No easy choices

The Syrian civil war now threatens to split the Middle East along a Sunni-Shi’ite chasm.

No easy choices

The reports about the Assad government’s chemical attack on civilians, if proven true, mean that the Obama administration’s “red line” has been crossed yet again.

France and Turkey last week called for stronger action — including a possible use of force. British prime minister David Cameron and US president Barack Obama agreed on the need to deter the use of chemical weapons, and expressed concern about “increasing signs” that Syria attacked civilians.

“They reiterated that significant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community and both tasked officials to examine all the options,” a spokesperson for Cameron said.

Syria warned the US against any military action over a suspected chemical weapons attack, saying it would “create a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East”.

President Bashar al-Assad’s closest ally, Iran, also said Washington should not cross the “red line” on Syria, where doctors accused Assad’s forces of a poison gas attack that killed hundreds last week.

Obama met his top military and national security advisers on Saturday to debate options. US naval forces have been repositioned in the Mediterranean to give Obama the option of an armed strike.

Syria said any military action would be “no picnic”.

“US military intervention will create a very serious fallout and a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East,” Syrian information has been quoted as saying.

Obama has been reluctant to intervene in Syria’s civil war, but reports of the killings near Damascus have put pressure on the White House to make good on the president’s comment a year ago that chemical weapons would be a “red line” for the US.

So does all this mean that the US and the EU will now follow a more assertive policy in Syria?

Sadly, that’s unlikely. For now, the Obama administration is still scrambling to walk back 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 pressure is brought to bear.

Their likely reasoning is as follows:

* Firstly, Washington seems to have decided “stability” in Syria — even if that means a continuing, limited civil war — is more important than a decisive victory over Assad;

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

* Thirdly, the administration believes that US 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 US, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Martin Dempsey recently warned Congress about in a letter.

For these reasons, US 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. However, continued hand-wringing and inaction comes at 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 Assad.

We are already beginning to see the return of al-Qaeda, which was on the ropes in 2008-09 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 centrepiece 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 — has a massively destabilising influence on Iraq.

Without the US presence there, the fighting threatens the Baghdad government. It is also spreading chaos into Lebanon, where violence has been reported; Jordan, a long-standing US ally; Saudi Arabia, which has a Shi’ite minority and is in the midst of an unstable royal succession period, and Turkey, with a restive Kurdish minority.

To prevent this parade of horribles, the US needs to initiate a more robust policy — but one that still stops short of US 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 US 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 hardliner Islamist factions in the Syrian conflict, to stop their counterproductive policy;

* Make a credible threat to Assad of providing US 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 aid to Iraq to stop al- Qaeda’s resurgence and its efforts to promote sectarian violence there;

* Increase US 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 US and EU can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines and watch this chaos unfold.

One hopes US 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.

* Anja Manuel served in the US State Department from 2005 to 2007, working on policy for Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

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