Time for action on Syria

By Anja Manuel
August 23, 2013

The Syrian civil war now threatens to split the Middle East along a Sunni-Shia chasm. The horrifying news reports Wednesday about the Assad government’s possible chemical attack on civilians, if proven true, mean that the Obama administration’s “red line” has been crossed yet again.

Thursday, both France and Turkey called for stronger action — including a possible use of force. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) renewed his call for a no-fly zone.

But does all this mean that the United States and the European Union will now follow a more assertive policy in Syria?

Sadly, that’s unlikely. For now, the Obama administration is still scrambling to walk back President Barack Obama’s vow from last year about any use of chemical weapons “changing the calculus.” The administration is not likely to become substantially forward-leaning in Syria — no matter what outside pressure is brought to bear.

Their likely reasoning is as follows:

First, Washington seems to have decided that “stability” in Syria — even if that means a continuing, limited civil war — is more important than a decisive victory over President Bashar al-Assad.

Second, the Obama administration is understandably hesitant to side with the rebel groups, which — in part due to U.S. unwillingness to actively assist moderate Syrian elements for the past two years — have become increasingly radicalized.  Al Qaeda-allied extremists now make up a growing segment of the rebel movement, and some groups are reportedly creating “safe havens” within Syria and Iraq, similar to those in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.

Third, the administration believes that U.S. military intervention short of using ground troops is unlikely to lead to the creation of a new post-Assad regime that will be friendly to the United States, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, General Martin Dempsey, recently warned Congress about in a letter.

For these reasons, Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts months ago to arm the rebels were watered down by the administration to such a small level that it has had little impact on the ground.

The international community and Washington have let the Syrian conflict fester for so long that almost no good policy options remain. But continuing our hand-wringing and inaction has a serious cost.

In Syria itself, the longer Assad remains in power, the more violent and sectarian the struggle will become, and the more it will open the door to al Qaeda. It grows ever more unlikely that any moderate regime can succeed him. We are already beginning to see the return of al Qaeda, which was on the ropes in 2008-9 and is now roaring back in both Iraq and Syria. This could be a serious blow to an administration that has made the defeat of al Qaeda a centerpiece of its national security strategy.

Meanwhile, Syria’s sectarian war between Sunnis and Alawite Shi’ites has already spread beyond its borders. The civil war — backed by the Sunni Arab states on one side and Shi’ite Iran/Hezbollah on the other — is massively destabilizing to Iraq. Without the U.S. presence there, the fighting threatens the fragile Baghdad government. It is also spreading chaos into Lebanon, where political violence has been reported; Jordan, which is a long-standing U.S. ally; Saudi Arabia, which has an Shia minority and is in the midst of an unstable royal succession period, and Turkey, which has a restive Kurdish minority.

To prevent this parade of horribles, the United States needs to initiate a more robust policy — but one that still stops short of U.S. ground troops in Syria. Such a policy could prove effective. But it would require the administration to:

  • Massively increase both lethal and non-lethal aid to rebel groups vetted by the U.S. as not allied with al Qaeda or other extremists. Such aid should not include anti-aircraft weapons, which could fall into terrorist hands.
  • Lean heavily on Arab states, such as Qatar, which have actively supported the hard-liner Islamist factions in the Syrian conflict, to stop their counterproductive policy.
  • Make a credible threat to Assad of providing U.S. air support to the Syrian opposition — if that opposition is able to unite. Then work actively toward that end.
  • Significantly step-up diplomacy and increase security aid to Iraq to stop al Qaeda’s resurgence and its efforts to promote sectarian violence there.
  • Increase U.S. intelligence services’ efforts to pry Syrian Alawite business and military leaders away from loyalty to Assad, including offers of amnesty and shelter abroad.

With the death toll in Syria approaching 120,000, the number of Iraqis killed over 10 years of war there, the entire region threatens to be engulfed in a conflict that could have repercussions for at least a generation. The United States and EU can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines and watch this chaos unfold.

One hopes that U.S. military intervention will not be necessary. But if the Obama administration seeks “stability,” a more active policy is necessary now to prevent the need for full intervention.


