Obama Flails on Syria

The new intervention seems to be "a half-hearted, half-baked idea."

The Obama’s administration’s recent announcement that it would start arming the Syrian rebels—the right ones—looks like a sign of desperation. This is especially true because it followed a White House announcement that 100-150 Syrians had been killed because of the regime’s use of chemical weapons. The president’s earlier declaration that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” forced the White House to act.

The irony is that the administration has been deeply involved in the delivery of arms to rebels, most of which cross into Syria through Turkey or Jordan, both close U.S. allies. The problem with the White House announcement, therefore, is that it appears to be a half-hearted, half-baked idea—clearly not a first choice. It does not seem to be part of an overall strategy towards Syria, unless one wants to interpret it as a “diplomatic” move designed to strengthen the stature of the Syrian opposition in advance of the nonexistent Geneva negotiations. Considering all the firepower and help from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia the regime has at its disposal, this attempt diminishes the White House’s standing and does little to help the rebels. Moreover, it also makes the administration look as if it is flailing; why respond to one hundred deaths and not to the almost one hundred thousand already killed?

In reality, the White House announcement is nothing more than an attempt to inject some element of resolve into an opposition that has been battered of late, with the fall of Qusayr following the intervention by Hezbollah.

These lines are not being written by someone who favors a U.S. intervention in Syria. Quite on the contrary. I strongly believe that the United States should stay out of Syria unless there is an international consensus expressed through the UN Security Council or our regional allies take the lead and ask for our help.

The administration has to date wisely resisted calls from various quarters, both domestic and international, to establish either safe havens or a no-fly zone in Syria. Both would have required extensive and continuous application of U.S. firepower resulting in casualties, including many innocent ones. It is not clear that either choice would necessarily bring down a regime whose supporters believe they are fighting for dear life and therefore are willing to visit untold damage and violence on their own country. The Iraq experience also demonstrated that a regime can live with a no-fly zone indefinitely. Once committed to this, the expectation would be that the United States would have to finish the job and thus engage the U.S. military in another war in another Muslim country, with no help from anyone else.

There are other problems with this announcement. Washington was already knee-deep in both Turkey and Jordan, working with their respective security establishments’ programs with the Syrian rebels. Both Turkey and Jordan have made it clear that they want the United States to intervene in Syria; though regional powers most directly affected by the Syrian uprising, they have been generous with humanitarian assistance and have also helped the rebels. But they have also elected to rely on America to deliver them from Assad.

Recent events in Turkey have made the situation even more complicated for the Obama administration. The harsh police intervention against the peaceful demonstrators and especially the anti-Western rhetoric emanating from Turkish leaders and their associates in the press and elsewhere have cast doubts on the reliability—and perhaps even on the closeness—of the two administrations. Severely criticizing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan risks the latter’s wrath at a time when the AKP government finds itself for the first time off balance and unsure of itself. On the other hand, not criticizing the Turkish government, especially in light of the conspiratorial invective stemming from it, would make the White House look diminished. Either way, the Turks may decide, despite American wishes to the contrary, to continue, in collaboration with the Qataris, to support fundamentalist fighters such as Jabhat al-Nusra, as they are the ones who can really fight.

What are we left with? The new policy is limited in what it can materially provide the rebels. Arms have a tendency to be shared on the battlefield and no one wants sophisticated weaponry to fall into the hands of vicious, Jabhat al-Nusra-type fighters. Clearly the new policy will not make much of a difference against seasoned Hezbollah fighters. The only thing that could help somewhat is intelligence sharing with the rebels to alert them of Syrian and Hezbollahi troop movements so they are not caught by surprise.

The White House has to view its Syrian policy through the prism of all its elements: Iran, which has elected a new and promising president; Iraq, where the repercussions of the Syrian crisis are felt most intensely; the peace process, precisely because (Benjamin Netanyahu notwithstanding) this is a moment of opportunity; and Turkey, where Erdogan needs help to stabilize his wobbly administration.

The Syrian crisis is one big event. Little steps like those announced over the weekend are not what is needed. The administration should clearly state its objectives, elucidating what it is willing and unwilling to do—and under what conditions is it willing to take action, diplomatic or military.

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

Image: Flickr/Eliazar Parra Cardenas. CC BY 2.0.