Syria demands a new policy

February 21, 2013

Typhoid and hepatitis outbreaks are spreading. An estimated 70,000 people are dead, and another 850,000 are refugees. After covering the battle for Damascus for a month, my colleague – photographer Goran Tomasevic – declared the situation a “bloody stalemate” this week.

“I watched both sides mount assaults, some trying to gain just a house or two, others for bigger prizes, only to be forced back by sharpshooters, mortars or sprays of machine-gun fire,” Tomasevic, a gifted and brave photographer, wrote in a chilling first-hand account. “As in the ruins of Beirut, Sarajevo or Stalingrad, it is a sniper’s war.”

The Obama administration’s policy toward Syria is a failure. Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are funneling more aid, armaments and diplomatic cover to Bashar al-Assad. And Syrian rebels who once hailed the United States now loathe it.

Across the country, pro-Assad forces use airplanes, Scud ballistic missiles and artillery to level rebel controlled neighborhoods. While Syrian insurgents fight with the tragi-comic “D.I.Y. weapons” displayed in this Atlantic slide show.

In an incisive essay published this week in the London Review of Books, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, a journalist with the Guardian, described the continued atomization of the Syrian opposition. Abdul-Ahad, an Iraqi who covered the dissolution of his own nation, freely admits that “we in the Middle East have always had a strong appetite for factionalism.” But then he delivers a damning description of how prevarication in Washington creates deepening anti-Americanism among the rebels.

“Why are the Americans doing this to us?” one rebel commander demands. “They told us they wouldn’t send us weapons until we united. So we united in Doha. Now what’s their excuse?”

In the meantime, hard-line jihadists and their funders in the Persian Gulf are filling the void.

“Maybe we should all become jihadis,” the exasperated commander declares. “Maybe then we’ll get money and support.”

The time has come for the Obama administration to mount a new policy in Syria. But don’t expect one anytime soon.

In an interview on Thursday, a senior administration official played down a report in the The New York Times Monday that President Barack Obama might reconsider arming Syria’s opposition. The official confirmed that Obama rejected a proposal last year from four of his top national security advisers that the U.S. arm the rebels.

But he said a subsequent review by American intelligence officials had concluded that only a large infusion of sophisticated weaponry would tip the military balance against the Assad regime.

“We have to assess what it would take to change the calculus,” the official said, “and hasten the transition.”

Repeating prior arguments, the official said the administration opposed supplying the rebels with anti-aircraft missiles out of concern that the weapons could fall into the hands of jihadists.

“God forbid a U.S. weapon be used to strike an Israeli passenger plane or land in Israel,”  said the official, who asked not to be named.

The problem, though, is that jihadists are becoming the most influential and well-armed insurgents in Syria. The London Review of Books essay, “How to Start a Battalion in Five Easy Lessons,” begins with a description of a rebel commander withdrawing his fighters from an important rebel defensive position in Aleppo because a donor in the Gulf is willing to provide him with more funds and weapons.

“He says he will pay for our ammunition and we get to keep all the spoils of the fighting,” the rebel commander says. “We just have to supply him with videos.”

Meanwhile, assistance to the Assad regime is growing. A New Yorker piece published this week detailed stepped-up military aid from Hezbollah.

“If Bashar goes down,” one Hezbollah commander told the magazine, “we’re next.”

And the White House official called the extent of Iranian assistance to Assad “stunning.”

“They are all in,” the official said. “They are doing everything they can to support the Assad regime and putting in enormous amounts of arms and individuals.”

Why, then, isn’t the United States even partly in?

In the London Review piece, rebels complained that the United States was blocking countries in the region from providing sophisticated antiaircraft and antitank missiles to them. The White House official denied that was true, said the armed opposition remained deeply divided and the situation was confused on the ground.

He said the administration was trying to learn from the past, particularly Iraq.

“The United States has a long history of picking winners and losers based on the guy who speaks English well,” the official said. “It’s just trying to learn the lessons and be humble. We don’t have perfect visibility into the situation. Interjecting that forcefully in an armed way has huge risk.”

Learning is important, but the current approach is failing. Our fear of inadvertently arming jihadists is paralyzing our efforts and limiting out options. There are no simple solutions in Syria but we are missing a strategic opportunity to weaken Iran and Hezbollah.

If we do not wish to arm groups ourselves, we should allow Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to fully do so. Supplying rebels with sophisticated anti-tank missiles and other conventional weapons, not surface-to-air missiles, could help turn the tide. And if we are serious about a diplomatic effort, we must redouble our efforts instead of deferring yet again to false Russian promises.

Two years after the uprising began as a non-violent protest movement, the death toll in Syria is approaching the roughly 100,00o dead of Iraq and Bosnia. While it may not have a political cost in Washington, the White House is sending a clear message across the Middle East: American and Israeli lives matter, not Syrian ones. The figure is 70,000 and counting. That number will come back to haunt us.