PHOTO: Sawssan Abdelwahab, who fled Idlib in Syria, walks with her children outside the refugees camp near the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern city of Yayladagi February 16, 2012. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

PHOTO (Insert): President Bashar al-Assad greets the crowd during his visit to Raqqa city in Eastern Syria, November 6, 2011, in this handout photograph. REUTERS/SANA/Handout


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Don’t you mean, time for Syrians to take action in Syria?
How arrogant and presumptuous the author is. Syria has never and will never be our friends. They have nothing we want. Can’t we keep our nose out of other people business for once? Let them spill over into all the Muslim countries and maybe they’ll realize how stupid there religious wars are.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Several groups of terrorists are attacking, killing and committing atrocities against each other. Maybe they will develop stronger animosities against each other and continue to fight each other. Why go over there and give them all a common enemy – us.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

The U.S. has no obligation to anyone in the Middle East. Why does the offer feel we need to invest funds and energy in an area where, regardless of who “wins”, we will be demonized. The Syrians have never been our friends, and never will be.

As for Iraq, they made their own bed when they rejected the SOF agreement. We sacrificed thousands of young

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

lives so the Iraqi’s could enjoy their freedom–resulting in a decision to align with Iran. Now the insurgents within their own country have other designs. They wished for the Americans to leave, now they will suffer the consequences of the decision they have made.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

This is very odd that such an educated person assumes that the problem in Syria is personified in Assad.
Just ask yourself: day one after Assad – what will change?
Ms. Manuel must know that “domino principle” makes things out of control. It is very easy for the U.S. to find itself in waging four wars at the same time:
- in collapsing Iraq;
- in disintegrating Syria;
- in Afghanistan;
- in Iran.
I would expect to read such nonsensical stuff from “Washington Post” editorial board. But not from the former DOS employee.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

President Obama used the word ‘Calculus’ rather than ‘Arithmetic’, perhaps because it makes a better a sound byte, but perhaps also because it is more accurate.

Earlier today, Iran’s foreign minister commented that having nuclear weapons is not in Iran’s national interest because it would endanger Iran. As he spoke, Iran was applying asphalt over an underground nuclear installation. The asphalt would make it more difficult to obtain surveillance information regarding the site from above.

I think President Obama knows Iran’s nuclear ambitions will eventually require some degree of an American military intervention. It remains to be decided how much and when.

There are no “good guys” to assist in Syria, so it’s bad guys killing bad guys and their families. It’s regrettable that the women and children are suffering in this but that is common in war and there is really very little the West can do to change the Syrian situation.

That is why I believe the calculus is more about Assad’s biggest supporter, Iran and less about Syria.

Posted by breezinthru | Report as abusive

This is a fine example of the crackpot notion on humanitarian intervention. Hot tears are cried over the crimes of our official enemies, crimes which in this case are highly speculative, even ridiculous. Why on Earth would Assad use weapons that would draw other powers into the fight? he has plenty of conventional weapons. The author doesn’t even suggest this may have been the rebels themselves, a possibility that turns the argument on its head.

Perhaps Assad is truly that mad. I wouldn’t begin a war on such bald assertion as this, however. This Neo-Liberal warmongering makes me sick. All while we pretend that we must do something because of the horror we see. When our allies commit crimes and massacres we are silent, as history shows.

Beware the notion of Humanitarian Intervention, it is simply a guise for traditional power projection.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

Our forum members agreed that Iran would leave the NPT. It may happen sooner or later.

http://outpost2012.net/discussion/90/ira n-on-the-path-to-an-exclusive-club-the-l egal-aspects-and-realpolitik-#Item_85

No doubt, all scenarios are being considered.
My opinion: there is no viable plan to stop this process. What options are available?
- Use nukes: excluded;
- to conquer Iran: absolutely impossible;
- to normalize the relations with Iran and stop all sanctions: it would work – but too many people/nations are interested it not to happen. Ever.
Thus, we have a nation, Iran, which is surrounded by five states possessing nuclear weapons. Five nations within the radius of 1,000 miles.
We have a nation which is being pushed further and further into the corner.
What do we expect then?

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

this is a horrible tragedy. I do not completely agree with your assessment, I think that helping either side would only cost more lives, the less resources they have, the less they’ll shoot each other. I also don’t think that removing Assad will make Syria a democracy, given the examples of other arab spring countries. We were supporting rebels because we thought their demonstration were ‘democratic’ as described in media, remember? I also think US should stay away because from democratic arab rebels to secreterian radical something something, they got one thing in common, they all really really don’t like us

Posted by barenski | Report as abusive

We have no friends in this fight and at this point no interests (except the cynical one that extremists killing extremists, in uniform or not, is not a bad thing). And a point the author tends to ignore (at our peril) is that there are already too many weapons in this theater, and weapons are both a form of currency and highly portable– to give them to X doesn’t mean that they won’t end up in the hands of Y, and very quickly. More weapons is not a solution. To the contrary, it will only prolong the “war” and the number of dead. And as we didn’t learn from Afghanistan, the arms we give to our “friends” often end up being used by our enemies. Of course, some of them were our friends.

