Arming Syria rebels is best U.S. option

September 10, 2012


I’ve been trying to focus on what the political conventions reveal about future U.S. foreign policy. But I can’t keep my mind off Syria.

The reason? It’s not just because of the horrific carnage in that country (as juxtaposed to the endless hoopla in Tampa and Charlotte). It’s not just because I’m reading “Woman in the Crossfire,” the heartbreaking diary of Samar Yazbek, a Syrian who risked her life to document the regime’s brutal attacks on peaceful demonstrators.

The real reason I’m more attuned to news from Syria? The fighting there reveals more than convention speeches do about the enormous global changes that will confront the next president. And neither candidate has an adequate response.

Candidate positions vary

Mitt Romney seems blind to the complexities of this new world, which makes it scary to imagine him in the White House. President Obama recognizes that we live in a new era in which America will often face challenges with no good solutions. Yet when confronted by bad and worse options — as in Syria — Obama sometimes seems unwilling to decide.

For many months, as Syrian civilians died, the Obama administration tried to promote a peaceful transition from the regime of Bashar al-Assad to an elected Syrian government. It supported former United Nations negotiator Kofi Annan, and urged Moscow to pressure its close ally Assad to step down. These efforts failed.

The White House rightly resisted calls by leading Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain, and some liberals to back a no-fly zone over a swath of Syrian territory along the border with Turkey. This would require a large-scale NATO air assault on Syrian air defenses, along with troops to defend the safe havens. It would not guarantee Assad’s fall.

Recently, Obama authorized nonlethal U.S. aid to the Syrian rebels. However, he has left it to the Gulf states to funnel money and weapons to rebel groups, though these funds go mainly to Islamists. The administration has refused to pay for, or send, U.S. arms to the insurgents — including the antiaircraft weapons that could speed the end of the Assad regime.

This is a mistake.

Understandably, Obama was reluctant to get involved directly in another Mideast conflict, especially one as complex as that in Syria. The disorganized opposition has been unable, despite intense U.S., Turkish, and Arab League efforts, to produce an alternative political leadership that could replace Assad.

Without a clear political alternative, at least half the Syrian population — including Assad’s Alawite (Shiite) minority sect, many Christians and moderate Sunnis — fear the fall of Assad will lead to a regime headed by radical Sunni jihadis.

The White House worries that Assad’s defeat will precipitate a Shiite-Sunni bloodbath which could reverberate throughout the region. It also fears that any weapons it sends might fall into the hands of Arab jihadis who are now flocking to Syria.

Events may outrun fears

However, events are outrunning Obama’s justifiable fears. The sectarian bloodbath has started, sending tens of thousands of refugees fleeing across the borders to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Those countries are looking to Washington for help.

What would the Romney team have done differently? Romney’s advisers chastise Obama for wasting time seeking negotiations and “placating” Russia. Yet Obama was correct to pursue negotiations, given the awful choices Syria presented. Without a negotiated transition at some point, Assad’s fall will produce chaos rather than any semblance of democracy.

Moreover, even as the Syrian conflict rages, Romney is encouraging an Israeli attack on Iran if Tehran refuses to halt its suspect nuclear energy program. Some of the candidate’s advisers would even like Washington to do the bombing. Such an attack most probably would not halt Iran’s nuclear program, but it would undercut all efforts to oust Assad.

Obama’s hesitation to arm the rebels (which Romney advocates) is also wrongheaded. By outsourcing this task to the Saudis and the Qataris, the White House has guaranteed that weapons are more likely to go to religious extremists. Surely by now the administration can identify more moderate fighting groups to whom to deliver weapons.

The longer the war continues, the more likely that extremists will shape the outcome. The United States, having failed to help the rebels directly, will have little or no influence on the outcome.

Iran future tied to Assad

Ironically, the most effective way of curbing Iran without a bomb attack on Tehran would be to expedite the fall of Assad, Tehran’s only Arab ally. Iran sends weapons and trainers via Syria to the radical Shiite group Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens Israel with its missiles. Were the Iran-Syrian alliance to be cut, Tehran’s position in the region would be greatly weakened and Israel would get a reprieve.

So rather than rooting for an attack on Tehran, candidate Romney should focus on the best way to help Syrian rebels.

As for Obama, the only way to force Moscow to drop Assad is to give the rebels the antiaircraft missiles it needs to undermine him. Only then will Russia’s Vladimir Putin pull the plug.

Neither Romney’s bombast nor Obama’s hesitation can resolve the dangerous Syrian crisis. There may be no good alternatives in Syria, and no good endings. But the time has come to choose between bad and worse.

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


Paul R Getto 5 years, 4 months ago

"So rather than rooting for an attack on Tehran, candidate Romney should focus on the best way to help Syrian rebels."

Good point here. This mess awaits the winner. Good luck with that.

chootspa 5 years, 4 months ago

Perhaps you should look underneath the giant pile of apostrophes at your keyboard.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 4 months ago

LOL. Love monocle. When I paste the font changes for some reason.

gbulldog 5 years, 4 months ago

No NO NO. We must help to keep the in fighting in Syria going and hope it begins in Iran. That way, Moslems will be so busy, that they will not have the time or resourses to attack or spread their beliefs to the USA. If the infighting stops, them we are can concentrate on destroying us!!!!

jhawkinsf 5 years, 4 months ago

"But the time has come to choose between bad and worse". Unfortunately, I agree. And whatever President Obama does, or should Romney get elected, then whatever he does, I will tepidly support, knowing that no good choice exists. Too often, bad and worse are our only options and at the time decisions are made, they have no idea which is which.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 4 months ago

Reinstate the draft, only this time make it universal. When Senator's sons and daughters come home in body bags, you'll see far less wars of choice. No 2-S (too scared) deferments, everyone serves.

headdoctor 5 years, 4 months ago

جولة العين لا يستطيع التحدث باللغة الإنجليزية

progressive_thinker 5 years, 4 months ago

"Yet when confronted by bad and worse options — as in Syria — Obama sometimes seems unwilling to decide."