PHOTO: Fighters from the Free Syrian Army’s Tahrir al Sham brigade use a shotgun to fire an improvised grenade at Syrian Army soldiers in the Arabeen neigbourhood of Damascus February 9, 2013. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

This opinion piece is a lot of hand waving & no substance. “Syria demands a new policy”? OK, and what do you propose? I only hear a lot of rhetoric, and one ambiguous suggestion: “…that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar should sort out a confusing situation on the ground.” This whole situation is a complex mess with no easy solutions, and the fact that the rebel movement is a patchwork of fighting factions, with known terrorist groups like Al-Nusrah Front in their ranks doesn’t help. To over-simplify this situation, point the finger at the US government, and then pull the “Israel” card is the best you can do? Ridiculous. Besides, the Syrian Rebels can’t decide if they want our (The U.S.) help or not anyways (plenty of previous reports corroborate this). This is a war between Islamic/tribal groups & it is not our (The U.S.’s) battle.

Posted by AgeofNoReason | Report as abusive

Why isn’t the Obama Administration supporting the Syrian rebels with decent arms since Hizbollah seem to be a common enemy of the US, and Israel?

Posted by Peace_For_All | Report as abusive

Pox Americana’s pile of dead bodies in the Middle East over the last twenty years dwarfs anybody else’s so spare us the crocodile tears and just get on with your latest round of bloodletting.

Posted by ToshiroMifune | Report as abusive

Sorry, but we in the U.S. should leave the Syrian civil war to find its own outcome. Either way, they hate the U.S. Arming the rebels is tantamount to engaging the Iranians and the Russians in war. Stay out and stay put.

Posted by Sarasota | Report as abusive

So now they blame the US and Israel? I think we know how this will end. We need to stay out.

Posted by DavidS95 | Report as abusive

I think the best way to help the Syrian rebels is for people like David Rohde to grab a gun and go help them fight or sell everything he owns to give money to the rebels.
Tough talkers are never the ones who run the risks or do the fighting.
So we arm the rebels, we know Al Qaeda is with them, then Al Qaeda has advanced weapons to kill Americans around the world.
Brilliant David!
By the way, who is the US to decide who can or cannot rule another country? The majority of Syrians are against the rebels.
Thank you Mr. President for having a brain.

Posted by americanguy | Report as abusive

A mind like this wins two Pulitzer prizes?

Support from the US inherently deligitimizes anyone faction in this war. No one can come to power with American backing. Is that difficult to understand?

Something tells me this writer would have pressed us to get involved in Vietnam back in the day. American involvement in a national civil war of any nation — much less a Muslim nation that has never had the slightest past relationship with us — is simply insane. Yes, David, the death of even a single American means more to me than the death of any number of Syrians. Just as a Syrian cares more about a death of a single Syrian than any number of American deaths. That what it means to be part of a nationality. We owe these people no blood, and they don’t want it, despite the quotes you manage to generate.

I wonder what the sentiments of these deserving Syrians were on 9/11? Something tells me that they applauded our misery, like 90 plus percent of the Muslim Middle East.

Posted by From_California | Report as abusive

Pure “spin.” We help Assad, we are helping a dictator. We help the rebels, we are helping the Islamists. Whom do you support? Atilla the Hun or Vlad the Impaler? OR, stay out and let them kill each other as they’ve been doing for over 2000 years.

Posted by chekovmerlin | Report as abusive

Syria DEMANDS a new policy? Syria DEMANDS? You jest.

Posted by chekovmerlin | Report as abusive

David Rohde- i would be ashamed for this article considering your low level of professionalism displayed here. Where is the objectivity? what is wrong with you as a journalist that you do not see how civilians are getting killed every day by terrorists the west and arabs alike finance….What kind of decent weapons you write about that the terrorists need? your article and your work is even more pathetic and biased after todays terror attack in Damascus….By the way Reuters forgot to write a big fancy article about it because civilians were killed…what a low life journalism….

Posted by wiymotive | Report as abusive

Mr. Rohde says:
“And we are missing a strategic opportunity to weaken Iran and Hezbollah.”

And I ask, why would be want to weaken Iran and Hezbollah???

After all, Iran appears to be as much of a democracy as American is: Elected representatives ruled from above. Except they have a ruling class led by Ayatollah Kamenei, an identifiable man with some morals, for example, no nuclear weapons.

And we Americans are led by an unidentifiable 0.01 percent who have bought out our elected representatives, our media, Hollywood, and have the most advanced means to tell us what to think. Plus, they have lead our economy into the dumps (except for the 0.01% continues to progress). Plus, a military working for this 0.01 percent which is exerting hegemony over as much as possible of the whole world, and which we are forced to pay for.. And they want more of our money to spend on over-seas operations, even when we are getting near to being broke. People are losing their jobs, and their self-respect in our country, because of the scams of the 0.01%.

