back his efforts to modernize the country’s constitution and resolve the Kurdish conflict.  In Iraq, a deepening sectarian conflict has resulted in the greatest levels of violence since our troops left the country.  And in Afghanistan, President Karzai continues to act as though he wants us to leave while his real purpose is to get us to stay on his terms.

For more than a decade, since September 11, 2001, we have had a tendency to view this part of the world primarily through the lens of terrorism and Islamic extremism, failing to recognize the complex array of issues that continue to roil the region.  It is striking how little the events that I just described have been driven by terrorism and extremism, but rather are the result of changing demographics and new communication technologies, and the failure of regimes to respond to the needs of their people.

Relative to Syria, for example, the experts that we talked to on our trip told us that the Syrian people do not tend to be religious extremists.  The core elements of extreme groups like al Nusrah and Hezbollah are foreign fighters, supported by foreign money.  They have gained strength in Syria not because of their ideology, but because of their fighting effectiveness.  While there is always the risk that a lengthy civil war could radicalize more of the Syrian population, we have reason to hope that the Syrian people will be able to marginalize and expel terrorist entities after the fall of the Assad regime.

Assad is a murderous dictator, but he is not an Islamic extremist.  He has relied on the support of Iran and Hezbollah not because he agrees with their radical views, but because he needs their help to keep his grip on power.  In fact, Assad recently expressly claimed the mantle of a secular leader while celebrating the Egyptian Army’s decision to throw out the Muslim Brotherhood President in Egypt.

Events in Egypt, too, appear to have been driven more by political and economic forces than by terrorism or religious extremism.  Surely the overthrow of a democratically-elected government in the Middle East should give us pause.  While I welcome the departure of President Morsi, who deepened his country’s divisions, I do not welcome the manner in which the change was made.  There may be circumstances in which the overthrow of a democratically-elected government is justified – for example, if it systematically attacks its own people.  There should be a very high threshold for such action, however, and that threshold was not met in Egypt.

Our trip, though, was focused on Syria.  Senator King and I travelled to Turkey and Jordan, where we discussed the situation in Syria with military, diplomatic, and intelligence officials, met with the leader of the Free Syrian Army, and visited American military and civilian facilities, Syrian refugee camps, and a border crossing where Syrians were making their way across a no-man’s land into Jordan, fleeing the brutality of the Assad regime.

We all know the basic outlines of that brutality – Assad’s use of air strikes, missiles, helicopters, tanks, and artillery to systematically attack the Syrian people; his targeting of civilians in residential neighborhoods, markets, and even schools; his use of chemical weapons; and his increasing reliance on foreign fighters from Iran and Hezbollah to sustain his rule of terror.  His actions have killed more than 100,000 Syrians, led more than a million to flee the country, forced millions more to leave their homes, leveled entire villages and neighborhoods, and motivated the Syrian people to rise up against him.

What Senator King and I saw on our trip put a human face on this campaign of terror.  We met carpenters, school teachers, imams, farmers, shopkeepers, and former soldiers of the Syrian army.  All told a similar story.  When and where the Assad regime felt threatened it began shelling Sunni villages and neighborhoods, systematically uprooting entire populations and driving them from their homes.  The displaced sought shelter in mosques and schools, but even there they were not safe.

The Turks and the Jordanians have taken on the task of welcoming the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees crossing their borders and done a commendable job of providing not just food and shelter, but – to the best of their ability – classrooms, places of worship, and social centers.  It was heartbreaking to see row upon row of tents and containers with refugees – most often women and children – sitting in the dust and seeking shade to shelter from the heat.

We all agree these events are tragic.  But most Americans ask: Why is this our fight?  Can we make a difference in the Syrian conflict, and if so, should we?  Or are the costs and risks of even limited military support for the insurgents in Syria simply too high?

There are many reasons why we need to do more to increase the military pressure on Assad.

There is Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people.  While I am not a fan of “red lines” that risk committing the United States to a particular course of action regardless of the specific circumstances, I do not believe that the United States and our allies should allow the global consensus against the use of chemical weapons to fray.  If Assad is able to use chemical weapons and remain in power, other dictators may come to believe that they too can turn weapons of mass destruction on their own people and not be challenged.  Nor can we afford for these weapons to fall into the hands of Hezbollah, al Nusrah, or other terrorist organizations now asserting themselves in Syria.

Assad’s survival would strengthen terrorist organizations and State-sponsors of terrorism.  We will be less secure here in the United States if Iran and Hezbollah succeed in keeping Assad in power, increasing their ability to bring their terrorist tactics to the borders of Israel and to the rest of the world.  Even if Assad’s regime survives only in the populated areas of Syria, large regions of the country would be left ungoverned, providing safe havens from which al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations can attack the United States and our friends and allies.

