Casler: Unsympathetic Toward Syria
By Don Casler, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, August 10, 2012
While perusing the The New York Times homepage yesterday, I was struck by a terrible irony. While the featured story described American efforts to construct a missile shield around Iran, an editorial from Nick Kristof highlighted President Barack Obama’s failure to act in Syria. This juxtaposition provides a sad commentary on American foreign policy in the Middle East.
The United States remains the world’s foremost military power — that much should be evident simply from the billions of dollars the U.S. has earned in arms sales to countries like Saudi Arabia and our ability to quietly patch together a regional missile defense shield in the Middle East. This development reflects local and international concern about Iran’s nuclear program and is aimed at both deterrence and the minimization of potential fallout from an Iranian nuclear strike. Such worries are entirely reasonable given Iran’s confrontational posture toward its Middle Eastern rivals and the West. However, in the context of the current crisis in Syria, the Pentagon’s focus on containing Iran seems misguided at best and heartless at worst.
Syria has been reduced to a state of open warfare over the last 17 months. Though protests and fighting have become the norm in Syria during this period, only recently has the wave of rebellion reached important centers of government power. In the last two weeks, heavy fighting has rocked the capital city of Damascus and the metropolis of Aleppo, where rebels and government forces are locked in an intense battle for control of the city. President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power certainly appears to be crumbling — key members of his inner circle, including the military chief of staff, were assassinated in a suicide attack in Damascus in mid-July, while Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab defected to Jordan earlier this week.
As Kristof noted, Syria is a special case where the United States could help topple an unpopular and repressive ruler without significant military mobilization. Indeed, to many critics and foreign policy strategists, the time is ripe for some sort of American involvement in Syria, particularly from humanitarian and strategic standpoints. Assad clearly has no qualms about executing thousands of Syrians in cold blood — the massacre of civilians near Hama in early July and the regime’s continued use of helicopter gunships against rebel forces are the acts of a ruthless and desperate dictator who must be removed from power. Furthermore, instability in Syria and the Middle East as a whole may result as refugees stream from Syria into neighboring countries and the civil war becomes more deeply entrenched along religious lines.
There are clear options on the table for the United States that stop well short of actual military intervention, such as arming the opposition, stationing naval forces off of the Syrian coast or enlisting help from regional allies Turkey and Israel. Yet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent a March visit to Saudi Arabia touting the benefits of cooperation on missile defense instead of imploring the Gulf States to put pressure on Assad.
Admittedly, Obama has already authorized the nonlethal supply, such as communications equipment, to the rebels and the State Department is soliciting information about potential allies on the ground. It is also worth noting that interventions are not always successful and that we are probably unaware of any covert American operations in Syria. However, the only publicized efforts to help the rebels have been relatively paltry, intermittent and dwarfed by the scale of the conflict. This has struck a resonant and ominous chord within the Arab world — Obama is rapidly losing American credibility and the opposition’s trust, even as the Pentagon pursues policies that are significantly less germane to regional stability.
While there should be more outrage over the Pentagon’s prioritization of security issues in the Middle East, the Obama administration’s relative apathy on Syria is imprudent and cold-hearted. Opposition leaders in Syria have repeatedly and specifically requested the sort of air support and weapons that the United States provided to Libyan rebels, and while this sort of intervention remains unlikely, the president’s increasingly empty words and the overall inadequacy of our response won’t curry any favor for the United States. Obama has worked hard to repair the United States’ image in the Middle East, but has yet to act on an obvious case for intervention.