We still have a chance to get Syria right

Every day, the situation in Syria grows more desperate and begs for a coherent and effective U.S. response. Despite 17 months of civilian massacres and chaos that has allowed radical jihadi groups to strengthen their hand in Syria, the Obama administration believed that the United Nations would resolve the matter, that Chinese and Russian leaders would eventually find their humanity, and that Kofi Annan would broker peace by convincing Assad to actually stop the killing.

On all counts, the administration was wrong, and it has had disastrous consequences for America’s interests in the region and for thousands of innocent Syrians.

From the beginning, the uprising in Syria has been a watershed development in the Middle East and a significant factor impacting America’s interests there. Today, the single greatest risk to American security in the Middle East is Iran, which is closely allied with Syria and has much riding on Assad’s success. Therefore, Assad’s fall would be devastating to Iran, as well as Hezbollah, and their plans to hurt the United States. Also at stake in Syria is the importance of preventing the massacre of innocent women, children and civilians.

Months ago, I called for the United States to step up and lead an aggressive international campaign to hasten Assad’s departure from power and begin laying the groundwork for a post-Assad transition. I proposed immediate diplomatic actions and sanctions as well as other incremental steps to help anti-Assad forces get organized.

Among these measures, I called on the Obama administration to immediately abandon any wishful thinking that Annan’s efforts would help or that China’s and Russia’s conscience would finally be shocked straight. Instead, the United States and other governments continued hiding behind the facade of his failed mediation efforts.

I called on the United States to work with NATO, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and others to establish safe zones in Turkey and, eventually, in parts of Syria. The administration failed to do this, exacerbating the current refugee problem.

I also stressed the importance of mitigating the unimaginable: that Assad’s chemical weapons would be used. Instead of developing a plan to prevent this arsenal from being used or falling into the wrong hands, the American position of waiting for the Annan plan to deliver helped Assad buy precious time to mobilize his chemical weapons arsenal, which he may eventually use against his own people.

Finally, I called on the Senate’s leadership to quit wasting time on political show votes each week and actually do something meaningful by passing the Syria Democracy Transition Act of 2012, which authorizes the president to impose crippling sanctions on the Syrian regime to cut off the financial lifeline that is helping keep Assad afloat. Instead, they have allowed the Senate’s dysfunction to continue — at the expense of our interests abroad.

President Obama has failed in handling of the Syria situation. He has allowed the international community’s response to be held hostage by China and Russia, both of which want to reserve the right to commit the same heinous acts against their people if their rule is ever threatened. We wasted far too much time with the Annan peace effort and allowed Assad and his enablers to make a mockery out of the international community and every basic norm of human decency.

That mistake has given Russia and Iran a chance to inordinately increase their influence in Syria and in the region. The administration’s failure to gain useful intelligence early on, working to learn more about the opposition and assist in its efforts, has further set back any U.S. effort to hasten Assad’s removal.

Obama’s mishandling of Syria and failure to act more decisively earlier has made a complex problem even tougher now. Like our involvement in Libya, an earlier and more assertive action plan could have strengthened the opposition movement at a more opportune juncture and earned us the trust of the Syrian people, as we eventually (though belatedly) did in Libya.

But is it too late for the United States to do anything about Syria now? Absolutely not.

Although the U.S. position that Assad must go has been the right one, this demand has not been coupled with action. The Obama administration needs to stop hoping for the U.N. and other countries to resolve this on their own. American leadership is needed. The U.S. should mobilize our allies and, together, make clear to Assad that using chemical weapons is unacceptable and will have devastating consequences for him and his regime.

We can still work with our allies to establish safe zones. We can still provide valuable aid to the Syrian opposition forces in the form of food, medicine, communications equipment, intelligence and logistical support. We should still assign Robert Ford, our former ambassador in Syria, as the envoy to the Syrian opposition, encouraging him to engage Jordan and Turkey and to lay the groundwork for a relationship with a post-Assad Syrian government.

Even this late in the game, we still have a chance to get Syria right. The U.S. must step up to the plate now and act in our best national security interest. If not, President Obama will forever live with the consequences — a blundered policy, America’s weakened standing and a prolonged humanitarian crisis.

Marco Rubio, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Florida and a member of the Senate’s Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees.

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