Why Obama needs to act in Syria
May 22nd, 2013
09:39 AM ET

Why Obama needs to act in Syria

By Mark N. Katz, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Mark N. Katz is professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University, and the author of ‘Leaving without Losing:  The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan.’ The views expressed are his own.

The ongoing civil war that is devastating Syria is increasingly threatening to spill over and engulf neighboring countries. Indeed, all the ingredients are there for what would be a disastrous region-wide Sunni-Shiite conflict.

Just look at what has been going on. Turkey is hard pressed to deal with the growing number of Syrian refugees flooding into its territory, while tiny Jordan may soon be overwhelmed by them. In addition, the conflict between Syria’s Alawite minority regime and its Sunni majority opposition is spilling over and re-invigorating Sunni-Shiite conflict both in Iraq to the east and Lebanon to the west. Meanwhile, Shiite-dominated governments in Iran and Iraq, as well as the radical Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement, are all actively assisting Syria’s Alawite regime, while Sunni-dominated governments in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan are helping the Sunni opposition.

And what has been the Obama administration’s response to all this? Surprising – and troubling – restraint.

While Washington has called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and not to use chemical weapons against his opponents, it has done little to respond to his failure to comply on either count. No doubt due to fears the Sunni opposition in Syria has become dominated by radicals, and also a desire to avoid the problems that America experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama appears determined to do little more than provide non-lethal assistance to some Syrian opposition groups. This has been underscored as recent talk of the U.S. providing the opposition with lethal assistance has been downplayed now that a Russian-American agreement to convene a peace conference on Syria has been reached.

More from GPS: Why Russia won't cut Syria loose

Moscow’s continuing – or even increasing – supply of arms to Damascus, though, should raise serious doubts about the Russian government’s commitment to peace in Syria. Motivated by a desire to keep Russia’s last remaining ally in the Arab world, conviction that the downfall of al-Assad will somehow lead to the rise of Sunni radicalism in Russia’s North Caucasus, and resentment toward the United States despite Obama’s efforts to improve relations, President Putin appears to be promoting the peace conference approach simply in order to dissuade the U.S. and its NATO allies from increasing their support to the Syrian opposition.

But the experience of the past half century should already be enough to demonstrate that multi-party peace conferences by themselves are not what resolve conflicts. What it takes to do so is one party – usually the U.S. – that is willing and able to apply the requisite combination of carrots and sticks to basically impose a settlement on the warring parties. Attempts to serve as an “honest broker” and help them come to an agreement among themselves, no matter how earnest, usually fail for a simple reason:  if they don’t have to reach an agreement, then they won’t.

Moscow insists that the warring parties in Syria must agree upon a settlement. But it should be clear that the al-Assad regime and its opponents will not do so. Indeed, this is undoubtedly clear to Moscow, which cynically pushes this approach in the hope of stopping the U.S. from aiding the opposition while Russia and others provide sufficient aid to al-Assad to enable him to get the upper hand.

With the support of Russia and others, the al-Assad regime may well avoid being overthrown. It is unlikely, though, to be able to defeat its Sunni opponents who are also receiving external support (even if not from the U.S.). The conflict, then, is likely to continue, possibly spread, and become even less amenable to control by any outside party.

The United States, as well as its allies, have a strong interest in preventing this. To do so, it needs to bring the conflict to an end. But as long as al-Assad remains in power, it will not.

While the Obama administration understandably wants to avoid getting bogged down in another prolonged conflict in the Muslim world, there are steps it can take well short of this that can contribute to ending the conflict. First and foremost, the U.S. has the means to quickly and effectively remove al-Assad and his closest associates from power. Washington can also launch a diplomatic effort to negotiate the formation of a new government from among the various opposition movements – whose internecine rivalry is likely to increase once al-Assad is gone. Further, the U.S. can coordinate efforts to protect those Alawites willing to make peace with the Sunni majority.

Accomplishing all this will not be easy. America will need the help of its NATO and Arab allies.  But active American efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict surely have a much greater chance of success than holding a series of multilateral peace conferences at which nobody agrees to anything while the conflict continues.