Posted by Glassworld | Report as abusive

The Syrians aren’t our friends. These people where dancing in the streets on 9/11. We don’t owe them anything. They want weapons? Fine. Cash up front. For the record keeping this conflict contained is a million times more important than some softhearted concern for the civilians involved. The West needs to take care of it’s citizens. These guys hate us no matter what we do. They don’t deserve an ouce of blood or even 1$ worth of aid.

Posted by Duffman | Report as abusive

Historically when we go in and prop up a regime, we end up with a corrupt government that does what it can to increase and continue US military and financial support. This happened in Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Iraq and in some ways becuase they have nukes in Pakistan. The puppet governments have no motivation to ever gain full control. Anyway, at some point we need to cut them free, but they keep working to maintain the apparent threats so that the money comes in from the US. Our military industry works it from this end too since it’s also very lucrative for them too. We end up in these quagmires because of the monetary benefits it has for the military industry and the puppet governments. At some point we need to let the world know we are on to the scam. The gas stuff in syria may have also been a fake.

There is some question as to whether it is not in the best interest of humanity if those that kill for religious purposes were allowed to destroy themselves. One might see it as our eventual and necessary evolution. I know that may sound harsh, but I think in the long run if humans remain the victims of fanatical religious leaders espousing death and war for the imaginary man in the sky that they singly have communication with, more people will actually suffer, since the process of pain guilt and punishment that our ministers enjoy so much will never be lifted from our backs.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

This is a UN issue and not for the USA. We fund approximately 30% of the UN. If the UN is useless then why have it? This is in Israel’s back yard. They want to be a world power and have that state, what is Israel going to do about it? What are all the oil barons going to do with their profits? Are they going to help the refugees? Or, will the USA get pressured into spending all our tax dollars in perpetual war, so the oil barons can keep their assets in tact? What about China, don’t they have a big army? Let China do the dirty work, they have built a nasty WAR machine, let them try it out.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

Anja Manuel says:
“The horrifying news reports Wednesday about the Assad government’s possible chemical attack on civilians, if proven true, mean that the Obama administration’s “red line” has been crossed yet again.”

To me, this is despicable propaganda. If there was a gas attack on civilians, then it is the rebels who are highly likely to have perpetrated it. This has already been discussed at great length, and agreed upon by sensible people.

And the use of the work “again”: the red line has been previously crossed, but it was determined to be by the US/Saudi/Qatary-backed insurgents.
US inspector Carla Ponti has already spoken on this: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/0 5/us-syria-crisis-un-idUSBRE94409Z201305 05

What are the consequences of insurgent use of chemical weapons: evidently nothing! Not even considered.

Obviously Ms. Manuel is part of the brainwashed or sold out war-mongering class of America.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

Leave Syria alone! It is time for the western governments to understand that they are helping Islamic fundamental forces by weakening Syrian government. For more than 15 years US was involved in Iraq. Has anything improved over there?? For more than 30 years, US was seeking friendship with Pakistan, and can a US citizen walk freely through Pakistan’s streets??
Yes, US and the western economies must stop helping the Muslim nations. They are no good. They will only vote for their religion. They are fanatics who want to drape the whole world with green flags and convert everyone into their thinking. Democracy will never ever work with a Muslim!!

Posted by Abreaham_1 | Report as abusive

She has no understanding of war. She says we need to get involved so as to prevent full involvement. Her argument is bogus.

After a long series of failures in places like Iraq, Libya, Mali, and Afghansitan, she recommends one more occupation to solve the world’s problems. Those other wars have amounted to a clownshow of foreign policy and a carnival of blood. All have been a disgrace to the history of our nation.

Every American needs to stand up and say we are not going to allow our soldiers, marines, and airmen to go get blown up for no reason in a conflict with no clear end and no clear goal. Moreover, fighting shoulder to shoulder with al Qaeda in Syria is completely nuts, and letting aid make its way to al Qaeda is also 100% looneytoons. Something is rotten in the State of Cash Bonanza ladies and gentlemen. For us to even talk about getting involved in such a foolish endeavor amounts to a sad comment on how badly the US war machine and its voices want to be fed again.

Posted by Cleveland2012 | Report as abusive

Anja — I find your suggestions on Syria unwise, and counter to what recent history has taught us. Perhaps emotion is clouding your reasoning. America’s Foreign Policy is founded on centuries old solutions which are inadequate to this 21st Century. When that policy changes, global terrorism will become a mere shadow of what it has been.

i.e. Starving nations into submission with Sanctions (siege) simply kills hundreds of thousands of children, as occurred in Iraq.

