CARL LEVIN: Costs of inaction in Syria are too high

In early July, I traveled with Sen. Angus King of Maine for five days in the Middle East, a trip focused on the situation in 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 Bashar 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 actions have killed more than 100,000 Syrians and led more than a million to flee the country.

What Senator King and I saw on our trip put a human face on this campaign of terror. We all agree these events are tragic. But many Americans ask: Is this our fight? Can we make a difference in the Syrian conflict, and if so, should we?

None of us wants to see our country engaged in yet another war, but I believe that we can take stronger action to help the Syrian people without risking our own troops, and that such action would be in our interests and consistent with American values. 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. If Assad is able to use chemical weapons and remain in power, other dictators may come to believe that they too can use weapons of mass destruction and not be challenged.

Also, 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.

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.

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.

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.

I support efforts to arm and train carefully vetted Syrian opposition fighters 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 our international partners 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.

Such strikes could degrade Assad’s military capabilities and bring some relief to the embattled Syrian people.

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

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.

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.

Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services