And Hezbollah: twice kicked the invading, land usurping Israelis out of Lebanon. I mean, who wouldn’t support such protectors of the Lebanese people? (Answer: Zionist land-grabbers, their brain-washed supporters, and other carpet-baggers.)

I’d say: US keep out of Syria. Also, keep our Arab dictator buddies out of Syria. There was the beginning of a democracy movement in Syria, then it was clearly usurped by the criminals, mercenaries, desperate young men (thugs) trying to make a buck, and zealots, all supported by Saudis, Emirates, and Turkey (probably sucked in by the West). We should support Assad, the government of Syria (not some Western made-up group), and seek to persuade him to loosen up on democracy; certainly he would be ready for it by now. This is what we would do if we really cared for Syrians, and for peace.

Not to mention that Russia and China are clearly coming out as the good guys in the Middle East. While we cling to our oil sheiks. Yes, I’d say President Obama could be doing a lot worse in the ME, for example, sticking with Mubarak to the bitter end. But Egyptian spring was clearly a people movement, whereas the Syrian democracy was immediately usurped by the ME power mongers and we have no way of knowing really what Assad would have done. 70,000 deaths without the outside involvement, seems extremely unlikely.

Iran and Hezbollah, along with Russia and China, seem to be the sensible people in this game. We should be working with them for democracy in Syria, not against them.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

Its amazing how pathetic “reporters” are these days. Reuters and indepth analysis are strangers these days.

Posted by diddums | Report as abusive

When the uprising started in Syria, it was initiated by some intellectuals and young people who expressed legitimate demands. The peaceful and legitimate uprising was immediately hijacked by Qatar and Turkey. Both countries recruited, trained, and armed extremists and get them into Syria. Now, Syria is a farm and training ground for terrorists from all over.
Today, the Saudi Newspaper Al Sharq al awasat reported that the Prince of Caucasus Region (an extremist group who are engaged in various terroristic activities) along with many hard line extremists have joined the fighters in Syria. In addition, other fighter groups in Syria announced yesterday that fighters from Saudi Arabia, Gaza, and Libya were killed.
Those who call for arming extremists and send weapons to them are partners of the widespread destruction and bloodshed that Syria is experiencing. History will not forgive terrorists or those who help them to transfer a beautiful country into ghost towns and broken and homeless families. Terrorism is a menace to civilization and must not be supported because Israel does not like the regime in Syria.

Posted by JohnGlobe | Report as abusive

“Why, then, isn’t the United States even partly in?”

oh how soon we forget….. or how soon they hoped we’d forget.

it was just 8 months ago that Reuters ran this story 1/us-usa-syria-obama-order-idUSBRE8701OK 20120801

clearly stating that the us president had already earlier signed a secret order for the CIA and other US agencies to help the “rebels” with a regime change.

and and lets face it, this is a wet dream for the US. they’ve got al Qaeda fighting Hezbollah, Iran and Syria in Syria. in their eyes how could it get any better, they’ve got their hated enemies fighting their other hated enemies in a country they don’t care about.

and if tens of thousands of innocent civilians have to die in the process, that’s just the price of “democracy”

Posted by westernshame | Report as abusive

I have a much better idea than any of Rohde’s. Let’s just stay the hell out of it. God forbid there should be a war anywhere in the world and we aren’t in the thick of it! We don’t need any more Middle East problems, not with an albatross like Israel around our necks

Posted by Shamizar | Report as abusive

In Afghanistan the Taliban has at some times controlled most of the country and it might well win when the US leaves. Yet according to opinion polls its popularity is some 6 to 8 percent. The key to its success: support from outside.

Similarly Turkish, Saudi and Qatari support have made the Syrian opposition bigger than it really is. In fact support for Assad and the rebels is about equal.

To solve the conflict Syria needs a real dialogue: 02/peace-in-syria-how-it-can-be-done.htm l

Posted by musicmouse | Report as abusive

“The problem, though, is that jihadists are becoming the most influential and well-armed insurgents in Syria”

How if no one is giving them weapons? And they’re influencing no one but western journos.

For this journalist and others Syria is some kind of killing experiment. Just send more weapons(to terrorists) they advocate. For what? They know rebels will never defeat the Syrian army. They just want bloodshed. Somehow they think this will weaken Hezbollah and Iran.

Syria DEMANDS get away!!!

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

A tip of the hat for all the commentors here who called out the racist, barbarian, inhumane call to arm of this nutty journalist.
Syria is my country, keep your filthy hands off it, you Saudi, Qatari, Israeli supporter Rhode! What are saying? These are democracies we should be imitating?
Some crazy whacks work at Reuters…

Posted by mcanterel | Report as abusive

You state “Obama Sending Wrong Message on Syrian Lives”. How about Obama’s message on Palestinian lives?? Non-existent. No value. No importance. No word.

Posted by RamziJaber | Report as abusive

Mr,David Rohde you are out of your feeble mind, the way to peace is non violence, not arming thugs. You are a very bad journalist.

Posted by azereta | Report as abusive