Not a true statement. In deciding to stay the course with diplomacy and nonlethal US aid to the Syrian rebels, Obama appears to have selected the option that will most likely case the least long term harm.

History is replete with the US becoming involved in the quarrels of the middle east. Most often, it has not been in our interests to do so.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 4 months ago

Can we build walls high enough to keep out the nuclear fallout? Will it keep out the pollutants that are destroying the environment? Can that wall provide you with the comfort of a good night's sleep, when the genocides around the globe cause millions of deaths? When it becomes billions?

Despite the daunting task, we need to try.

Charles L. Bloss, Jr. 5 years, 4 months ago

Arming the rebels, with the hope that they will win and establish a democracy, is the best plan. Although we cannot and should not try and be the world's policeman or sugar daddy, we were right in taking dictators who murder their own people out of power. I think our time in Afganistan should be over. No major power, including Russia, can beat the Afgans. We have lost more than enough of our young men there, we need to come home now.

Liberty275 5 years, 4 months ago

If we arm rebels and they are slaughtered, is it possible we had a hand in their killing? If the Russians armed the American Communist party and they took control of Boise (through violence, not votes), do you think they would be allowed to keep the town? Or would we kill them until they found a different pastime? Would their blood be on our hands for protecting sovereign American land or would it be Russian's fault for giving the half-wit separatists enough weaponry to think they fight the US National Guard?

If Assad poses a threat to America or it's allies, we should have the guts to take care of the problem and not cowardly send weapons to fools that don't know how to use them.

Also, don't think for a moment we can't kill every living thing in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan in months.. America loses wars only to the extent we choose.

tbaker 5 years, 4 months ago

Show me in the constitution, the declaration, the federalist papers, the articles of confederation, or the writings of any of the founders of our country where it says it is in the interests of the United States to become involved in the internal affairs / struggles of another country?

Old and outdated / poor excuse for the basis of a modern opinion you say?

OK, show me a contemporary law, Supreme Court precedent, doctrine, etc passed/created in the last fifty years that says it is in the interests of the United States to become involved in the internal affairs / struggles of another country?

Still empty handed?

OK, how about a cogent paragraph that successfully argues why it is in the US national interest to become involved in the internal affairs / struggles of another country? That lack of this reasoning is why we need to be out of Afghanistan and (I thought) was the basis to leave Iraq.

Am I wrong? Anyone?

Send them food, medical aid, and lots of good will.

George Lippencott 5 years, 4 months ago

A couple of questions

  1. What national interest is at stake?
  2. Why can France not deal with this they helped create it (if somebody needs to do anything)?
  3. If we (US) arm the rebels and it escalates what do we do then – commit jets to protect enclaves? Then what – ground troops?
  4. What kind of state do we think would emerge if the rebels win?

This is how we get into wars we ultimately reject. Must we go down that path again?

jhawkinsf 5 years, 4 months ago

Doing nothing is also a choice. When the death toll reaches 100,000 can we still do nothing? How about 200,000? How about 1,000,000.

We're living in an age where simple cell phones can transmit images of bloody children around the world. Is there a time when we start to lose our humanity, simply by doing nothing?

How about one drone strike to kill Assad and then another drone circling his successor with the message to change their policy or else the next drone has his name on it. (yes, I know that sort of thing was outlawed after our misguided Salvatore Allende affair. Maybe it's time to modify that policy).

Anyone looking for easy answers won't find any here. At some point, we need to elect policy makers we trust and then trust their judgement.

Abdu Omar 5 years, 4 months ago

THink about this: Ofter WW I, the "West" proceeded to divide up the fallen Ottoman Empire into European style dictatorships, kingdoms and principalities. There was no choice given to the occupants of the Middle East and this was all the doings of the "West". So today, we have dictatorships in Syria, most of the gulf states and of course some fell in North Africa.

Some of the arguments here presented are against doing anything at all and allowing the Syrians to come up with their own solutions, regardless of the number killed or damage done. One simply said it is not our business to meddle in their affairs.

If that last statement was true, why did the "West" meddle in the affairs in the first place. Dividing up the Middle East into countries aligned with themselves and now in great turmoil because of OUR actions back when? We need to help sort out these problems and giving arms to the rebels is the only way to oust a dictator who kills thousands so he can stay in power. What lower form of government is there? Kill your own people for your own personal advancement?

However, you must look at it the way the Muslim Syrians do. It is imperitive that a Muslim live free. Those who are oppressing them must be removed (this is in the chapter and verse so many of you like to misquote). How can any of mankind live under oppression and enjoy the unalienable rights every human has? Bashar Al Assad takes away those rights, he must be removed from power.There is no other way.

George Lippencott 5 years, 4 months ago

But is it our job to do that??

From what I have read the inhabitants of Syria, however artificial it may be, are split and not unified in the rebellion.

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