Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, welcomes Nabil Elaraby,… (David Karp / Associated…)
There is no appetite among the American people — or on the part of the two men competing for the U.S. presidency in Tuesday's election — for U.S. military intervention in Syria. That reluctance is sensible. Painful as it is to observe the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrians in the war between President Bashar Assad and insurgents inspired by the Arab Spring, the deployment of U.S. troops or a campaign of airstrikes under the rubric of a no-fly zone would enmesh the United States in an unpredictable conflict with a heavily armed ally of Iran on behalf of a fractious and fragmented rebel army. Even providing weapons to the rebels at this point would entail unacceptable risks that they would flow to Islamic extremists.
Given the unwillingness of the United States to use force to help dislodge Assad, some have suggested that it is therefore pointless for the U.S. to concern itself with shaping a post-Assad Syria. On the contrary, this country and other "friends of Syria" are behaving prudently in trying to identify and nurture an alternative political structure in the event that Assad falls.
Looking forward to this week's meeting of Syrian opposition figures in Qatar, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week that the Syrian National Council, a group dominated by longtime exiles, "can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition," though it could be "part of a larger opposition."
The United States is especially insistent that a new opposition movement include not just Sunni Muslims but also Christians and members of the Alawite sect to which Assad and many of his officials belong. On Monday, the Syrian National Council expanded its ranks to add representatives from political groups inside the country, but the Obama administration is continuing to press for an entirely new structure. The consequences of a new alignment might not be limited to the shape of a post-Assad government. If it were clear that the alternative to Assad was not a Sunni-run regime that would oppress Alawites, Christians and secularists, Assad could lose support.
Hopes of dislodging Assad quickly died months ago with Russian objections in the United Nations Security Council to a plan under which he would have stepped aside in favor of his vice president. China, which also vetoed resolutions sanctioning Syria, recently expressed interest in a new international initiative for a cease-fire and a dialogue between the Assad regime and the opposition. If that effort also founders, as seems likely, Syria's conflict will go on. But even if they don't opt for military intervention, the U.S. and its allies are right to try to influence what happens in Syria during and after the conflict.