America needs to rethink its’ attempting to provide security through military colonies in distant lands. Wars have no borders in this 21st Century as 9/11 and other events demonstrate.

Posted by whoisit | Report as abusive

“The Syrian civil war now threatens to split the Middle East along a Sunni-Shia chasm.”

Uh, this may be a huge surprise to the author, but this chasm has been causing conflict for hundreds of years all across the Middle East. Do you remember our adventurism in Iraq when the neo-cons promised that the Iraqis would welcome our soldiers with open arms and hearts? Do you remember Moqtada al Sadr, the cleric who ran a deadly militia who went off to Iran for a few years for a “spiritual retreat”, but came back with more ways to kill people with his revived militia?

Don’t be so ignorant. The United States cannot solve this long-running conflict through military intervention. It’s going to take decades before these battling factions of Islam come to a resolution. In the meantime, a few thousand terrorists take advantage of the situation to get the two things they most desire:
â—Ź Attention
â—Ź Getting the United States to shiver in fear, wasting valuable time and resources on futile efforts to stem the tide of violence
The terrorists have won the War on Terror a long time ago and we’re still not learning. WE are feeding them!!!

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Forgot to add:
The number of terrorists worldwide has increased significantly since US involvement. We’re not only failing in the War on Terrorism, we’re making it worse! On top of that, we’re losing the hearts and minds of people who are on the edge. Just look at Egypt – both sides are anti-American.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

I nominate Anja Manuel for the annual Naïveté Award and Condeleeza Rice second. What a combination!

Back to Iraq?! You’ve got to be kidding!
A No-Fly Zone?! You’ve got to be kidding!
Aid to the Rebels who aren’t infiltrated by al Qaeda?! You’ve got to be kidding!
Send in the clowns!

It’s obvious who’s agenda is being pushed here – the American arms manufacturers, the same ones who get most of the Egyptian “foreign aid”.
THE PLUTOCRACY RULES ! ! Long live the One Percenters!

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Since neither side are good guys (the rebels have a lot Jihadists (who would do things like 9-11). Interfering has no gain unless we plan stay and change their ideologies (run their schools and pulpits). When both sides in a war are dangerous evil to only two logical choices short reeducation are to do nothing or sell the losing side just enough weapons to make things a draw until the population get sick of violent people and ideas or vote with their feet.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

If 100,000 “conventional” casualties weren’t enough to warrant our involvement, then 1,000 CW casualties aren’t, either. Dead people are dead people. If the author is so hot to intervene, SHE can get a gun herself and go over there, but I doubt that will be happening- it’s so much easier to put our enlisted men and women in harm’s way for the sake of your stupid geopolitical games than to exercise any semblance of restraint. I’m glad that this time around, it seems that the American people are not tolerating this interventionist trash and will continue to ignore people like this who don’t understand we have nothing to gain and much to lose by involving ourselves in conflicts that are none of our business. No aid to Al-Qaeda addled rebels, no aid to tyrants and dictators. Cut them all off.

Posted by ShiroiKarasu | Report as abusive

Shocking comments.

Q: Who funded and is funding all those dictators in the Middle East?
A: the USA

Q: why do/did they do that?
A: to maintain the strategic dominance over the #1 energy source

Q: who started the conflict in Syria?
A: a bunch of mercenary soldiers funded by Saudi Arabia/USA

Q: is Assad a complete idiot starting chemical attacks right before the eyes of UN inspectors?
A: no he’s not

Q: what is the whole thing about?
A: to isolate Iran from the west, esp. Lebanon and Israel

Posted by blattmacher1984 | Report as abusive

Perhaps the smiling (or is it smirking?) Anja Manuel has a son or daughter to offer in sacrifice for this noble cause?

Or maybe she’s an middle-aged Amazon?

Why does Reuters and other outlets give these war mongers a platform in the first place?

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive

Because the Plutocracy, the One Percenters Club, stand to gain big time as long as American-manufactured arms – paid for by American taxpayers – keep flowing into areas of conflict. That’s one of the reasons why these conflicts go on and on. The United States with its corrupt Congress has a vested interest in promoting conflict, not peace. It’s good for business and lines the pockets of the filty rich.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

The world community has always looked to the United States to help resolve conflicts such as the one now in Syria but the fact is there is an organization called the United Nations which was charged with this responsibility many years ago. It however has never been effective in the role of the peacekeeper of the world. China and Russia have seen to this fact which brings us back again to the U.S. role in Syria. The sad answer is we cannot afford to intervene and simply because we now have one military foot firmly planted in Iraq and the other foot stuck in Afghanistan. The United States cannot afford another military campaign – either in manpower requirements or the money necessary to fund it.

