By Anthony Brunello, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Anthony Brunello is a professor of political science at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. The views expressed are his own.
Even the most powerful advisers in the National Security Council are unsure of exactly how to respond to the current problem in Syria, but clearly a response is coming soon. We can only hope the NSC has better information and advice than the general public is getting from the press, talking heads and President Barack Obama’s partisan critics in Congress. The president would be wise to take his time, move slowly and, most important, ensure that any action taken is done multilaterally.
We cannot go it alone or with a small group of willing allies. Of course, any U.S. response must be planned carefully with the United Nations, NATO and Arab States, but much still depends on the attitude of China and Russia. With these two siding with Bashar al-Assad and holding back the United Nations – as they have for many months – any U.N. movement is stalled.
But the Syrian crisis is further complicated by three circumstances:
First, Egypt – a significant ally in the past and key to peace and stability in the region – is in turmoil. A single miscalculation by U.S. forces would create an even worse mess, and on top of this we must always remember Israel is sitting in the middle of this turbulence.
Second, two key U.S. allies in the region, Turkey and Jordan, have numerous concerns and are feeling the brunt of the Syrian refugee problem. The support of Turkey and Jordan in any U.S. action is critical, as they will suffer in the dangerous aftermath of any intervention. The other Arab states are on both sides in the Syrian conflict. Although the Saudis are backing the rebellion against al-Assad, Iran has the other (al-Assad) side, and both nations (with their allies) are interested for different reasons and cannot be fully trusted. This complex array of actors must be a major consideration.
Finally, and perhaps most crucial, Syria is embroiled in a religious and sectarian civil war with many sides. The reality is that the U.S. cannot choose a side without placing itself in the middle of a religious war in the Middle East.
Al-Assad and the regime in Syria are Alawites, a minority Syrian sect of the Shiites. This is why Iran, a Shia state, backs them. But the Iranians have their own plans and interests defined in terms of state power. Iran is dangerous and cannot be trusted.
Rebel forces represent largely Sunni groups and forces, leaving aside the Christian groups and others, many of whom have already fled. The Sunni groups – the majority faction in Syria – are backed by the Saudis. Among these groups are a host of different sects with different persuasions, such as the Salafis and Sufis, and many of these groups in Syria have differing tribal, regional and ethnic causes that they support.
Al-Assad's regime kept this all together as long as their power went unquestioned. Now, though, throw in the potential Jihadist groups, several claiming to be al Qaeda affiliates, add in purely criminal elements among the rebels, and we are left with no sure way to choose sides among the opponents of the al-Assad regime in Syria.
The voices demanding President Obama and the U.S. take quick action are either ill-informed, have their own political ideologies, or they are just foolish. And those pushing for “quick and decisive action” are misleading the public.
While chemical weapons are a dark line that cannot be allowed to be crossed, thousands of people are being slaughtered in Syria with all sorts of weapons. Death is death. The use of chemical weapons cannot be the catalyst for a hasty, ill-considered U.S. response.
Once the U.S. negotiates a multinational agreement, one that also supports humanitarian needs, a move can be made that does not result in the U.S. taking sides (or certainly the “wrong” side, whatever that means in this conflict) in a bloody, long-term entanglement that could spread across the region. And remember, too, that we need to protect allies like Turkey, Israel and Jordan in this changing and volatile part of the world, in which it is virtually impossible to predict the outcome. Military action will surely be too clumsy to achieve this.
As the United States considers its response in Syria, we need wiser heads, respectful of the people throughout the region, to carefully consider the complexity of this extremely delicate situation.