Two years have passed, more than 70,000 have died, and the horrific violence in Syria shows no signs of abating. Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his fellow Syrians has clearly crossed President Obama's self-imposed "red line" and marks a significant turning point in a tragic chapter in the region's history. Without American leadership, the situation will continue its downward spiral.
Although any course of action by the United States in Syria has risk, so does inaction. The longer Assad remains in power, the larger the number of destabilizing refugees that will enter neighboring countries, the more insecure his chemical weapons, and the stronger extremist Islamists become. The tide of war is not receding in the Middle East; it is rising and coming to our doorstep whether the president is willing to accept this reality or not. Leading from behind is not a formula for success; it leaves a vacuum that lets Russia and Iran shape the future of the region. And that is not a Middle East the rest of the world can afford to live with.
At stake for U.S. national security, our partners in the region and for the future of the Syrian people are over 1,000 tons of chemical weapons that could end up in the hands of terrorists. America's next steps must consider the security of Israel and Turkey; the stability of Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq; and, ultimately, American international credibility.
Let there be no doubt, the situation in Syria is enormously complex. The country is awash in weapons, a growing number of Islamist extremists are joining the fight, and the arsenal of chemical weapons amassed by Assad edges closer to falling into the hands of terrorists. The opposition remains fraught with internal divisions, and struggles to contend with the indiscriminate use by Assad of jets,helicopter gunships, artillery, and Scud missiles. Millions of Syrians have been displaced, and over 1.4 million refugees have poured into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq, pressing the limits of humanitarian capacity. And these numbers will only grow as the conflict grinds on, threatening the security of some and the stability of others.
A solution to Syria will not be easy. Enforcing a no-fly zone, even a limited no fly zone, has many risks including ineffectiveness against low flying attack aircraft, misidentifying civilian aircraft, and the potential for escalation. Boots on the ground could accelerate the growth of extremist influence and create more support for Assad rather than hasten his removal. But just because the choices before us are hard doesn't mean the United States has the luxury of sitting on the sidelines and doing nothing.Syria, given its longstanding ties to Iran,Russia and terrorism, is not and has never been a problem that can be wished away.
Unfortunately, this approach seems to be the strategy on public display by this White House. It's emblematic of their broader Middle East policy, predicated on the misguided belief that American leadership can be outsourced to groups like the United Nations. Tragically, we see the results of the president's failure of leadership in Syria today.
It's more important now than ever that President Obama step up and exhibit the leadership required of the commander in chief. It's time he clearly articulate a plan to help stem the violence, lead the international community, and demonstrate to Assad that his barbaric actions have consequences. Continued inaction by the president, after establishing a clear red line, will embolden Assad and his benefactors in Tehran to continue their brutal assault against the Syrian people.
The choices are difficult, but it is clear we need to help partners like Jordan with refugees now, empower moderate members of the opposition, and have a plan to keep chemical weapons from falling into terrorist hands. Our next steps must be calculated and informed by the best intelligence and best military advice our defense community can provide. Doing nothing encourages bad actors to take larger gambles in an unstable region. Assad, and the rest of the world, must clearly understand that crossing an American red line has consequences.
Republican James Inhofe is the senior senator from Oklahoma. He is also Ranking Member of Senate Armed Services Committee.