Foreign Affairs: What are we to make of Obama’s recent silence on Syria?
Ever since the Arab Spring uprisings spread to Syria, the White House and various congressional leaders have been calling for regime change, going so far as to state unequivocally that President Bashar al-Assad must be replaced in a future Syrian government. Yet aside from these public calls for the ousting of Assad, the official policy of the United States thus far has stopped short of overt military involvement. Instead, Washington has limited itself to covert support for arms shipments to Syrian rebel groups.
This is a perilous moment. Even as the U.S. State Department begins to work with Russia, President Assad’s most powerful ally, to hold diplomatic talks on Syria, momentum is building among the same politicians who led the charge for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq for American entry into this raging civil war that has cost more than 80,000 lives and driven millions from their homes.
The American people have made their opposition to U.S. intervention in Syria clear. Yet despite significant recent developments in the Syria crisis, President Obama has remained silent, generating questions about his personal commitment to a peaceful resolution.
We note the following recent developments regarding Syria:
- There has been no official U.S. response to the lifting of the arms embargo by the EU on May 28th—a move that followed heavy pressure from the UK and France on fellow member states, and was undoubtedly supported by the U.S. Though London and Paris deny that they intend to send arms to rebel forces immediately, that door is now wide open. In response, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has warned that this decision “…does direct damage to the prospects for convening the international conference.” Russia has now promised delivery of their S-300 surface-to-air missile system to the Syrian government saying that it would help balance and stabilize the region.
- The lifting of the arms embargo by the EU coincides with U.S. Congressional moves to arm rebel forces as well. On May 21st, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee overwhelmingly passed legislation out of Committee that would provide lethal aid and training to “vetted” rebel forces. Soon after, hawkish Senator John McCain traveled to Turkey and Syria to meet with the rebel forces he believes we should be arming, but who openly associate themselves with al Qaeda and who have been charged with kidnapping Lebanese pilgrims.
- Recently 12 members of Syria’s al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front were arrested by Turkish police in Istanbul and in the southern provinces bordering Syria. The Turkish media reported that police recovered four and one-half pounds of sarin, the deadly nerve gas connected to chemical weapons attacks inside Syria, as well as bomb making equipment, handguns, grenades and bullets. While widely reported in the Turkish media, there has been virtually no coverage of this event in American media channels or any response from the Obama administration.
- On May 22nd, the U.S. Senate passed S.Res.65 by a vote of 99-0. This resolution would require the U.S. to back Israel militarily if Israel decides to attack Iran. Israel has already attacked Syria with the apparent tacit approval of the U.S. The overwhelming, and automatic support for Israeli actions is inconsistent with the State Department’s purported calls for diplomacy. Given Israel’s Netanyahu government’s repeated threats to attack Iran, the U.S. risk of being drawn into war with Iran is much heightened.
- Though Iran, as an ally of Syria, has been providing weapons to the Assad regime and is clearly a key player, France has advocated that Iran be denied a seat at the negotiating table during the upcoming peace talks in Geneva, labeling Iran a threat to stability in the region. If Iran is not included in the talks, they will only dig in their heels more deeply in support of Assad.
The bottom line is that by demanding regime change in Syria, the United States is getting itself into a foreign policy quagmire—a situation where there are no “good guys” and where if we align ourselves with the opposition simply because they are anti-Assad, we will be making bedfellows out of the same people we fight as “extremists” and “terrorists” in another geopolitical theater. The excuse of a humanitarian crisis should not be used as justification for another war. As a rule, wars kill more people than they save.
Military intervention, directly or by proxy, will only make a bad situation worse and could launch a horrific war involving a dozen or more countries, including Russia and other significant powers.
If President Obama wants the world to believe that the U.S. firmly supports a diplomatic solution to the Syria conflict, he needs to do more that just say so. He should strongly urge all the key states, including Iran, to come to the negotiating table in Geneva. He should state unequivocally that any U.S. aid would only come in the form of humanitarian aid to refugees and not in weapons or war support. He should twist the arms of war-hungry members of Congress to dissuade them from pushing pro-war legislation, and he should speak out frequently and vehemently in support of talks, negotiation and diplomacy. His lack of definitive leadership down the path of diplomacy casts serious doubt on both his commitment to peace in the region and his capacity to lead.