The Obama administration cannot afford to fiddle while Syria burns. For if the fire is not put out soon, far more than Syria will end up in flames.

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Topics: Islam • Israel • Middle East • Syria • Turkey

soundoff (66 Responses)
  1. CharlieSeattle

    Editor’s note: Mark N. Katz is professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University.

    A bastion of hawkish neocons that will send YOU sons to war but not their own!

    May 25, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Reply
  2. Orbus

    Syria should fix their own problems. The rebels fighting the dictator are Islamic extremists. The US has it's own problems to fix.

    May 25, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Reply
  3. bob

    Hopefully the middle east fights till the last man standing, and we give him a cigar

    May 26, 2013 at 10:38 am | Reply
  4. tired of stupidity

    An eventual shiite/sunni regional civil war is probably unavoidable. Why would any country want to become embroiled in it? All nations need to learn to look to their own betterment first, and lead by example, not by military action.

    May 26, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Reply
  5. Truthbetold

    This is not America's war. Not one American soldier should be killed for a Middle Eastern war which Middle Easterners, not Americans, need to resolve. If Americans go their then it just gives radical Muslims more excuses to attack us. All MiddleEastern people should unite and end the conflict. It is their responsibility.

    May 26, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Reply
  6. Truthbetold

    This is not America's war. Not one American soldier should be killed for a Middle Eastern war which Middle Easterners, not Americans, need to resolve. If Americans go there then it just gives radical Muslims more excuses to attack us. All MiddleEastern people should unite and end the conflict. It is their responsibility.

    May 26, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Reply
  7. Rick

    Assad is winning easily now, and the globalists are getting worried.

    May 26, 2013 at 9:59 pm | Reply
  8. Sammy

    There is no doubt that Assad and his close associates are not good for Syria and they need to go but there has not been a single case where western intervention by force has improved anything in the Middle East, beside we tend to forget to think about who comes next. As of now the only alternative is islamists who are supported by Gulf sheikhs and Turkey, that makes it necessary to work for a coalition that include secular elements and members of the existing government that are acceptable to Syrians, forget about taking one bad guy out only to allow a worse guy in.

    May 26, 2013 at 11:39 pm | Reply
  9. Bill Roberts

    The US is not the world's policeman. The majority of the American People do not want another war. America has paid dearly in lives lost, 60,000 plus injured, most severely and trillions of dollars in debt. No more wars in the middle east. Chicken hawks who want war in the middle east can join the Israeli military. Netandyahoo told President Obama that Israel reserves the right to strike at Syria and Iran. Good luck to them, it's their war, not ours.

    May 27, 2013 at 7:20 am | Reply
  10. Bill Roberts

    I wonder how many times Mr Katz has deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq? Was he injured there? Does he have an artificial leg maybe? We know he's not unemployed. He's a professor at a university. Did Katz ever serve in the military? I bet not. People who call for war usually have never been in one. If President Obama wants his opinion than I'm sure he will ask for it. After the FBI does a background check on him and clears him. Another book writer telling the President what he should do. The President has to live in the real world, not the world of Alice in Disneyland political science department of some university.

    May 27, 2013 at 8:29 am | Reply
  11. Andrian Harsono

    I'm sorry to disappoint you, but Obama is not obliged to do anything. Being the world's only superpower doesn't oblige the USA to police the entire world. Syrians must be in control of their own destiny.

    May 27, 2013 at 10:13 am | Reply
  12. Vet

    To the rest of the this world the United States will not get involved in Syria, if you want things to change over there than you'll go help. As a American and War Vet all you other countries need to send your own young men and women to fight, cause by the time you help these people they will turn on you before you can blink your eyes, I know I've seen it happen. And that's all I have to say about that!

    May 27, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Reply
    • Dianne

      Exactly correct.

      May 28, 2013 at 11:18 am | Reply
  13. Dianne

    The United States needs to mind it's own business. Stay out of it!!!!!!

    May 28, 2013 at 11:16 am | Reply
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