On Syria, it’s time for Obama to decide

By Ian Bremmer
May 9, 2013

Through two years of Syrian crisis, the Obama administration has cautiously dragged its feet as the United States is further enmeshed in the conflict. That’s a sensible platform at home, with opinion polls showing that Americans don’t think the country has a responsibility to intervene. It has strategic merit, too, given that intervention against Bashar al-Assad is an implicit endorsement of a largely unknown opposition force with radical, sectarian factions. 

But the status quo in Syria is breaking down, and Obama’s worst option is to kick the can as the United States inexorably gets dragged deeper into the conflict. It may be politically painful, but it’s time to make a choice: Go all in with a no fly zone — or avoid anything more than diplomatic intervention and humanitarian/non-lethal aid. Here’s why.

Until recently, Obama’s strategy of hesitance and risk aversion was commendable and well executed. As the situation worsened, the United States took minimal, reactionary steps. First, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to put together a formal — and reasonably liberal — Syrian political opposition, but it quickly fragmented because it had no workable ties to the actual rebels doing the actual fighting. Then the United States turned to non-lethal aid for the rebels (including defensive military equipment) as well as supporting Qatar and other countries through intelligence and logistics. Furthermore, in August 2012, Obama drew a “red line” at “chemical weapons moving around or being utilized” by the regime. At the time, it seemed unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon.

A lot has changed in the past few weeks, which have been the most turbulent since the crisis began two years ago. Reports that Assad may have deployed chemical weapons have become too loud to ignore (along with conflicting assertions that the rebels may also have done so). The violence is intensifying, with reports of civilian slaughters at the hands of the government. Israel conducted two direct military strikes against Iranian missile supplies on Syrian soil. The refugee crisis continues to deteriorate, with more than a million people occupying ramshackle camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Meanwhile, Assad is consolidating his military advantage.

Ugly as the situation was, it’s now much uglier — and faster-moving.

And so it appears the United States is slipping deeper into the fray. This week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel became the first senior official in the administration to say “arming the rebels — that’s an option.” Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced legislation that would provide weapons to the Syrian opposition. The committee’s ranking member, Bob Corker, said, “I think that we will be arming the opposition shortly … We are doing a lot more there on the ground than really is known.”

All of this means the calculus is no longer what it was a year ago, or even six months ago — but Obama is using the same reluctant tactics of minimal engagement. As it became clear that Assad may have crossed his “red line,” Obama simply redrew it, saying the “systematic use” of chemical weapons was the new line in the sand. But the current policy is a one-way street: The United States is only becoming more deeply involved, arming rebels who may or may not be better stewards of a country riven with sectarian conflict.

Offering arms to the rebels doesn’t solve Syria’s problems. It certainly doesn’t decrease the bloodshed — in the near term, it will almost assuredly do the opposite — and it is bad policy for the United States, for two reasons. First, the United States would be arming a largely unknown opposition force, and once it offers military aid, it will increasingly be attached to the rebels — and to any atrocities they commit before or after toppling Assad. Ultimately, if the rebels are able to defeat Assad, the war’s legacy will leave sectarian warlords grappling for power, keeping the country violent and volatile going forward.

Second, what if the rebels lose? In the past few weeks, Assad has been consolidating his military position and regaining the edge in the civil war. The Iranians have been arming the regime. A rebel victory will thus be bloodier — and more unlikely. Once the United States arms the rebels, it’s an implicit backstop: Should the rebels require a no-fly zone down the road, the United States would feel political pressure to provide it. The United States would have to assume whatever cost is necessary to keep the rebels afloat. 

So what should the United States do? It should recognize where things are heading and take decisive action — one way or the other — as soon as possible. Delays and incremental steps toward military intervention cost lives and undermine the eventual strategy that the United States chooses to pursue. It’s time to pull back or dive in.

The first option is difficult to navigate politically but has its merits. Obama could announce that the United States will not take sides in the war — America won’t support the rebels, just like it won’t support Assad — and it will focus on humanitarian and diplomatic efforts. Obama could assert that while a humanitarian crisis that has resulted in more than 70,000 deaths is atrocious, the United States does not have the resources, authority or direct security interests necessary to take sides or engage militarily to keep the peace. The United States would essentially take a backseat and glue itself to the chair — a “risk repulsion” strategy as opposed to the risk aversion that Obama has been practicing — but it would keep up diplomatic pressure (however ineffective it might prove to be). That means more initiatives like Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Moscow. He has spent the week trying to persuade Russian officials to convene an international conference on Syria’s future. In Russia, the United States dropped its hard line on Assad, not stipulating to the Russians that Assad has to go. In return, the Russians have shied away from their platform that Assad has to stay.