Posted by joe10082 | Report as abusive

Joe, you may be wrong. The US was not invited by the Afghans and Iraqis. The UN never mandated such military invasion or intervention.

ptiffany could be right.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive

I’m also surprised that the author is so quick to jump to conclusions and call for war.
There’s absolutely no evidence that the alleged attack was carried out by Assad government. Moreover the existing evidence (and motives) is pointing towards so called “rebels” and their sponsors who want the invasion to occur.

Previously the “rebels” made attempts to stage chemical attacks. On May 30, several Al-Nusra/Al-Quaeda members have been caught in Turkey while trying to smuggle sarin gas into Syria.

Posted by dmit77 | Report as abusive

The problem with all these idiots that’s calling for intervention is that none of them are jumping in line to go to the front lines. I think that those who proposed to overthrow Assad perhaps did not understand or anticipated that people will die. This is the way things work. People die and if you are honest with those who you ask to follow you,and tell them exactly what to expect, you are just as responsible for the death of these thousands of innocent people as anyone else.

Posted by quixxote | Report as abusive

Here’s to success for both sides!

Posted by Dr_Steve | Report as abusive

what about the US gov’t use of UN-prohibited chemical weapons on its own citizens in waco, texas? when the US crossed that red line should other nations have invaded us and done a regime change?

Posted by prolibertate | Report as abusive

Second chemical weapons attack?
What this one wasn’t perpetrated by the rebels as well?
Or are we still trying to discredit the last UN inspectors who said it was the rebels and not Assad’s forces?
This is just another “Sadam has WMDS” scenario. False flag for profits.

Posted by KimJonUn | Report as abusive

The best option in this tragic civil war is to have an immediate full UN debate with a mandate to impose a peacekeeping solution.

Unilateral action by the US /Nato etc is likely to inflame the situation locally in Syria and internationally.
The Russians are correct in their assertion that emotion does not equal logical analysis.

Everybody is rightfully horrified at events in Syria but unilateral intervention without proper UN authorization is a green light to other powers in the region to also act.

The dangers of regional national warfare escalation are enormous.

Only the UN can prevent this and the superpower leaders are not taking their responsibilities seriously enough in this regard.

Posted by Malachy | Report as abusive

The enemy of your enemy is not your friend. In this situation just someone else to kill.

Posted by trytobenice | Report as abusive

This woman is a Bush Administration left over.

Ofcourse she wants war. She wants to remove Assad to bring Al-Qaeda into power, just like we are doing in Afghanistan right now!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

@Malachy Really? Has something changed in the last 65 years? The UN is nothing but a country club that exists solely on the generosity of the U.S. It has zero ability to do anything. And with the Russians supporting Assad (they will notify Assad as soon as the first missile launches and fire-up all of their Russian-made defense resources), how do you propose anything, even a condemnation letter or reprimand (as worthless as they are), would make it through the assembly without the Russians vetoing it?

The only alternative is to let the Syrians kill one another, and a bunch of Islamists along the way. Perhaps at some point they will see the futility in their efforts, but I wouldn’t bet on it; as it is very difficult to reason with ignorance and zealots.

I am tired of our 19 year olds coming home in body bags because we have some obligation to change centuries-old thinking (or lack thereof). Leave them to their own designs, and maybe, just maybe, one Muslim (two would be asking too much) might acknowledge the futility of their actions. Again, even Vegas won’t take that bet.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive


.Despite the shortcomings of the UN, please remember that it is all that stops the world from being torn asunder by national interests.

International UN peacekeeping has a critical role to play and I disagree with your criticism that it has no role to play or zero ability.

None of the permanent security council members wants the Syrian civil war to continue and possibly Balkanize the region.

Were that to happen the biggest losers would be the USA, who would also be blamed for either triggering or not preventing such a horrendous outcome.[the lose lose option]

Hopefully the Syrian government will now see that the only sensible option is establish a ceasefire & request an international UN peacekeeping force immediately with a view to a future settlement.

I agree its tempting to stand back and say let them fight it out but is that the right or responsible thing to do when powerful nations have the means to help bring peace and end civil wars in which thousands are dying.?

Posted by Malachy | Report as abusive

“Peace among nations is not good for the weapons trade”. Who will benefit from another war? The weapons trade, the MIC -

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

Glancing through the reader comments every one is opposed to intervention. It shows how the public consensus has moved away from the sophists.

Posted by theoligarch.com | Report as abusive

[…] In a column last summer, I argued that the administration had two reasonable policy options. Both were far short of air strikes or U.S. ground troops in Syria or Iraq: […]