Increased military pressure on Assad is the only way to achieve a negotiated settlement in Syria, which in turn is needed to restore stability to a region that certainly doesn’t need any more instability.  Already, the growing flood of Syrian refugees is causing serious economic hardship in Jordan and to a lesser extent in Turkey.  Prospects for peace between Turkey and the Kurds are dimmer, and the already shaky relationship between Iraq and its Kurdish population is further complicated.  And the increasingly sectarian nature of the fight between Syrian Sunnis and Shiites risks a broader civil war that could spread to Iraq and Lebanon and inflame the entire region. Strengthening the insurgency’s ability to increase military pressure on the Assad regime is the best hope, and perhaps the only hope, for a political settlement that might deal with these issues.

Finally, can the world in good conscience continue to stand aside and let Assad murder hundreds of thousands more civilians?  The damage Assad is inflicting on Syria’s cities isn’t “collateral.”  It’s intentional. He is targeting entire villages and neighborhoods.  Terrorizing with indiscriminate shelling and killing is Assad’s goal, creating massive numbers of refugees to weaken the opposition and to overwhelm his neighbors.  Working with allies, we were able to help the people of the Balkans in the 1990s and the people of Libya in 2011.  We can and should do the same in Syria.

The objective of the United States and our allies continues to be a political settlement that transitions Syria to a post-Assad regime that is inclusive of, and protective of, all elements of Syrian society.  This will require actions to change the current military dynamic in Syria and convince the Assad regime and its supporters, including Russia, that the current military momentum toward the regime cannot last in the face of a major insurgency that has the support of both the the Syrian people and an international coalition.

Two weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal reported that the CIA had begun moving weapons to Jordan and planned to start arming small groups of vetted Syrian opposition with light weapons and possibly anti-tank missiles within a month.   I would not only support such efforts, I would expand these efforts to help the Syrian people succeed in doing what only they can do – waging a successful insurgency to free their country from Assad’s brutal regime.

The United States should join with other members of the so-called “London 11,” including a number of Arab countries in the region that openly oppose the Assad regime, to comprehensively plan additional steps to up the military pressure on the Assad regime.

Such plans could include options for limited, targeted strikes at Assad’s apparatus of terror, including his airpower and artillery, coordinated with the actions of the Syrian opposition on the ground.  Such strikes could degrade Assad’s military capabilities and bring some relief to the embattled Syrian people.  Even the announcement of a coordinated planning process for increased support to the Syrian opposition would show Assad and his Russian allies the serious purpose of a broad international coalition, boost the morale of the Free Syrian Army, and advance our limited goal of bringing about a political solution.

When Assad arrays his forces to create a “killing zone” in another Syrian city or town, we know where those forces are and how they can be targeted.  In recent weeks, we have watched Assad systematically bombard and physically destroy Qusayr and Homs.  Next in line could be other cities in Syria’s main North-South corridor, including Hama to the North and Dara – which is practically within sight of the Jordanian border – to the south.  We and our allies have the ability to help the insurgents by targeting some of Assad’s instruments of destruction. It is inconsistent with our national interest and our moral conscience to watch more massacres continue unchallenged.

Any direct action against the Syrian regime, albeit limited, would need to be taken by a broad alliance including countries from the region, and would need to be preceded by a concerted planning effort, to ensure that we are prepared to act in a united manner.

Earlier this week, Senator King and I called upon the Administration to begin this process by convening a meeting of the political, military, and intelligence leaders of countries committed to the end of the Assad regime.  The objective would be to develop specific options and plans for a range of contingencies and to enlist commitments from our coalition partners, so that the Assad regime and its supporters will understand the seriousness of purpose of this joint effort.

It is not only important that Assad goes.  It is also important that his departure not create a vacuum into which Sunni-Shia divisions deepen and spread and which results in safe havens from which al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations could again bring suffering and terror to the United States and our friends and allies.  Unless there is a planned transition to an inclusive political and military structure to provide a secure and stable follow-on to Assad, a longer civil war could replace the current conflict, bringing unspeakable suffering to the Syrian people and spiraling instability to the region.

I know of no one who is proposing American boots on the ground.  But we can and should support the Syrian people’s struggle by helping train and equip them and by helping establish a broad international coalition to increase the military pressure on the Assad regime.  That is the best way to promote a negotiated transition to a Syria with a legitimate government that protects its people instead of attacking them.

We should not be blind to the risks and uncertainties of these actions.  But nor should we ignore the repercussions if we fail to act.  More Syrian towns and neighborhoods will be destroyed.  Hundreds of thousands more families will be forced from their homes.  Another 100,000 or more innocent people may be killed.  The conflict could spread through the region, and Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations could gain safe havens from which to operate against us in the future.  These are the likely costs of inaction, and I believe they are too high.

These remarks were originally published by Senator Carl Levin.