Next month, the war in Syria will grind into its third year. This most tragic of transitions in the Middle East since 2011 has come at an enormous human cost -- more than 70,000 dead, 924,000 seeking refuge in neighboring countries, and more than 2.5 million internally displaced, according to the U.S. State Department. With no clear end in sight, this conflict could evolve into a significant strategic setback for the United States in the region, unless we step up to provide training and equipment to carefully vetted opposition fighters who are facing down Bashar al-Assad's tanks, planes, and missiles. Inaction could have grave regional consequences and serve to empower Iran at a time of nuclear uncertainty and embolden Hezbollah, a terrorist organization that has proven its ability and intent to strike in and outside the Middle East.
The beginning of 2011 marked the beginning of a regional political earthquake, the tremors of which will be felt for generations. Syria has held the most promise for a democratic change that fell squarely within U.S. interests. Assad's downfall would remove a powerful regional bridge between Iran and Hezbollah and thus significantly weaken both. Degrading the influence of these two supporters of terror is a long-held U.S. policy objective that can still be achieved today in Syria.
But unfortunately, our window to gain influence with Syria's future leaders is quickly closing. While the United States has admirably led efforts to aid the victims of this war, we have done little to bring about its ultimate conclusion. And if these current trends continue, we will have few friends in a new Syrian government or among its people. If we help to bring about an end to this devastating conflict, the Syrian people can begin the long process of rebuilding their homes, their governing institutions, and their lives.
We are presented with a significant opportunity to renew trust with the opposition on Thursday at a "Friends of Syria" conference in Rome. At a minimum, the United States should be prepared to provide non-lethal equipment to vetted elements of the Free Syrian Army. I understand that opposition forces have directly requested body armor, communications equipment, and night-vision goggles, coupled with training on human rights and the laws of war. These are reasonable requests, which the European Union agreed to honor last week. This assistance will afford the EU a window into the inner workings of the armed opposition and establish key relationships that will be critical in the post-Assad era. The EU now has an important seat at the table. At the very least, the United States should match this obligation on Thursday.
Last December, I called for a more assertive approach in Syria, which included the use of force against Syrian military airplanes on the ground. Since then, the violence against the Syrian people has only escalated, and the regime now resorts to the use of Scud missiles against civilians. The United States and other countries have deployed Patriot missile batteries in southern Turkey and should consider repositioning those assets to intercept Scuds killing civilians in northern Syria. Degrading the regime's ability to execute massive air strikes against civilian targets will improve our ability to deliver much-needed humanitarian aid and give the Free Syrian Army space to make strategic gains.
The United States cannot afford further delay. We can and should do more to support the Syrian people and the armed opposition. There are democratically-oriented leaders among its ranks, which we should empower not only against the Assad regime but against the growing threat of radical Islamists in the country. Providing immediate non-lethal aid to the armed opposition would provide the United States with an enhanced understanding of the armed elements and could serve as the basis for a cooperative security relationship in the future. More robust U.S. engagement could also help to turn the tide of the conflict, forcing Assad to relinquish his tenuous grip on power and allowing the millions of displaced Syrians to begin rebuilding. Many of us in government, including the president's own advisors, have called for a more assertive approach. We should be prepared to deliver this Thursday in Rome.