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How About Visas for Syrian Defectors?—A Commentary by Peter H. Schuck

The following commentary was published in the Wall Street Journal on March 14, 2012.

How About Visas for Syrian Defectors? Here's a low-cost way to finish off the Assad regime.
By Peter H. Schuck

The hand-wringing by America and its allies over the escalating atrocities in Syria has become ever more pathetic. Thousands of innocents have died at the hands of Bashar al-Assad's forces, and more will be butchered before his reign of terror ends.

The U.S., having temporized with Assad in hopes of appealing to his supposed reasonable side, has belatedly called for regime change. The State Department has cobbled together a remarkable coalition of the unwilling: not merely the pacifist European Union and the preoccupied Japan, but also many of the regimes in the Mideast whose hands are equally or more bloody with violence against their own people.

Not surprisingly, the denunciations of the Assad regime have been feckless. He has no reasonable side and knows that the U.S., twice bitten by failure in regional wars, is unwilling to unleash its military might, even to the extent of imposing a no-fly zone.

Absent military force, what can be done to produce regime change? Here's a strategy that would surely help: In conjunction with allies, we should announce that any Syrian civil or military official (whom we define as high-ranking) who defects to the Syrian opposition within a specified period of time, and who can demonstrate that he has persuaded other such officials to defect, will be granted temporary refuge in one of the allied countries until the regime is overthrown. At that point he must return to Syria to aid in its rebuilding.

In selected cases—perhaps where an official can show that the opposition, when successful, would persecute him because of his previous position—the allies might hold open the possibility of formal protection under the rules of the 1953 Refugee Convention, which usually leads to permanent residency. Human-rights violators and serious criminals would not qualify.

Consider the advantages of such a scheme. It is likely to be effective because even a few key defections can have a cascading effect on the regime. Laggards will fear they're on a sinking ship and that the allies may rescind the offer if they wait too long.

It would entail no overt intervention, no risk to our troops, no open-ended involvement, no responsibility for the outcome of what may devolve into a civil war between Sunnis and Alawites or some other tribal conflagration. It would cost us essentially nothing, particularly if the refugees are spread among the many allied countries. And these individuals are likely to be highly skilled and assimilate easily. Politically, it should have bipartisan support, as it both exploits the "soft power," which liberals claim we have often forfeited, and forcefully asserts American foreign policy interests, as conservatives demand.

Some might argue that such a policy would subordinate our refugee program to considerations of realpolitik, thereby undermining the program's humanitarian underpinnings. But that particular horse has long been out of the barn.

Our law is already pervaded by geopolitical considerations, not just humanitarian ones. The Refugee Act of 1980 provides that the president may exceed the statutory refugee quota if he determines that it is "in the national interest." The quota itself is determined after annual consultation between the president and Congress, and must analyze, among other factors, the impact of refugee admissions "on the foreign policy interests of the United States."

Another possible objection is that this would be a slippery slope, increasing the pressures to offer defectors refugee visas in other turbulent situations around the world. The short answers to this concern are that we should use this strategy only on a case-by-case basis, and that in the area of foreign policy the force of precedent is at its weakest.

Each foreign policy crisis is unique and can readily be distinguished from others where there are good reasons to do so. No general principle dictates that we treat superficially similar situations the same.

Syria presents the best example of this. We have resisted military intervention there only months after having taken sides in Libya's civil war and bombed extensively. While many argue that we are hypocritical for not intervening in Syria, wiser heads have prevailed and explained why the two cases are actually quite different. The selective use of refugee visas for strategic reasons would enable us to respond appropriately to the massacre in Syria.

Mr. Schuck is a professor of law at Yale and a visiting professor at Fordham.