The drawback to this strategy is that it will likely prove ineffectual, and the humanitarian disaster in Syria will worsen. But our current trajectory has the same two drawbacks — and this approach will keep America out of direct military engagement. 

The second option is more violent, more expansive and more dangerous, but it’s safer in the long term for Americans and can be more productive for Syrians: The United States could bomb Assad’s anti-aircraft defenses to set up a no-fly zone over Syria.

Imposing the no-fly zone is going to take allies, just like it did in Libya. Obama will have to assemble a coalition of the willing, including partners such as Britain, France, Canada, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The pitch is simple: The no-fly zone will (hopefully) impede much of the violence that the regime’s air force can inflict on the rebels. It would help create the conditions for a cease-fire once that imminent threat against the rebels is removed. That, in turn, would allow for a massive humanitarian intervention, including military troops on the ground to separate the regime from the rebels. With some semblance of economic normalcy restored, the refugees can move back, localized governments can be established and the regional crisis can be limited even while Syria’s crisis continues.

We are, of course, a long way from all of this working. A no-fly zone will likely anger the Russians, the Iraqis and the Iranians — though it’s unclear how much Washington need care about the last. It’ll also be expensive and put Americans in harm’s way. It’s incredibly messy, expensive and it’s no panacea.

But it will allow America to dictate the terms in which it enters the fray — and not to take sides. It will mean bombing Assad’s defenses, yes, but it will do it for humanitarian reasons, not, at least ostensibly, to help install the rebels. You can make a case that attacking Assad’s defenses is tantamount to supporting the rebels, but you could also claim that pushing for a cease-fire is tantamount to letting Assad remain in power. The no-fly zone is an attempt at neutralizing the damage that both sides can inflict on the other, while allowing governance and refugees to return to Syria. 

Clearly, the reason the Syria decision is so difficult is because there’s no right answer. There are only bad and worse choices. Today, the worst choice is unfortunately the most politically expedient: continuing with the current trajectory. More people die in the interim, and when the United States wakes up to find itself mired in direct involvement, it will be too late to pull out — or to coordinate its military engagement in an optimal, predetermined manner. Its intervention will be piecemeal, inefficient and leave all parties worse off. 

For the United States, the Syrian crisis has come to an inflection point. This was not the case just six months ago, but it is apparent now. America has a hard choice to make: Say no to arming the rebels or yes to deeper military engagement. Unfortunately, inaction is the simplest path forward — and the worst one of all.

This column is based in part on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

PHOTO: A torn picture of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is seen on a government building in Raqqa province, east Syria May 8, 2013. REUTERS/Hamid Khatib

13 comments

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 http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

The best choice for America is the “worst” choice – inaction!Involvement in a third war will injure America even more financially and in Lives lost needlessly. The history of past and ongoing wars should be observed first and its lessons for those who disregard it.

Posted by joe10082 | Report as abusive

So it’s once again “Bomb ‘em to democracy” warspeech? Are stepping on rake became custom for americans?

Aid Osama in Afghanistan, then find that he’s your enemy #1. Kill him – and pretend that his faithful students are “liberty fighters” again – (‘cept in Afghanistan).
Arm Saddam with chemical weapons, then kill over million arabs over it.
Let fanatics ransake Libya – and still don’t understand who’s attaked your embassy there.
Spend on wars such money that combined cost of ITER and new Lunar Program would look like pocket change…and cry that not-your-sattelites are warmongers.

«Quos Deus perdere vult dementat prius»
Aren’t you mad?

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

Warmongers have been hiding for over two years and now are coming out with bellicose rethorics because the mercenary army of religious fanatics and terrorists they sent in Syria is falling apart. It would be really dumb for the US to repeat the bitter experience of the 80′s in that region.

“Assad is consolidating his military advantage.”

That’s why you want the US to intervene. What wrong with Syria using whatever advantage it has against an armed insurgency backed by the US, France, GB, Saud Arabia, Turkey and Qatar?

Did you really expected that the ragtag army of mercenaries and terrorists would defeat the Syrian army?

What did you expect the Syrian army to do? Great insurgents and terrorists with flowers while they were randomly destroying the country and killing innocent civilians?

The Syrian government did exactly what the US government would’ve(and has) done against an internal insurection.

Another argument to consider is this. If Russia sends troops in Syria would the US still be in a rush to intervene? Why should the US intervene in Syria, a country with which it has had no meaningful interaction and not Rusiia, a contry that’s been Syria’s ally for decades?

The world doesn’t deserve another killing expedition in the Middle east by US.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

So, Mr Bremmer, is your son or daughter to be deployed in the first phase? Journalists and politicians are always the first to send “other peoples kids” into the harms way while their children are playing “world at war” and “urban combat” videos at some high rent college.

The best thing for the U.S. to do is observe. Let the Russians, Turks, Saudi’s etal manage their problem. There is no strategic interest that would cause the U.S. to get actively involved.

Humanitarian reasons? Not a chance. We ignored the Assad’s (father and son) for 50 years while they butchered and oppressed their population, but you think we should now get involved? We did literally NOTHING while the Syrians provided arms and technology to the Muslim insurgents during the Iraq war killing our military, but now we have some (moral?) obligation to get involved in a civil war? Politics ruled the day, handcuffing our soldiers and Marines on the ground. But now we are concerned about the “humanitarian issues”? So a Syrian citizen demands protection, while we would not do everything necessary to protect our military on the ground. I will call B.S. on that!

This is a tribal country, influenced by the various forms of Islam who are now back to killing one another like they have done for the past 1,00 years. Leave them to their own designs. Allow them to cast their lot with Iranians if that is what they want to do. They will preach their hate against the “great satan” regardless. That’s much easier than looking in the mirror.

So, tell me again, what’s in it for us?

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

One thing Mr. Bremmer is not mentioning, and no Western Journalist is mentioning, is what Syria would do to retaliate. If the Syrian Government felt it is going down, they will just shoot at Isreal, maybe even with Chemical Weapons. If they feel they are losing and will die, they will take their enemies down with them.

Remember, Isreal is next door. You do not need very sofisticated weapons to achieve such a goal.

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

Bombing Assad’s defenses for humanitarian purposes? Is that taken right out of a military book of phrases, like destroying a village to save it during the Vietnam war?

If is always interesting that those who think a no-fly zone is a peace of cake also say no boots on the ground, and then when boots on the ground are needed, fade into the background until the next time.

And is Libya now a paradise of security and peace? Not that I am aware of.

Yes, Assad could be destroyed, and then Syria will deteriorate into a worse factional civil war, along the lines of what happened in Iraq when Saddam was eliminated.

The Alawites, if offered a place in a future Syria, could be a partner in a new Syria, and involve Russia, which must have a say for anything to work.

It is so sickening to listen to the beat of the drums for more US involvement, this time in a civil war. I realize for some Senators, it has been a long time since the US started involvement in a new war but Syria is not the excuse.

If numbers of deaths mattered, there is the Congo. Some 5.4 million people died between August 1998 and April 2007 from violence and war-related hunger and illness, according to studies by U.S.-based aid agency International Rescue Committee (IRC) And the killing still goes on. The number of internally displaced people increased from 1.7 million in December 2011 to more than 2.6 million in January 2013.

But then, the Congo is not in Israel’s neighborhood.

Posted by pavoter1946 | Report as abusive

After careful reading, this article makes a very strong case for maintaining the status quo of United States involvement. All of the reasons for non-escalation have now become abundantly clear to everyone except the knee-jerk warmongers, most of whom profit from conflicts.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

It seems Obama has already chosen to remain uninvolved, he just doesn’t want to say that he is unwilling to take serious action to stop the slaughter of civilians.

Posted by agsocrates | Report as abusive

How can anyone with even the slightest of pretensions to believing in representative government advocate war in Syria? It is beyond absurd.

Now come the consequences of mollycoddling war criminals from Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee to the present. They still chant war, war, war in spite of the opposition of 90% of the American people. There is no counter-argument to that. All politicians promoting war should be arrested. Then they should be impeached and removed from office. The public will be respected!

The only option is to keep hands off. Completely! We cannot trust government to not start wars. And we cannot trust “civilian” control of the military any longer either. The record is beyond dismal.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

It should have been interesting to go further in your comparison of the neutrality of the USA between this century facing the Middle East and the past century in Europe between Germany and UK before WWII till the Pearl Harbour attack. Assad already overtook Hitler. He is able to take the lead of a world military alliance.

Posted by meleze | Report as abusive

In the Islamic world the best action for the US when they kill each other and not go out side is sell the losing side short range weapons for gold. Better they kill each other than use or allies.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

Zero alignment for people who cite WW2 and this situation. This is a local/regional dust-up of tribal and religious gangs. Even a spillover is not a threat to US strategic interests. Keep the US out.

Posted by otiscsi | Report as abusive

Perhaps inaction is not the worst choice.

We should continue to monitor the stores of chemical weapons or destroy them. However, Syria is a much bigger problem for Syria’s neighbors than it is for America.

We should stand back to allow Turkey, Israel, Iran, Lebanon, etc. to take whatever action they deem necessary. If there is no consensus, then their will be disagreement. Armed conflict might even spread through the region. Eventually there will be a resolution. It is their neighborhood and their problem, a problem that they have a vested interest in resolving.

It is not the responsibility of America to join in armed combat against evil wherever it can be found in the world.

That would be a fool’s mission. There is an endless supply of evil.

Posted by breezinthru | Report as abusive